Friday, November 8, 2013

Getting Behind the "Matt Shepard" Myth--Stephen Jimenez Spends a Decade Creating "The Book of Matt." More When He Visits on Wednesday, November 20, 7 pm.

Part One: Stephen Jimenez and The Book of Matt.
I have a confession. When I first was offered a stop on Stephen Jimenez's tour for The Book of Matt, I said no. I had made a blind pitch about the book, working with various LGBT groups, and when I learned more about what the book was, I thought, there are a lot of folks who are going to be mad about this book. I didn't feel comfortable putting them on the spot. I decided to withdraw my proposal.

For this is a book about Matthew Shepard. But it's not October Mourning, by Leslea Newman, a young adult novel in verse that won the Stonewall Book Award. It's not The Laramie Project, the play from Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, which is a series of monologues about the murder, based on many interviews with Laramie residents. It's not Losing Matt Shepard, Beth Loffreda's account of the incident, which while raising issues about the story (no, he was not tied to the fence like Jesus), never questioned the hate crime element. And it's certainly not Judy Shepard's The Meaning of Matthew, a mom's eye view that was as much her journey to becoming a gay rights activist.

I actually read Losing Matt Shepard (Columbia University Press) in 2001and was able to find my review:
"The 1998 death of University of Wyoming student Shepard at the hands of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson not only led to vigils and memorials in Laramie, Wyoming, but set off a wave of related events nationwide, acting as a tipping point to media awareness of gay bashing. Loffreda, an English professor and faculty advisor to the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Association at the university, interviews townspeople and students to make sense of what led to this brutal slaying. How did the town of Laramie, aside from the university, an impoverished town with deeply conservative roots, respond to the murder? Was the hate crime against Shepard so particularly incendiary because he was attractive, young, and white? Did the Shepard incident become less about Matt himself and more of a marketing tool to further other causes? Loffreda’s extensive collection of interviews, while hardly earth shattering, is quietly insightful and an interesting portrait of a town in transition."

But then the publisher came to me again and asked if we would host the author without the need for co-sponsors. I wasn't going to book this event without reading the book first. After finishing The Book of Matt, I decided to schedule it, with Stephen Jimenez speaking at Boswell on Wednesday, November 20, 7 pm.

"Why Matt?," Beth Loffreda asked in Losing Matt Shepard. Why indeed? It's good to ask questions. But here's the thing. What if the right question to ask was whether this was a hate crime at all? Could it be that this was actually about meth dealing? Is it possible, in all the media hullabaloo, that someone forgot to mention that Matthew Shepard and Aaron McKinney were not strangers as previously stated?

What kind of forces could have come together to suppress this? Why might it be better for the prosecution, the defense, the media, the federal government, and the players to leave drugs out of the story. And here's the thing--Matt Shepard's story still has resonance, but the real story might be about our unpreparedness for the overtaking of the United States in the 1990s by meth cartels, and how much power they wielded.

And it's an LGBT story too. For Aaron McKinney has his own secrets for complicity in playing into the hate crime story and as the basher. At one point in prison, he was signing notes as "Killer." The one thing that becomes clear in The Book of Matt is that McKinney is a classic sociopath, so it's not like he has remorse. But he still has reasons.

And there's another victim here besides Matthew Shepard, whose brutal murder is no less horrifying, whatever the circumstances. We all know there are other crimes that happen all the time that do not get the attention or swift justice that the Shepard case received. So while Russell Henderson got consecutive life terms for being an accomplice (the beating was carried out solely by McKinney), the killer of Russell's mother, who was raped and murdered after this event in similarly brutal fashion, was let out of prison in four years. Something's wrong here.

Had I not read The Book of Matt, I really couldn't have written this piece. I did actually sign a confidentiality agreement when given the original manuscript, and thought, why is this guy working over a decade on this? But I tried again when the bound galley came in and this time I got it. The Book of Matt is why folks become journalists, why they get murdered in Mexico and the mideast.

You see that in Jimenez, who has done whatever it takes to get the truth out. Truth is a muddy thing, however, which we've found in hosting events. Journalists who tell both sides of a story and make an issue muddier rarely bring out huge crowds. I saw that most recently with Thomas Peele's Killing the Messenger, about the Black Muslims in Oakland.

And Stephen Jimenez, while an independent journalist, is no stranger to mainstream media. He produced the 2004 Matthew Shepard story for 20/20, which got the first televised interview with Aaron McKinney, who by the way, cut him off afterwards. He is a 2012 Norman Mailer nonfiction fellow and has written and produced programs for ABC News, 20/20, Dan Rather Reports, Nova, Fox, Court TV, and won a Writers Guild of America Award and the Mongerson Award for Investigative Reporting, as well as an Emmy.

He's also cousin to a much-admired bookeller, Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Inkwood Books of Tampa, and longtime menber of the board of directors of the American Booksellers Association. We chatted together about the book, and she encouraged me to host this event.

It all comes back to "why Matthew Shepard?" Over the years, I had friends who were more clearly targeted for being beaten up because they were gay. It's not hard to find hate crimes, but how did Matthew Shepard become the poster child for all this? That's definitely one of the most interesting aspects of The Book of Matt.

It led some fellow booksellers and myself to ponder other instances of somebody becoming more than they were in the name of the story. I'm not going to mention most of the names we came up with because many are still polarizing. But I thought of one, Private Jessica Lynch, and I use her because she herself was able to say "I'm not the person you are proclaiming me to be." Here's John Kampfner in The Guardian telling the story behind the story on that one.

To some folks, Matthew Shepard is the LGBT community's Emmett Till--I know it's odd to link to an actor in this case, but here is a serious essay from Margaret Cho about hate crime. And here's the thing--I understand the power of stories. I also understand clearly that Jimenez is not saying that hate crime is ok. Instead he is presenting another side of a previously one-sided narrative. But this is what journalism is about. And how can you indict other people for believing anything less than the truth if you do not do the same in the face of evidence?

Part II: Blowback.

Stephen Jimenez wound up scheduling a long reading tour, and almost immediately, a blogger demanded that all the bookstores cancel their events. Generally when this happens, the complainer first says "how dare we?" and then if we don't cancel, the implication is that we are money grubbing booksellers.

While we have not had anyone directly asking us to cancel our event (maybe we will after this blog post), I did have at least one regular customer come in, rather upset about The Book of Matt. We had a spirited discussion about the book playing into the hands of conservatives, or perhaps being a purposeful conservative plot to upend LGBT rights. It was heated, but it was also respectful.

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression took this boycott demand very seriously and president Chris Finan issued a letter explaining how bookstores work, how we don't necessarily make money on events, and how it is better to refute an argument than repress it. You can read it here.

We've hosted a lot of LGBT authors, most recently Robert Sabuda, Chuck Palahniuk, and Gretchen Primack. We've had Andrew Sean Greer, Carol Anshaw, Alison Bechdel, and even the all-queer Sister Spit tour. We put on a day of programming for Tim Federle, author of Better Nate than Ever*, when stores in Chicago and Minneapolis couldn't find schools that would accept it's likely-to-be-gay protagonist.  But when we decided to host Orson Scott Card last year, I received several angry notes, at least one from a regular Boswell shopper. In the end, most of my customers who disagreed with Card's politics but liked his novels decided that if Card didn't bring it up, they wouldn't either. It wound up being a very nice, fiction-focused event.

So that's how it stands now. We'll see what further blowback we get. And not to be too money grubbing, but allow me to remind you that Stephen Jimenez is appearing for The Book of Matt on Wednesday, November 20, 7 pm. It's a free event, and open to the public.

*Federle is likely to be back in town for the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate! on January 28. Watch for details.


Charlie Quimby said...

This reminds me of the words of a good friend who was a career public defender and handled many notorious cases.

I asked him how many of his clients he believed were innocent and he said: "Almost every single one was guilty, but not necessarily guilty of all the charges against them."

This sounds like a worthwhile, challenging book. You're serving the discussion by putting it out there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for hosting this. I've read the book and find it credible and compelling. I wish Jimenez' critics would read it before casting aspersions on him. Their tactics and comments remind me of the same right wingers who they accuse him of enabling. Trust me, the right wingers will do what they do without regard for actual facts. This is their playbook; heck, they use the Bible in the same manner - distort to meet their goals and narrative. Let's not be like them, but have an open, honest discussion of actual facts. And btw, Matt Shepard remains an icon and symbol for equal rights regardless of these other facts coming to light. That his killer (and lawyers) lied and used his death to advance a 'gay panic' defense is enough to rally around.