The publication last year of University of Minnesota Professor Dale Carpenter’s book Flagrant Conduct, which examined the real relationship between John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who became the plaintiffs in the landmark federal case striking down sodomy laws, has created an admirable urge to examine some of the founding stories of gay rights history with fresh eyes. What is unfortunate about this burst of critical thinking is that it may give some unwarranted credence to The Book Of Matt, a dreadful new compilation of Stephen Jimenez’s decade of reporting and research into the life and death of Matthew Shepard.
Shepard’s 1998 murder in Laramie, Wyoming, galvanized a national conversation about the visceral, violent nature of anti-gay hatred in America, and Shepard has persisted as a martyr figure and a cultural touchstone. Writing a compelling biography of Shepard fifteen years after his death might have been an important project. But Jimenez hasn’t given us that. Instead, The Book Of Matt isn’t really about Shepard at all. Rather, it’s an exceptionally shoddy attempt to prove that Shepard was killed because he was a major methamphetamine distributor who Aaron McKinney, one of the two men convicted in his death, intended to rob to pay drug debts and to feed his own habit. And most distastefully, it’s an opportunity for Jimenez to portray himself as a hero who’s stood up to political correctness.
If you want to prove a controversial theory about a story that’s become deeply embedded in accepted history, and to suggest that you have more integrity than your critics, it helps to impeccably document your claims. But the problems with Jimenez’s ethics begin in the Author’s Note that begin The Book of Matt. “Though this is a work of nonfiction journalism, I have occasionally employed methods that are slightly less stringent to re-create the dialogue of characters — words I did not personally hear; nor could the characters themselves recall every word exactly from memory,” he explains. “But my intention throughout has been to remain faithful to the actual characters and events as they really happened.” This is a dubious practice to employ at all, but Jimenez compounds the problem by not distinguishing which quotations are manufactured from recollections, which are paraphrases recounted by sources, and which were spoken directly to him.
It doesn’t help that the way Jimenez presents block quotations frequently suggests that he’s manufacturing sentiments, rather than recounting his sources’ true intentions. Maybe he believes that the ellipses he inserts liberally in block quotations are meant to indicate pauses. But conventional use is to indicate material that’s been excised from a quotation. And frequently, it looks like those exclusions might be deliberately misleading. Jimenez quotes Cal Rerucha, who prosecuted the Shepard murder, as saying of Aaron McKinney that “[Aaron] was a different individual … From the time that he was in school … he was violent. Physically violent. Almost a person without a conscience.” Later, a woman named Elaine says of Aaron and another man that “But… the money exchange and stuff went on…before they started doing the oral…thing,” the ellipses turning the quotation incoherent. Either Jimenez appears to be regularly and substantially manipulating quotations, or he’s using a practice that accidentally but substantially undermines his own credibility.
Even more damaging is the way Jimenez presents the evidence for his theory that Shepard had become deeply involved in methamphetamine dealing, and that the real motivation for his murder was a planned theft of a large quantity of meth. Jimenez will make a statement like, “there are also many reasons to believe that the six ounces Haselhuhn had bragged about and the six ounces Matthew was slated to deliver to Laramie that night were one and the same,” and then wander off into a different part of the story before laying out those reasons and presenting the evidence that might render them credible. When he does bother to source the suggestion that Shepard had access to substantial quantities of methamphetamine, it’s with interviews with people who say things like “It’s a fact,” when asked “How do you know this?” There are a number of people who are quoted in The Book of Matt who suggest that they were present when Shepard purchased drugs, an account that would be at odds with the idea that he was deeply tapped into a network of high-level dealers. But Jimenez never qualifies how credible the sources are, or validates their closeness to Shepard, or evaluates the potential motivations for their accounts.
And the sourcing gets particularly weak when Jimenez tries to make the leap from suggesting that Shepard used methamphetamine to suggesting that he was dealing on a large scale. A paragraph like this one would only be remotely credible if Jimenez had done an impressive job of establishing his reportorial bona fides earlier in the book:
I recalled that a friend of Matthew from the Denver circle had said Aaron and Matthew reported to different “co-captains,” and that both young men were at risk because of what they knew about the meth trade in Wyoming — and beyond. But my own investigation suggests there were more than two co-captains operating in Laramie at the time Matthew was killed, and that these rival operators weren’t always competitors and adversaries; they cooperated when it was in their interest to do so. According to former dealing cohorts of Aaron, his Laramie-based suppliers and the “top dogs” in Matthew’s Denver circle were well acquainted and, in some instances, were friends.
But instead, given the available evidence, it comes across as demanding a laughable level of trust. And it certainly doesn’t help that Jimenez never explains what his investigation consisted of, who his sources were, and how credible they were, or make any sort of link between a potential relationship and a motivation for silencing Aaron McKinney. Is Jimenez relying on the testimony of long-term meth users, reporting on their recollections from a distance? Is he talking to dealers who might want to make themselves seem like more significant players than they are? Is he relying on court documents? An a paragraph like this implies the structure of an organization as well as motivation for a cover-up, but in the hands of a more experienced reporter, it would only the beginning of a longer and more detailed explanation, which would be sourced to people who were at least given basic descriptions, if not pseudonyms. Savvy reporters know that a paragraph like this invites questions. Jimenez seems to regard it as a decisive conclusion. There’s no question that methamphetamine’s a big and dangerous business. But if Jimenez has the goods, he’s not even close to delivering them here.
Jimenez also has a tendency to jump to conclusions in his efforts to contextualize his meth-dealing theory and the gay panic defense mounted by McKinney’s lawyers. Part of his argument that McKinney couldn’t have killed Shepard out of homophobia is a thinly-sourced allegation that McKinney was bisexual, and the suggestion that he and Shepard might have had sex before. It’s odd that Jimenez expects us to believe McKinney’s absolute insistence that he has no problem with gay people (which is mostly expressed in terms of tolerance for lesbians, a sentiment that doesn’t always extend to gay men), but to ignore his flat denials that he’d had sexual relationships with men. Whether or not Jimenez’s reporting is correct, it doesn’t preclude the idea that McKinney could have lashed out to try to avoid being outed to Russell Henderson, who was with McKinney at the bar where McKinney met up with Shepard, and who would become his co-defendant after tying Shepard to the fence where he was found after McKinney pistol-whipped him. And even if neither of those things is true, Jimenez doesn’t really grapple with the fact that McKinney claimed credit for the gay panic defense that was mounted on his behalf in court. Even if McKinney wasn’t motivated by homophobia, but rather by financial desperation or addiction, in the moments when he was pistol-whipping Shepard, he affirmatively chose to mount a defense that rested on the idea that homophobia was legitimate and justified.
There are plenty of other examples of deplorably bad writing, shoddy storytelling, and laughable cultural analysis in The Book of Matt. Jimenez resurrects old canards about “’gangsta’ rap” to explains McKinney’s self-image. And while Jimenez says repeatedly that he wants to render Shepard human, he presents only a fractured chronological narrative of Shepard’s life, an approach that plagues many other ares of the book. And Jimenez returns to Shepard himself at the end of the novel to repeat an allegation that Shepard molested two eight-year-olds as a fifteen-year-old, but separates the incident from any larger psychological context or narrative. Jimenez desperately wants to be seen as a brave social commentator and reporter. Instead, his chosen language and the structure of his book makes him come across like an outdated gossip. Jimenez talks a great deal about humanizing Shepard, and makes some vague gestures at wanting to start a conversation about meth use in the gay community that are quickly abandoned. But the real subject of The Book Of Matt, or at least the place where Jimenez’s reportorial detail and emotional energy seem to be most focused, is Jimenez himself.
Sometimes, this vainglory serves Jimenez’s paranoia. He becomes convinced that he’s in danger, whether because he’s a gay man in cowboy country, or because of the shadowy criminal forces he claims to be rattling. We see him “sitting in my car outside the county courthouse on Grand Avenue, still struggling with the anxiety that had taken hold of me that morning,” or conceding that “Admittedly, my nascent investigation was beginning to feel more dangerous.”
When he gets access to Russell Henderson in prison, Jimenez seems to know nothing about source development, and can’t imagine anything more important than his own time. “In my frustration I wanted to blurt out, Why the hell are we talking then?” he tells us, when Henderson is initially reluctant to speak about the murder. “Do you think I spent all this time negotiating with the prison bureaucracy so we can have a friendly social chat?”
In some hilariously misplaced proffers of detail, we learn that on one reporting trip, Jimenez stayed at the Bellagio in Las Vegas because “The New York Times Magazine had given me a modest travel budget but at the last minute I’d gotten a low-priced package deal online.” Later he remembers eating “a country breakfast of eggs, bacon, ham, and grits, topped off with biscuits and gravy (‘the Hungry Man Special’)” before a prison visit. Minutiae like these that are so generic they don’t even offer color offer a revealing look into Jimenez’s priorities. Without an actual drug syndicate to offer us as proof, he’s trying to distract us with breakfast food and hotel bookings.
And in a common bit of right-wing positioning meant to blunt any criticism of his theories as politically correct, Jimenez sets himself up as a victim. When the Times Magazine kills the story — which is understandable, if this book is any proof, and supported by a former editor — he says “I surmised that the story’s politically sensitive content was the problem.” And when a gay rights activist questions Jimenez’s project, the exchange turns not into a moment of self-reflection, but into an opportunity for Jimenez to harp on his own gay rights record: “I didn’t need to be lectured on history or gay rights by a man thirteen years my junior. Before he had reached puberty, I was demonstrating at the First National Gay March on Washington in 1979 and had actively helped pave the way for gay males like him who followed.”
In the conclusion to The Book Of Matt Jimenez says of his sources, “They were no longer characters in a story. They’d become friends whose lives had enriched me.” It’s a perfect conclusion to Jimenez’s narrative. Jimenez may still believe that he’s telling some sort of brave truth about Matthew Shepard. But it’s clear that in the process of reporting this flimsy story, Jimenez built a rather tidy mythology of his own. And whether he knows it or not, the only person he ends up exposing is himself.