In The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, Stephen Jimenez takes readers on a personal journey through the mucky, methamphetamine-laced universe that was the unclaimed backdrop for Shepard’s 1998 murder; a brutal, iconic killing that instantly became the quintessential anti-gay hate crime of our time. With the dedicated fervor and meticulous attention to detail of a seasoned journalist, Jimenez delves deep into the long-closed case to divulge hard facts that complicate and expand our understanding of the murder as well as the meaning of Shepard’s death. We are left facing a difficult reality about a pervasive and much-wielded myth: Shepard’s brutal beating and untimely death was not a crime of homophobic passion by testosterone-fueled hayseeds, rather, it was a murder, “driven by drugs,” perpetrated by one man (and his accomplice) who shared much in common with Shepard, from friends and limo rides to drug trade clients, and, most shockingly, consensual sex. Jimenez, with frank bravery, debunks the myth of the murder as a fatal gay-bashing and shows that it was instead a chillingly personal vendetta against Matthew Shepard by his murderer(s): the violent, meth-addicted Aaron McKinney and his unfortunate accomplice, Russell Henderson.
Many questions remain about the case itself, but the book succeeds because Jimenez makes no claims of having written the definitive version of Shepard’s story. Often, the most compelling aspect of The Book of Matt is how Jimenez unabashedly places himself squarely at the center of the story, without eclipsing his larger truth-seeking mission. An educated, out, gay male, Jimenez digs in, not just to Shepard’s story, but also to the nuanced experience of his quest to recast a cultural moment that has become a meaningful icon of injustice and a call to activism, especially in the gay community. Towards the end of his book, he writes:
During the years that I’ve been preoccupied with Matthew’s murder, I’ve come to believe that the complex truths of this tragedy… have a universal meaning that defies and transcends the politically correct mythology that’s been created as a substitute.
The effect of his journalistic aptitude is amplified by this gripping autobiographical framework and reveals something too rarely seen in media coverage: honesty and accountability. Jimenez’ personal investment in the case adds layers of meaning to what are occasionally repetitive chapters, full of hidden facts and odds and ends of interviews, culminating in a book that is as bold as it is thorough. And yet, The Book of Matt is less a retelling of a murder mystery than it is an indictment of our omnipresent, reductive media and the political tensions that manipulate it. Even in our high-speed, surveilled, all-too-public world of social and news media, instant communication and endless commentary, things aren’t always what they seem, and Jimenez does us all a favor by challenging the notion that they are.
Uncovering the truth about Matthew Shepard’s murder required nothing short of obsession. Jimenez spent thirteen years researching the case, including countless trips to the stark, lonely plains of Laramie, Wyoming and awkward forays into the sketchy underworld of the I-25 corridor between the Cowboy State and Denver, Colorado, to explore the overlapping worlds of western gay bars, drug running, methamphetamine abuse, and teenagers from broken homes. The resulting story provides fascinating—if not entirely easy-to-follow— revelations of heretofore untold facts. (Jimenez is almost too thorough in his delineations of his investigation and could have spared such confusion by paring down the facts, punching up their significance, and sticking to a more consistent “it was a dark and stormy night” storytelling-style, instead of lapsing into a police report-like monotone). Jimenez is also a risk-taker in more ways than one, exposing himself to criticism from his own corner as well as potential violence during the course of his investigation out west. Several times throughout the book, we are made aware of the scope of the risky business he undertook in researching the case:
I drove two hundred miles to meet… a former drug cohort of Aaron McKinney, alone at an isolated truck stop off I-80 in western Wyoming… When I saw what was happening I leapt from the car and ran into the middle of the parking lot where there were more lights… Seconds later my friend picked me up in front of the truck stop, his face a sickly shade of white. In a halting voice he told me how close he thought he had come to losing me there. I knew he was right.
Riveting as they are, it’s almost a shame that Jimenez’ modesty prevents such “war stories” from taking center stage of the book. Still, Jimenez guides his readers through the complex layers of his unwieldy investigation, which was riddled with deceptions, paranoia, anonymous sources, police cover-ups, sad stories, and peopled with strong, silent types with good ol’ boy logic and charm.
While Jimenez’ attempts to connect the dots for his readers is at times a bit less than clear, he impresses us with his dogged ability to get stones to speak. He hints at the difficulty in this throughout the book:
Many of my early phone calls and letters to potential sources went unanswered; doors were sometimes shut in my face… but some were willing to go on the record…The cop stared at me as he sank back from his desk, shrugging doubtfully. Almost as an afterthought he flashed me another knowing grin, but again his eyes told me to let sleeping dogs lie.
At the same time, Jimenez relates to us his apparently innate ability to make his subjects feel comfortable: “In one interview he joked that the only reason he was talking to me was that ‘it’s soothing, like talking to a psychiatrist. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” From defendants and witnesses to cops and politicians, no one wanted to discuss the case out of pain, fear, or secrecy. Jimenez’ poignant relationship to his subject matter and subsequent endearing of himself to tight-lipped sources uncovered more about the case—and the role of the media in branding the murder as a “simple” hate crime—than anything else written on the subject of Matthew Shepard’s murder. His extensive cast of characters are often unattractive, their lives strewn with the bleak, disturbing passions of middle America’s suburbs, but they make plain to the reader that our general understanding of pretty much everything, even a whitewashed, working-class city like Laramie, is flawed. Far from a homophobic cow town on an innocent-if-cultureless prairie, Laramie has an underbelly of crime and drugs, just like everywhere else. The real tragedy of the myth of Shepard’s legacy is the conscription of homosexual sex into that underworld, made plain by the killing of Shepard, a competing drug runner who happened to be gay.
The Book of Matt reads by turns like a page-turning crime drama and at others with the cold precision and occasional tedium of a police report. It is a brave and discomfiting read, essential, and worthy of deep consideration. Through it all, Jimenez answers questions nobody was willing to ask, and ultimately, we are all implicated in our collective willingness to suppress the truth, whatever our motives.