Everyone and anyone who has taken a position on the case involving Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman needs to take a very deep breath, and stop long enough to read Stephen Jimenez’s new book, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard.
Matthew Shepard, who was born in Casper, Wyoming, was attacked near Laramie, Wyoming, on October 6, 1998, and died six days later. Matthew was gay, and his murder became a cause célèbre for the gay-rights movement, because early news coverage asserted that (1) the murder was motivated by anti-gay animus, and (2) he was found on a fence on the Wyoming prairie positioned as though he had been crucified. As soon as the story moved outside Wyoming, it was picked up by the national media, by gay activists, and eventually by no less than President Clinton, and other powers in Washington, DC and across the country. It was a tragedy, to be sure, but the question is what kind of tragedy it was, and what lessons we should learn from it.
Journalist Jimenez, who was with ABC News and working on the story, and who is himself gay, started thinking that the story would make a worthwhile screenplay. So he thought that he would follow up, in Wyoming, some of the details that he had read about, just to double-check his facts. That decision began a years-long journey that only a first-rate investigative journalist would pursue, one which was punctuated with self-doubt on Jimenez’s part, and at times also with warnings to Jimenez from those involved to stop asking so many questions.
The more Jimenez delved, the less he found persuasive about the “story” of Matthew’s murder. I do not want to give away the book’s chilling insights, because it is so readable, and well worth a close reading by most Americans. Suffice it to say that the sensational story that was told was a thin veneer, and that in the end, there is a complex, sad reality underneath.
This is one of those books that I could not put down, but also almost could not bear to read in parts. The suffering of the day-to-day lives of those involved is palpable. The outcome is tragic, but it is also foreordained by the choices made by the community in which Matthew found himself, or I should say more accurately, placed himself.
Once you have read The Book of Matt, you will have concerns about the justice system, our war against drugs, some members of the gay community’s involvement with certain drugs, and the future of our children. And even more so, you should have a finely developed sense that when the drums for one cause start beating loudly, before the facts are fully established, there is good reason to pause and to follow the path toward truth, as opposed to the path of emotion. 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. It is not that I am criticizing those who have taken up Matthew’s cause in the interest of gay rights, but rather that I am saying that many, including many in the gay rights movement, would have been enriched by the truth of Matthew’s brutal and senseless murder, as much or more than they have been by the story that was told and embraced initially by the media.
This media dynamic should ring numerous bells for those following the Martin/Zimmerman events. In the Shepard case, only the three men present that night actually knew what happened. As I discussed in this July 18 Justia column, only Zimmerman and Martin themselves knew exactly what happened during their tragic confrontation. As in the Shepard case, the media mostly has hewn to a unified story, and the President has jumped on board to make political points. The special-interest involvement is doubled in Martin’s death, because the gun-rights activists have jumped on Zimmerman’s side, while the civil rights activists have embraced Martin’s side.
What if the truth is somewhere in between these two sides, and the lessons that we could have learned were more valuable than the ones we are being told to take from the story? We need a Steve Jimenez to take up the Martin case and devote to it the energy and attention that he devoted to the Shepard murder, to enrich us with the truth.