Anatomy of a Myth…

Author:  Stephen Jimenez

Book of Matt Cover (182x276)On the night of October 6th, 1998 in outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, a gay college freshman named Matthew Shepard was severely beaten and left to die in the cold mountain air.  Found near death the next evening by a passing bicyclist, he would subsequently die of his severe head injuries.  Within days, the local authorities were able to quickly round up his assailants and it soon became clear that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had robbed and assaulted Shepard primarily because of his sexual orientation.  Media from around the world swiftly descended on the small college town and the tragic story soon took the nation by storm.  Shepard’s death rapidly became a symbol of appalling bigotry and intolerance, prompting calls for the execution of the perpetrators and national hate crime legislation.

Not surprisingly, the crime hit the gay community particularly hard, including a gay screenwriter in New York City named Stephen Jimenez.  In 2000, after both killers had been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, Jimenez traveled to Laramie, intending to write a screenplay about the murder.  But as he talked to local law enforcement officials, friends of Matt and the perpetrators themselves, it became clear to him that the tragedy was much more than a simple anti-gay hate crime.  After years of exhaustive research, Jimenez published The Book of Matt in 2013, revealing a much more complicated version of the story.

Skillfully compiling hundreds of hours of interviews and several years of intrepid – and occasionally life threatening – investigation, the author creates a surprisingly coherent and readable story.  Including much of his own personal story, he reveals how his research prompted him to set aside his own biases and preconceived notions and motivated him to tell this more accurate account of Matt’s life and final days.  Given that his account completely flies in the face of the accepted version of the crime, he provides massive troves of evidence, going overboard to make his case more convincing.  Not surprisingly, as he delves into the dark criminal underbelly of the eastern Rockies, most of his sources are not completely reliable, but Jimenez vigorously delves into each source’s background, thoughtfully assessing the biases and limitations each one brings to the story.

Bringing to light plenty of crucial – but previously ignored – information, the book tends to make the local law enforcement authorities look rather lame, although they receive ample opportunity to tell their side of the story.  However, it’s understandable that they didn’t dig deeper as the story exploded.  The national media, gay activist organizations, the perpetrators, the parents of the victim, even President Clinton, all found that the initial straightforward story fully served their interests.  While there are questions that may always remain unanswered – and a few individuals have disputed some of his conclusions – I found Jimenez’s meticulous account to be effectively presented and thoroughly convincing.

The book makes an interesting counterpoint to other presentations of the crime, notably The Laramie Project, a 2002 HBO film based on the Moisés Kaufman play of the same name.  Winning numerous awards, the movie (and play) focuses exclusively on the homophobia angle of the crime, while Jimenez’s account supports the few quiet voices who have claimed that homophobia had nothing to do with it.  The two versions are completely incompatible, which begs a few important questions.

What does telling the “true” story really accomplish?  Isn’t it important that the heinous reality of Shepard’s homicide played a major role in the subsequent progress made in gay and lesbian rights throughout the United States?  Aren’t we sometimes better off with the more socially benevolent and useful version of events?  Jimenez honestly explores these questions, occasionally wondering if he’s doing anyone any good by seeking out the truth.  But in the end, I think he successfully argues that fully understanding people, be they gay college students, hot-headed murderers or frightened best friends is the way we really learn from the past as we strive to collectively make the world a better place.

Backed up by an impressive compilation of interviews and information, The Book of Matt is an unforgiving transformation of what was a simple crime of hatred into complexities aplenty.  Jimenez’s well written and spirited narrative presents both the victim and his assailants as multifaceted individuals whose ill-fated lives all ended late one night in 1998 in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming.  Highly recommended for all true crime non-fiction enthusiasts.

— D. Driftless

Other true crime book reviews on Readers Lane:

Lost Girls   /   Floating City

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