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The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez
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The Book of Matt

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The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez
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Jun 30, 2020 | ISBN 9781586422523

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  • Jun 30, 2020 | ISBN 9781586422523

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“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

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Stephen Jimenez, author of
The Book of Matt:
Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard
What made you decide to write The Book of Matt? What was it about Matthew Shepard’s murder that persuaded you to go to Laramie to research his story?
         Like millions of people everywhere — not just Americans — I was shocked and appalled by the violence of the attack on Matthew in October 1998. As a gay man, it sucked the wind out of me. It made me wonder how the men who beat him could have that much hate. As journalist Andrew Sullivan said at the time, the crime encapsulated all our fears of being hated as gay people.
         But it wasn’t until a year after Matthew’s murder that I decided to go to Laramie. My intention was to write a screenplay about this all-American tragedy. What inspired me was a speech that Matthew’s father had delivered in the courtroom on the day Aaron McKinney, Matthew’s killer, was sentenced to two life terms, with no chance of parole. Dennis Shepard bared his soul to the world. He said things like—and I’m paraphrasing here — Why wasn’t I a better father and friend [to Matt]? Why wasn’t I there when he needed me most? How will I ever get an answer to those questions now?      Those words, which sons and fathers everywhere could relate to, just took hold of me. I wanted to know more about Matthew’s life and to try in some way to understand the human aspects of this tragedy that destroyed him and inflicted so much pain on his family.
         That was the beginning of the journey of this book — thirteen and a half years ago. I also had a personal love for the Wyoming landscape, so I was drawn back there because it was very easy to visualize the stark but beautiful place where this horrendous crime happened.
         But after about eight months working on the story, I stumbled on some documents at the courthouse that made me begin to question everything that I believed about the crime and the motives behind it. Like most people, I’d felt certain it was a clear-cut anti-gay hate crime, a gay bashing: Matthew had been beaten to death because he was gay.
In The Book of Matt, you describe your first encounter with the prosecutor in the Shepard case, soon after you arrived in Laramie. You say that he became your “guide.” How did that come about?
         It was simply a stroke of good fortune. I was in the county courthouse going through stacks of case files, taking notes, just trying to begin educating myself about the case — and I noticed Cal Rerucha, the county prosecutor, talking to staff people in the office. I’d seen his picture in news stories and on TV. I was a little nervous about approaching him, but I thought if there’s anyone who could help me understand the case and figure out how to make my way through all this material piled up in front of me, this was the man.
         What many people don’t realize — unless you were a reporter covering the story in Laramie — is that the court had sealed all these files while the case was going on, for a full year. So the media never had a chance to examine this material until the case was over. By then nobody cared, it was old news to them. Also, all the key players in the case, including witnesses, had been placed under a gag order for a year. But now that gag order was lifted.
         I asked one of the assistants if the prosecutor might have a few minutes to talk about the case. He came back and said yes, Mr. Rerucha could do that. When I was shown into his office, he shut the door and we talked for almost an hour. He was very curious about why I’d come all the way from New York and what I was up to. He seemed to be circling me like a fox. He told me he had very little confidence in the media and said pretty forcefully that Matthew Shepard’s family had suffered a lot and that I shouldn’t write anything that would hurt them further.
         That was in February 2000. At that point, I began a series of interviews with Cal Rerucha. I asked him to teach me everything he could about the case, and I interviewed him many, many times. But none of this happened overnight. He was adamant that I get my facts straight and that I not repeat the media’s earlier mistakes. Today I consider him to be a good friend.
What are some of the things you learned from him?
         It wasn’t until I knew Cal Rerucha for about four years that he agreed to an on-camera interview for a story I produced with Glenn Silber for ABC News 20/20. That was the first time that Cal acknowledged publicly that the drug methamphetamine had been a factor in Matthew’s murder.
         Ironically, one of the defense attorneys in the case—Russell Henderson’s lawyer, Wyatt Skaggs—claimed at the time of the trials that drugs played no part in the case. The attorneys for Aaron McKinney, on the other hand, argued that Aaron’s drug addiction had been an important factor. But now you have the prosecutor, who had fought against Aaron’s attorneys on this very point, stating on the record that meth had, indeed, been involved.
         That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. In The Book of Matt, I’m looking at a confluence of factors that were behind this horrifically violent crime — complicated human factors — and also how the media reported the crime to us. Drugs are just one aspect, but it was an aspect that was seriously misunderstood and even misrepresented by several people involved in the case, including some law enforcement officers.
You were the first writer to interview Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the men convicted of Matthew’s murder. Why did they decide to talk with you? In the case of Aaron McKinney, he had agreed at the time of his sentencing that he wouldn’t talk to the media.
         After the huge amount of news coverage surrounding the Shepard case, I assumed that neither man would be eager to talk with me — or with any other journalist. With two life sentences and no chance of parole, what did they stand to gain?
         But there were only three people who knew what happened after Matthew left the Fireside bar with Aaron and Russell that night — and one of them, Matthew, had been murdered. At least that’s what I believed at the time, that no one else had information about what really happened. So I decided to make every possible effort to talk with Aaron and Russell.
         I began by getting to know Aaron’s father and Russell’s grandmother, both of whom were very skeptical. But eventually they intervened on my behalf, in the belief that I was serious about getting to the truth. Russell’s grandmother said she would only give me ten minutes to talk in her living room. Later she told me that she had her phone on the arm of her chair and was ready to call the police if I upset her, as other reporters had. It’s understandable, once you realize how the media invaded the lives of almost everyone involved in this case. Matthew’s family and friends were also besieged constantly.
         As far as Aaron’s agreement not to talk with the media, I thought long and hard about that and sought the advice of several people, including someone at the American Civil Liberties Union. I was surprised to learn that some legal experts thought it was unconstitutional to have required Aaron — as part of a sentencing agreement — to give up his right to free speech. I decided that if Aaron was willing to talk, it was important for me, as a journalist, to hear what he had to say. I was suspicious, of course, but since he’d never testified during his trial I was eager to hear his version in his own words.
         I also wondered why that silence had been imposed in the first place. What could Aaron possibly say about the crime that hadn’t already been heard in a year’s worth of media stories and court proceedings? That intrigued me. Evidently there were some things he wasn’t supposed to talk about. But again: Why? What were they?
You’ve spent a good deal of time interviewing Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. What is your view of these two men who committed such a savage and brutal crime?
The first thing I’d say — and I’ve known them for about eleven years — is that they’re a study in contrasts. They have strikingly different personalities and, more importantly, their characters are very different. Like night and day. And those differences are apparent in their actions during the crime itself.
         Yet you’d never know that from most of the original media coverage. It was reported that both men beat Matthew, both men pistol-whipped him, both hated gay people, and that both were equally responsible for Matthew’s death. Nothing could be further from the truth.
         In fact, the evidence shows that it was only Aaron who beat Matthew with the gun and that at one point Russell tried to stop the beating. Aaron then struck Russell with the murder weapon. Aaron himself has always admitted that it was he who inflicted all of the physical violence on Matthew.
         Is Russell responsible for his involvement and for not doing more to stop it? Absolutely. He’s also culpable for not telling the police what happened immediately after the fact. That might have saved Matthew’s life — although the brain damage he’d sustained was probably irreparable.
         In The Book of Matt, I examine the evidence that existed while the case was going on and show that Aaron’s trial left a number of unanswered questions. I also introduce new information and sources.
         As far as Russell is concerned, he never had a trial or the chance to present his side of the story. My research suggests that Aaron had a set of reasons and motives for robbing Matthew, and that Russell did not. On the most basic level, Aaron and Matthew had a troubled relationship before the night of the crime. The two men were friends before Aaron and Russell became friends.
         I haven’t found a shred of evidence that Russell had ever met Matthew previously or that he wanted to hurt him. But Aaron had previous run-ins with Matthew.
         The idea that Russell hates gay people is preposterous to me. I’ve spent a good deal of time with him in four different prisons and I’m familiar with his essentially spotless prison record over the past fourteen years. I don’t believe Russell is a violent person — not at all.  
What impact do you hope to have on readers of The Book of Matt?
         I wrote the book for many reasons. First, to satisfy my strong personal need to understand the tragedy that destroyed Matthew’s life. He was a young man with dreams and aspirations, whom many people loved; he was also lonely and suffered a lot of inner struggle, as many young people do. And it wasn’t all about being gay, as some would have it. Matthew was a complicated human being.
         His murder haunted me but so did his life — his life even more so. It was a naïve thought perhaps, but I wondered if this violence could have been avoided. If so, how? When did things begin to take a dangerous turn, not just for Matthew but also for Aaron and Russell — and so many other young people like them?
         On the surface, and in the shorthand of the media, their lives seemed so different. But the closer I got to their stories, the more parallels I noticed, especially emotionally and psychologically. All three felt somewhat lost and ungrounded in their lives — to varying degrees, of course—but each of them wanted to belong to something or to someone. There was also an undercurrent of desperation there. That helped explain in part how they got involved in some of the relationships they did, and how they eventually got in way over their heads.
         The impact I hope to have on readers is to encourage a new round of conversations about how we “initiate” our young into the adult world that awaits them — a world of many hidden challenges, especially where personal identity is concerned. But this is not simply a matter of sexual identity — the issue of whether one is straight, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. Most of us encounter many “closets” in the course of our lives and we need to learn what it takes to free ourselves from them. It’s a fraud to suggest that all we need is sexual liberation and then we’ll live happily ever after.
         How do we decide the kind of person we want to be in the world? And how do we develop the skills to get there?
         In the aftermath of the attack on Matthew, there were a lot of conversations, both public and private, about how gay people were treated in America. There was a lot of important soul searching. But what was left out? What was missed? I hope The Book of Matt is an opportunity to resume a part of the conversation that got dropped at the time.
The book is full of references to the role of the media. These aren’t just your personal thoughts as an author, but many characters in the story offer their critical comments on the media. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
         It was the media that, for the most part, shaped the history of Matthew’s murder and the court cases that followed it. And it all happened very, very quickly, without much in-depth reporting or reflection.
         But as one judge in Wyoming told me — a judge who knows the Shepard case well — “The media didn’t give a rat’s ass about the truth.”
         Time and again, we Americans have learned that we can’t always trust the information fed to us by the media. We were told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as the basis for sending our soldiers there, into harm’s way. More recently, we’ve learned that the government has been prying deeply into our personal communications. It wasn’t the media that revealed this to us, however — not initially anyway. It was a whistleblower.
         Similarly, the public was given what I think of as the Disney version of the tragedy in Laramie. Do we want to know what really happened to Matthew and understand why, or do we want to console ourselves with a mythologized version that leaves out important truths? I wrote The Book of Matt in order to grapple with some of these questions.
         Again, if we’re serious about how we raise generations of our young people, who can still be vulnerable at the age of twenty-one — as Matthew was — what are we willing to do to help guide them more effectively? These are just some of the issues touched on in the book.
Drug abuse is a central theme in The Book of Matt, especially the dangerous underworld surrounding methamphetamine. What connections did you find between meth use in a town like Laramie and some urban gay communities?
         Ten years ago when I began to grasp the corrosive impact of meth not just in Laramie but also throughout the whole state of Wyoming and the Midwest, I was stunned. At that time, the topic was of little interest to the national media. But then when I realized that crystal meth was a big problem among some of Matthew’s friends as well — and in urban gay exclaves — I knew that I had to dig deeper. As it turned out, the meth underworld in Laramie and the meth underworld in Denver, where Matthew had lived previously, were connected.
         One of the reasons I decided to write The Book of Matt is to make readers aware of the devastation caused by meth in the lives of so many people, including several characters in the book. Chronic users will tell you that the drug makes you feel a hundred-feet-tall and very powerful, until you start crashing and the psychotic thoughts and paranoia take over your life, and you’ll do anything to feed your habit.
         What shocked me most was learning about meth-fueled rage and violence – the kind of uncontrolled rage that Aaron McKinney inflicted on Matthew Shepard. The fact that this drug had become an epidemic in the gay community wasn’t something I could remain silent about.

For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact:
Devin R. Wilkie
Steerforth Press
603-643-4787, x3

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