Rita Isbell, a family member of one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims who is portrayed in the new Netflix series about the serial killer, is speaking out about Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.
Isbell’s brother, Errol Lindsey, was murdered at age 19 by Dahmer. She gave a victim impact statement during Dahmer’s 1992 sentencing, when the killer was given 15 consecutive life sentences. The emotional moment is re-created in the Ryan Murphy- and Ian Brennan-created limited series, which topped the streamer’s top 10 list the week of its Sept. 21 releases.
“When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said,” wrote Isbell in an essay for Insider. “If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought it was me. Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes. That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then.”
Isbell says she wasn’t contacted by Netflix and criticized the streaming giant for profiting off the tragic story.
“I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it,” she continued. “I could even understand it if they gave some of the money to the victims’ children. … The victims have children and grandchildren. If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless. It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.”
She added, “The episode with me was the only part I saw. I didn’t watch the whole show. I don’t need to watch it. I lived it. I know exactly what happened.”
Netflix and Ryan Murphy Productions declined comment.
Eric Perry, who identified himself as a cousin of Lindsey, also spoke out about the series when the scene portraying Isbell’s victim impact statement was first shared on social media.
“I’m not telling anyone what to watch, I know true crime media is huge rn, but if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbell’s) are pissed about this show,” he posted on Twitter. “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what?” How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”
Perry added of the scene portraying Isbell: “Like recreating my cousin having an emotional breakdown in court in the face of the man who tortured and murdered her brother is WILD,” Perry wrote. “WIIIIIILD.”
After his post received replies, he followed up to say that, because the sentencing is public record, the family was not notified.
“To answer the main question,” he wrote in a follow-up thread, “no, they don’t notify families when they do this. It’s all public record, so they don’t have to notify (or pay!) anyone. My family found out when everyone else did. So when they say they’re doing this ‘with respect to the victims’ or ‘honoring the dignity of the families’, no one contacts them. My cousins wake up every few months at this point with a bunch of calls and messages and they know there’s another Dahmer show. It’s cruel.” (Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes also premieres on Oct. 7.)
Between 1978 and 1991, Dahmer gruesomely murdered 17 men. According to the show’s description, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a series that exposes these unconscionable crimes, centered around the underserved victims and their communities impacted by the systemic racism and institutional failures of the police that allowed one of America’s most notorious serial killers to continue his murderous spree in plain sight for over a decade. “
Despite the stated goal, the show has been criticized for the heavy focus on Dahmer’s horrifying behavior and framing of the victims’ stories. Ace THR’s chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg notes in his review, “Reducing most of the victims and their families to their pain is closer to exploiting that pain than honoring any memories.”
While the ethics of retelling true-crime stories without input from victims’ families is debated, there is generally no legal obligation to contact them. No one owns facts, and you can’t defame the dead. Theoretically, creators could acquire life rights from family members in a situation like this. Sometimes that will give them access to information that hadn’t previously been public. But often they are attractive because they provide some assurance that creators won’t have to deal with a lawsuit — which can be a risk when people or events are fictionalized in otherwise based-on-real-life stories — or the optics of unhappy subjects or their survivors.
Murphy, who has an overall deal with Netflix, co-created the series — which stars Evan Peters in the title role — with his longtime producing partner Brennan. The pair exec produced along with Alexis Martin Woodall, Eric Kovtun, Peters, Janet Mock and Carl Franklin.
Rashad Robinson, president of the nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change, is a consulting producer and has spoken of his role in the series, saying he worked with Murphy to emphasize the victims’ stories. “I wanted to make sure that we really enhanced the deep understanding of the systemic racism in the Milwaukee Police Department, that we really enhanced all the ways in which policing failed throughout each and every stage, the incentive structures that allowed a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy to continuously kill and harm people, particularly Black and brown people,” he said in an interview with Netflix’s Tudum team.
On Twitter, Robinson noted, “11 out of 17 of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims were Black. And even though neighbors filed multiple police complaints against him, they were ignored.”
Peters added, “It’s called The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, but it’s not just him and his backstory. It’s the repercussions; it’s how society and our system failed to stop him multiple times because of racism and homophobia.”
Rounding out the cast are Richard Jenkins and Molly Ringwald, playing Dahmer’s father, Lionel Dahmer, and stepmother, Shari; Penelope Ann Joyce as Dahmer’s mother, Joyce; Michael Learned as Dahmer’s grandmother, Catherine Dahmer; and Niecy Nash as Dahmer’s neighbor, Glenda Cleveland, who tried to report his behavior to the Milwaukee Police Department multiple times.
In his review of the 10-episode series, Fienberg praised the second half of the series, but questioned if the audience would stick around through the Dahmer-centered first half to get there. He wrote, “Put through a different editing process, there is an intelligent interrogation of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes, the real people affected and the consequences here. It’s frequently lost or obscured.”
Ashley Cullins contributed to this report.