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The Book of Matt

The Real Story of the Murder of Matthew Shepard

The Book of Matt Buy Now
Format Paperback Ebook Audiobook
ISBN 978-1-58642-252-3 978-1-58642-268-4 978-1-58642-281-3
Published Jun 30, 2020
Imprint Truth to Power
Category Cultural Destinations Diversity More Museums... Museums

With a New Conclusion by the Author

On the night of October 6, 1998, twenty-one-year-old Matthew Shepard left a bar with two alleged “strangers,” Aaron McKin­ney and Russell Henderson. Eighteen hours later, Matthew was found tied to a log fence on the outskirts of town, unconscious and barely alive. Overnight, a politically expedient myth took the place of important facts. By the time Matthew died a few days later, his name was synonymous with anti-gay hate. The Book of Matt, first published in 2013, demonstrated that the truth was in fact far more complicated – and daunting. Stephen Jimenez’s account revealed primary documents that had been under seal, and gave voice to many with firsthand knowledge of the case who had not been heard from, including members of law enforcement.

In his Introduction to this updated edition, journalist Andrew Sullivan writes: “No one wanted Steve Jimenez to report this story, let alone go back and back to Laramie, Wyoming, asking awkward questions, puzzling over strange discrepancies, re-interviewing sources, seeking a deeper, more complex truth about the ghastly killing than America, it turned out, was prepared to hear. It was worse than that, actually. Not only did no one want to hear more about it, but many were incensed that the case was being re-examined at all.”

As a gay man Jimenez felt an added moral imperative to tell the story of Matthew’s murder honestly, and his reporting has been thoroughly corroborated. “I urge you to read [The Book of Matt] carefully and skeptically,” Sullivan writes, “and to see better how life rarely fits into the neat boxes we want it to inhabit. That Matthew Shepard was a meth dealer and meth user says nothing that bad about him, and in no way mitigates the hideous brutality of the crime that killed him; instead it shows how vulnerable so many are to the drug’s escapist lure and its astonishing capacity to heighten sexual pleasure so that it’s the only thing you want to live for. Shepard was a victim twice over: of meth and of a fellow meth user.”

Praise

An award-winning journalist uncovers the suppressed story behind the death of Matthew Shepard. . . . As Jimenez deconstructs an event that has since passed into the realm of mythology, he humanizes it . . . Investigative journalism at its relentless and compassionate best." Kirkus Reviews

A gripping read." People magazine

Be prepared to encounter a radically revised version of the life and death of Matthew Shepard . . . This riveting true crime narrative will appeal to readers of books such as Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song." Library Journal (★ Starred Review)

The extensive interviews and dogged investigative research conducted by Jimenez make The Book of Matt a model for journalistic inquiry. . . . Jimenez is revealing today what we should have read fifteen years ago. In the meantime, the media continues to report on some anti-gay hate crimes while completely ignoring others, and thousands go completely unreported out of fear of retaliation. Perhaps the main takeaway from The Book of Matt is that we should challenge ourselves to demand the truth from our media at all times, even if it costs us a tidy narrative." — Rachel Wexelbaum in Lambda Literary Review

Mr. Jimenez's book is most useful in illuminating the power of the media to shape the popular conception of an event. It shows how a desire for Manichaean morality tales can lead us to oversimplify the human experience. . . . Mr. Jimenez's findings cast doubt on what he calls the Shepard story's function as latter-day 'passion play and folktale.'" The Wall Street Journal

Fifteen years ago . . . Aaron McKinney swung his .357 Magnum for the final time like a baseball bat into the skull of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was tied low to a post, arms behind his back, in a prairie fringe of Laramie, Wyoming. . . . The murder was so vicious, the aftermath so sensational, that the story first told to explain it became gospel before anyone could measure it against reality. That story was born, in part, of shock and grief and the fact that gay men like Shepard have been violently preyed upon by heterosexuals. It was also born of straight culture and secrets. . . . Now comes Stephen Jimenez with The Book of Matt, and this most detailed effort to rescue the protagonists from caricature is, with a few exceptions, being coolly ignored or pilloried for 'blaming the victim.' . . . Jimenez does not polemicize or tread deeply into the psyches of the main figures. Rather, he explores the drug-fueled world they inhabited, and evokes its thick air of violence. . . . Jimenez spent thirteen years to tell his story. . . In this story, Shepard and McKinney were neither lamb nor wolf; they were human commodities, working for rival drug circles to support their habits, and occasionally forced to pay their debts in sex. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, the whole machinery that benefited from the story of a desexualized Bad Karma Kid but otherwise happy-in-his-skin Matthew, that used his horrid death as a banner for hate crime laws, have slammed the book. Kinder reviewers have said Jimenez has made the case less political. On the contrary. What impelled McKinney to loathe his desires, and Shepard relentlessly, dangerously to test himself, and Henderson to follow orders? Violence lacerated these young men long before the murder, and it will not be diminished or resisted by myths and vengeful laws." — JoAnn Wypijewski in The Nation

Jimenez is careful to point out that his goal is to understand Shepard as a complex human being and make the fullest possible sense of his murder, not to suggest in any way that he deserved his horrific fate. . . . Jimenez’s problem is that he has trodden on hallowed ground. America, as John Ford cannily observed in his western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is a country that likes to build up its heroes and villains and rarely appreciates having the record corrected to restore them to the stature of ordinary, fallible human beings. By now, Shepard’s story has been elevated close to legend, and Shepard himself to a near-messianic figure who suffered for the ultimate benefit of the rest of us. . . . Many of Jimenez’s central contentions are shared by the prosecutor in the case, Cal Rerucha, and by police officers who investigated the murder." The Guardian

Jimenez takes pains to note throughout the book that no matter what led up to the murder, the event was still horrific. And the end result of his retelling is not to demonize Matthew Shepard—Jimenez is himself gay—but to point out that he was human.” — Yasmin Nair, In These Times

I will never view the death of Matthew Shepard in the same way. After finishing The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard . . . it is no longer possible to believe the myth that has grown up around the death of this young man in Laramie 15 years ago." — Wyoming Tribune Eagle

It’s been 15 years to the month since a dying Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fencepost outside Laramie, Wyoming. The narrative that quickly emerged — which Stephen Jimenez spends 360 pages debunking in The Book of Matt — was that Shepard had told two strangers he was gay, provoking the savage attack. . . . Jimenez acknowledges that the national revulsion to Shepard’s murder actually helped the gay community, creating more awareness, legal protections, and a trend toward true equality. But The Book of Matt finds nothing positive in the media’s handling of that case." Seattle Weekly

There are numerous hagiographies on the Matthew Shepard murder. [Fifteen] years after Shepard's murder, they're being challenged. Are we ready for the tale investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez, himself gay, spins? . . .Jimenez's message in The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, upends a canonized narrative we all have grown familiarly comfortable with. . . .And now with Jimenez's incontrovertible evidence that Shepard's murderers were not strangers — one is a bisexual crystal meth addict who not only knew Matthew, but partied, bought drugs from and had sex with Matthew. With this 'new' information a more textured but troubling truth emerges. This truth shatters a revered icon for LGBT rights, one deliberately chosen because of race, gender and economic background. . . . The anointing of Matthew Shepard as an iconic image for LGBT rights not only concealed from the American public the real person but also it hid the other varied faces of hate crimes in the 1990's. . . . In reading Jimenez's book we shockingly learn that Matthew Shepard, Gay Icon story is a fictive narrative. . . . The cultural currency of the Shepard narrative's shelf life, might now after nearly two decades be flickering out, or it's now of no use to its framers and the community it was intended to serve. . . . I read Jimenez's The Book of Matt as a cautionary tale of how the needs of a community trumped the truth of a story." — Rev. Irene Monroe, Out in New Jersey

Jimenez does a masterful job of unspooling this haunted narrative like a puzzle, giving you seemingly disparate pieces that take a while to form a larger picture... Anyone interested in the Matthew Shepard case needs to read this book.” – Jeff Walsh, Oasis Magazine, an online publication for LGBT youth

What if nearly everything you thought you knew about Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong? What if our most fiercely held convictions about the circumstances of that fatal night of October 6, 1998, have obscured other, more critical, aspects of the case? . . . None of this is idle speculation; it’s the fruit of years of dogged investigation by journalist Stephen Jimenez, himself gay. In the course of his reporting, Jimenez interviewed over 100 subjects, including friends of Shepard and of his convicted killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, as well as the killers themselves. . . . In the process, he amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard’s sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus has lead us to believe." Aaron Hicklin, Editor-in-Chief of Out magazine, in The Advocate

What’s truly remarkable about this book is not that, like many before it, it exposes the truth behind a useful myth. It is the reaction of the gay establishment to these difficult truths. The Book Of Matt insists on the horrifying nature of the crime; it had no pre-existing agenda; it’s written by an award-winning reporter who is also a gay man. (The Wyoming Historical Society also gave it an award.) What it does is expose a real problem in the gay male world – especially at the time of the murder: the nexus of sex and meth that destroyed and still destroys so many lives." — Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish

Stephen Jimenez makes a compelling case that this horrific murder was not a hate crime at all. . . . No doubt Jimenez will face criticism for his powerful book. Why did he have to dig around and stir things up? Won’t people who are opposed to equal rights for LGBT people use his exposé for their reactionary purposes? How do these revelations harm those who built programs teaching tolerance based on the Shepard murder? How will Shepard’s family feel? . . . The movement for equality for gay people is important, not because of what happened to Matthew Shepard on an October night 15 years ago, but because no one should be less valued as a human being because of who they are or who they love. . . . When combating hatred and bigotry, the truth is always important." The Jewish Daily Forward

This is not a left-wing or a right-wing thing. It is not a gay or straight thing, it is not a religious versus atheist thing. It’s a human thing. . . . I admire Stephen Jimenez so much for the courage it took to stick with this story for 13 years, and to report facts that apparently destroy the narrative that he expected to find when he first went to Wyoming to look into the Shepard case. There will be a number of people who will hate him for what he’s done, especially because he himself is a gay journalist. May we all find the courage to follow the truth and to deal with it, no matter where it leads. I aspire to be as brave in my work as Jimenez has been in his. All of us should learn a lesson from his book. It is important to stand up for what we believe is right. But it is more important for us to stand up for the truth.." — Rod Dreher, author of The Little Way of Ruth Leming, in The American Conservative

I am persuaded by The Book of Matt that we will learn more that is more valuable if we demand the facts, and not a case that is cut to fit a particular agenda... We need a Steve Jimenez to take up the [Trayvon Martin case, to which the book is compared] and devote to it the energy and attention that he devoted to the Shepard murder, to enrich us with the truth." — Marci A. Hamilton, Justia

The popular image of this event as one where two drug-using homophobic thugs murdered Matthew because he was gay is overly simplistic. . . Matthew Shepard’s memory is ill served by those who wish to present him as a saint and who urge us not to read this book. The narratives are contradictory; read the book and make your own mind up. What is clear is that Matthew was as complicated and flawed an individual as we all are – and that in no way invalidates his humanity, his right to life or the reaction to his murder." — The James Morgan Brown Review

Excerpt

New Introduction by Andrew Sullivan

There’s a phrase sometimes credited to George Orwell or Randolph Hearst (no one quite knows the real source) that most professionals in the newspaper business hold as something of a sacred definition of their trade: “Journalism is publishing something someone doesn’t want you to print; all the rest is public relations.”

If I were to describe this tight, closely reported and engrossing account of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in one word, it would be journalism.

No one wanted Steve Jimenez to report this story, let alone go back and back to Laramie, Wyoming, asking awkward questions, puzzling over strange discrepancies, reinterviewing sources, seeking a deeper, more complex truth about the ghastly killing than America, it turned out, was prepared to hear. It was worse than that, actually. Not only did no one want to hear more about it, but many were incensed that the case was being reexamined at all. Considerable political forces, including much of the gay and lesbian establishment and mainstream press, attempted to prevent this story from getting wider attention; they targeted Jimenez’s reputation as a journalist; and they insisted that all the myriad details in this book were concocted or invented. All of it was fabricated, they claimed, a “conspiracy theory,” while refusing to refute specific facts or details that Jimenez had uncovered. And Steve as a gay man was subjected to even more calumny: that he was a traitor to the cause, advancing the interests of the antigay haters and bigots by giving them some reason to debunk the heinous crime.

The truth, you see, was already out there. It was crystal clear and carried a simple message: that hate is everywhere in America, especially in red states, and every member of a minority is under constant danger of being attacked, or even killed. And the narrative was gripping and horrifying, something out of a horror movie. A diminutive, innocent, boyish young gay man, Matthew Shepard, walked into a bar in a deeply red state one night, and two strange men lured him into their pickup truck to rob him, and, after Matthew allegedly made a pass at one of them, Aaron McKinney, McKinney went berserk with raging homophobia and assaulted him. He then drove Shepard down a dark, rural, lightly traveled road and took his ghastly revenge: bludgeoning the young gay man in the head with unbelievable and unconscionable force, sadism, and ferocity; tied him to a fence; and left him there to die, without any means of escape. Matthew was discovered the following day and rushed to the hospital, but he never regained consciousness and died six days later.

Almost instantly, he became a symbol of the toll, viciousness, and pervasiveness of hate.

And he was a perfect symbol: young, pretty, tiny, he presented himself to the world as the most acceptable form of a young gay man, almost a boy. (The man who discovered his bloodied, tortured body thought he was around thirteen years old.) His father described him as “an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people’s differences.” A champion of toleration and openness had been brutally beaten to death for being gay. The lesson could not be clearer, nor the tragedy deeper. To add a touch of perfection to the picture, his murderers were also out of a Hollywood movie script: redneck losers from a rural state obviously brimming with anti-gay hatred.

I remember vividly my own response to the news: an involuntary spasm of disgust, nausea, and terror. It was, after all, a classic gay nightmare, the kind of thing that kept me and countless others in the closet for years: a possible hookup with a stranger that could go terribly wrong. Just the bare facts of the story as we heard them — gay kid murdered by rural bigot, left to die — cemented in our minds and psyches everything we had feared as we grew into gay adulthood. We instantly believed we knew the truth — because it had haunted our souls most of our lives. And what other motive could there be for savagery like that? It reeked of unhinged, irrational, violent homophobia.

It took some time before it emerged that the first mention that the murder was an anti-gay hate crime was when the girlfriend of Aaron McKinney, Kristen Price, came up with the idea in the panicked hours after the assault. Price later conceded she had made that up. But the early rumor was enough for the media to run with the story of hate until, within days, the outlines had been set, and the stakes raised. Suddenly a horrifying murder was a way to reveal just how deadly much of the country allegedly was for gays and lesbians and to evoke sympathy and horror from every segment of society. That horror could help advance the argument for gay equality in a period when it was very much in the headlines and the Congress. It was a time when marriage equality was in the news and when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the military’s policy toward gay service members. The message was particularly useful for gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign, whose fundraising skyrocketed in the wake of the shocking murder.

But it wasn’t true. The story, as you will read in these pages, is far darker, murkier, and revealing than a classic hate crime. Rereading this book years later, it seems to me that the murder had absolutely nothing to do with homophobia. It involved rather what was then a growing scourge of crystal meth use among both the rural poor and the gay male community at the turn of the century — and the murder of a young gay man in rural Wyoming was a classic case of where the two meth populations met and overlapped. As the cops eventually conceded, this was a drug-related murder, related to a meth delivery, a desperate McKinney seeking money or another hit, and a naive kid caught up in a world he didn’t fully understand. Shepard knew McKinney, his murderer, before their encounter at the bar that night; and the two had been sexually involved on and off for quite some time. More telling to me was that the savagery of the murder is far more plausibly explained by the fact that McKinney had been on a meth binge of several days and nights before he lost his mind in rage, rather than that he had instantly become a raging bigot, with no record of homophobia before.

Sometimes I imagine what would have happened if we had always known the more complicated truth. The lesson would be about a drug that was cutting a swath through the middle of the country, especially in rural areas, and devastating gay men in cities in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Vulnerable souls — seeking confidence or release or exhilaration for a while — were prey for this particular poison, and gay men, often surviving childhood trauma or laced with self-hatred or sexually compulsive, seemed particularly at risk. If we had been able to have a serious national conversation about this otherwise concealed epidemic of drug abuse, especially among gay men, then we might have been able to save some lives. In the two decades since, I’ve seen so many men fall under meth’s devastating spell — their lives ruined, their very personalities altered, their bodies wasted away, their teeth rotten, their souls absent, and their rate of recovery surpassingly low. For gay men in 1998, meth was a far, far greater danger than redneck strangers. And it still is. But we decided to focus on what was acceptable to speak about rather than what was staring us, more embarrassingly, in the face.

I’m proud to introduce a reissue of this book. I urge you to read it carefully and skeptically, to get to know the characters involved, and to see better how life rarely fits into the neat boxes we want it to inhabit. That Matthew Shepard was a meth dealer and meth user says nothing that bad about him and in no way mitigates the hideous brutality of the crime that killed him; instead it shows how vulnerable so many are to the drug’s escapist lure and its astonishing capacity to heighten sexual pleasure so that it’s the only thing you want to live for. Shepard was a victim twice over: of meth and of a fellow meth user, driven to a form of madness that sustained meth use invariably produces. Gay men did not want this to be known — because it muddied the narrative of sainthood for Matthew and aired some dirty laundry many in the community wanted kept out of sight. Straight people who wanted to display how concerned they were had a unique chance to weigh in with genuine sadness, shock, and pity and were not inclined to ask questions. And then there was the huge pressure not to query a murder that seemed to have no purpose if it didn’t advance gay equality.

So we now have the body of Matthew Shepard interred, like a martyr to homophobia, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. And you begin to understand how saints are indeed made: by legend and by orthodoxy. What Jimenez has done is to peer behind this facade and tell us the awful, messy, tragic, human truth. It seems to me that we can honor the memory of Matthew Shepard by refusing to lie about him anymore. And this book is a start.

Andrew Sullivan

Provincetown

August 2019

About the Author

Stephen Jimenez

STEPHEN JIMENEZ is an award-winning journalist, writer and producer. He was a 2012 Norman Mailer Nonfiction Fellow and has written and produced programs for ABC News 20/20, Dan Rather Reports, Nova, Court TV and others. His accolades include the Writers Guild of America Award, the Mongerson Award for Investigative Reporting, and an Emmy. ANDREW SULLIVAN wrote the first national cover story in favor of marriage equality in 1989, and subsequently an essay, “The Politics of Homosexuality” in The New Republic, an article The Nation called the most influential of the decade in the gay rights movement. He was the editor of The New Republic from 1991 to 1996. From 1996 to 2000 he wrote for The New York Times Magazine and in 1995 published his first book, Virtually Normal, a case for marriage equality. His second book, Love Undetectable, was published in 1998.

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