Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases
When I was 19, maybe 20, I took a sociology class at Middlesex Community Technical College in my hometown of Middletown, Connecticut. In the class, we read The Mole People, by Jennifer Toth. The book is an ostensibly nonfiction account of the destitute people in New York City who, driven by homelessness or mental illness or both, live underground in the labyrinthine tunnels that run under the pavement. The book is Toth’s narrative, personal and passionate, about her trips below the surface, where she befriended the people who scratched out desperate lives there. Over the course of many visits, some accompanied by a violent but sympathetic criminal she refers to as Blade, Toth explored these spaces and found not just people but something like community. Though they lived the most precarious of lives, the people Toth wrote about helped each other where possible and cobbled together some semblance of a functioning social space in the most improbable of locales. In the end, Toth flees the tunnels and Blade, frightened for her life but still amazed at what the destitute and forgotten have built underground.
At the time, it moved me deeply, and I needed to be moved. Toth didn’t pull punches about the desperation and risk that these people lived with, and in many ways the book served as an indictment of a New York City, and an America, in which the elect could live lives of affluence while poor and mentally ill people scratched out survival literally underneath them. But the book also seemed a testament to the human desire for community and the ways people can look out for one another. It was a lesson about the drive for a society built on mutual responsibility. The conditions these people faced made me depressed, but their dedication to improving each other’s lives brought me hope.
Unfortunately, it appears that very little of it was true.
Years after its publication, Joseph Brennan, a systems engineer at Columbia University, set out to verify the details of Toth’s book. He did this in a brutally efficient way: by investigating the physical architecture of the places Toth had claimed to visit. Brennan compared the places Toth describes in her books with the physical reality, visiting them himself and checking them against blueprints, maps, and plans. Again and again, he found the areas she described to be in reality substantially different or nonexistent. After presenting his evidence, Brennan writes, “Every fact in this book that I can verify independently is wrong.” A reporter got in touch with Toth following Brennan’s allegations, and her response, such as it was, almost amounts to an admission of guilt— hedging on her past descriptions, admitting she had only been below the surface two or three times, and referring the reporter to a woman who actually refuted Toth’s version of events.
The book’s dubious claim to being nonfiction has not dimmed its popularity. It is still in print. It carries no disclaimers. Dozens of Amazon reviews praise it, including several that describe it as truth that’s stranger than fiction.
Looking back, I felt stupid for having believed the book in the first place; what Toth described should have set off alarms even without any independent vetting. (And, really … “Blade”?) But the truth is, I didn’t see any problem with it precisely because I was so invested in its vision of destitute people coming together for their mutual good.
Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases.
A few years before I read The Mole People, I read I, Rigoberta Menchú, a personal narrative of a Guatemalan woman of indigenous descent who endured the horrors of the Guatemalan civil war, in a high school class. By that time, the book’s factual authenticity had been challenged, though neither we in the class nor our teacher seemed to know. Had I known at the time, in my teenaged righteousness, I would have been outraged. Now, I’m less sure. Even if the events that Menchú detailed were not supportable, the horrors in the book reflected the reality of Guatemala and what the United States had condoned and supported. The book was one of those rare vehicles for showing Americans recent crimes against humanity in which their government was complicit, but its factual inaccuracies became the instrument through which the larger, perfectly accurate story of Guatemala was dismissed.
You could turn it over in your mind again and again, and I have. What is the value of compelling and righteous political narrative if it comes at the expense of the facts?
So here are some facts, then.
On the night of October 6, 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, a Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked. His killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, drove him from a bar to a secluded area, where they ambushed him. He was strapped to a fence post, beaten, and pistol-whipped until his brain stem was crushed. The attack constituted not just murder but torture, the killers making special effort to ensure that Shepard suffered, even removing his shoes on a freezing-cold evening. Shepard lay hanging, likely brain dead but unquestionably suffering, for hours. He lingered for five days in the hospital before he succumbed to his injuries. His killers were apprehended, confessed, were fairly tried, and fairly convicted for the murder. They will and should spend the rest of their lives in prison. Shepard left behind a grieving family, a shocked community, and a disgusted nation.
Beyond that, it seems, little is certain.
Those facts are among the few that Stephen Jimenez does not trouble in his meticulous, frequently maddening, and necessarily incomplete investigation of the Shepard murder, The Book of Matt. Jimenez spent the better part of a decade in Laramie investigating the killing, what precipitated it, and its aftermath. He interviewed, at length, members of the police who participated in the investigation, members of the legal teams involved in the trial, friends of Shepard’s and his attackers, and various community figures. His findings, the preliminary version of which was presented in a immediately notorious episode of ABC’s 20/20, are not kind to the received version of the Shepard story.
The story that has been ingrained in the public consciousness—and my own—is the perfect picture of a hate crime. A young gay man in a conservative town in a conservative state goes to a bar, where he chats with a couple of young local men. Maybe he flirts, maybe he just strikes up conversation, but in any event, they learn of his homosexuality. In a fit of gay panic, they lure him into their car, with the promise of a ride home, then betray his trust by robbing and murdering him, all because he was guilty of the sin of being gay.
This was always a leaky narrative. Laramie is not a uniquely hostile environment for a young gay man but a fairly progressive college town, as Robert Blanchard argued in a 1999 piece for Reason. But Jimenez’s argument goes much deeper. Based on the testimony he has collected, he argues that McKinney and Henderson in fact knew Shepard well, and his homosexuality was openly understood among the three of them. McKinney, Jimenez argues, had a history of homosexual encounters in his past, which certainly adds relevant context to a narrative of a gay bash, if true. With less certainty, Jimenez suggests that McKinney and Shepard had a sexual history. Most controversial of all, Jimenez argues that not only were McKinney and Henderson players in the Laramie drug scene (an uncontroversial claim) and under the influence of drugs on the night of the attack but that Shepard himself was a regular user of crystal meth and likely an occasional dealer. The galvanizing story of a cruel hate crime thus becomes instead a tangled narrative of sex and drugs and depression. No wonder the book has encountered so much resistance.
Much resistance, but shockingly little review. Despite its pedigree, publisher, and subject matter (Matthew Shepard’s murder was one of the most important political moments of the ’90s and without exaggeration can be said to have contributed tremendously to the fight for gay marriage that took place in the 2000s), the press has widely ignored The Book of Matt. To their credit, The Nation, The Advocate, and The Guardian have all run fair, appropriately critical considerations of Jimenez’s book, but bizarrely, there has been no review in the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, or The New Yorker. No consideration that I can find in The Atlantic or The New Republic. This silence suggests that many in the establishment media would simply rather not look too closely at the book or the events it describes.
When the major publications that define conventional wisdom fail to engage with a text, inevitably, partisan media rushes in to fill the vacuum. Jimenez’s book has been taken up by the right-wing press, which has prompted Luke Brinker, in an angry piece for Media Matters, to insist that Jimenez, who is himself gay, deliberately framed his book to perform a hatchet job on Shepard and undermine the gay rights movement. But the book actually attempts to reframe Shepard as a plausible human being, complex and fallible, rather than the secular saint he has been made into.
Brinker calls attention to Jimenez’s use of anonymous sources and sources whose credibility is suspect — arguably inevitable in an investigation of a crime involving drugs and sexual habits that took place 15 years ago. But if Jimenez got his reporting wrong, why has no one else attempted to do better reporting? The broad silence about this book plays into the hands of those on the right asserting some sort of gay media conspiracy.
Not that there isn’t any valid reason to criticize Jimenez’s claims. The corroboration for all of the tangled assertions in Jimenez’s book is inconsistent, as any reported history will be, and Jimenez’s readiness to accept the counternarrative frequently made me uncomfortable. Indeed, the book is a lesson in the seductiveness of opposing the common narrative, which leads Jimenez to undermines his case by eagerly overstating it. What would be truly beneficial is if Jimenez was willing to say “we don’t know what happened” with greater zeal than when he suggests a controversial version of events, as when he suggests that McKinney and Shepard had a sexual relationship.
Fairly or not, given the incendiary nature of his charges and the constancy with which he injects himself into his reporting , the story about The Book of Matt was always going to be about Jimenez’s credibility. He does himself no favors with his departures from straight journalism. In a scathing review at ThinkProgress (which, like Brinker’s piece, largely avoids the actual factual controversies at the heart of the book), Alyssa Rosenberg points out that Jimenez announces at the beginning that he has engaged in some “slightly less stringent” methods. This makes it too easy to dismiss him in ways that are unhelpful.
The question is whether Jimenez meant to actively court this kind of criticism. Two things become clear to me as I read The Book of Matt: that Jimenez has undertaken a enormous effort to produce a sensationalistic but profoundly necessary piece of reporting, and that Jimenez deeply enjoys his position as a rabble-rouser and iconoclast. He participated in a series of video interviews about his book for Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish, one of the few prominent outlets to give him a forum to defend his work. At times, he acquits himself well, other times, less so. While I certainly don’t begrudge Jimenez the opportunity to stand up for his work, there is a self-aggrandizing and pious quality to his public reaction to the controversy. The worst moments in his book are ones that reveal his self-seriousness. He writes about himself in a way that biographers typically reserve for a hero or crusader. In a text that proudly takes aim at the pieties and pretense of the gay rights movement, the tendency to devolve into self-mythologizing becomes not merely annoying but intolerable. If Jimenez’s critics are guilty of turning attention away from his factual claims about the Shepard case toward issues regarding his motives as a reporter, unfortunately Jimenez often is too.
Still, Jimenez cites no less than ten sources as the evidence for a prior relationship, of whatever kind, between Shepard and his murderers. He also details the large number of mutual friends and acquaintances shared by Shepard and his killers, leaving the odds of the three of them never interacting extremely low, particularly in a small town like Laramie. If all his claims are inventions, why are so many people in Laramie willing to corroborate them? Why would one of the chief investigators of the murder, Ben Fritzen, claim that the murder “comes down to drugs and money”? Why would Ted Henson, a sexual partner of Shepard’s, corroborate Shepard’s relationship with McKinney? Why would so many of the people Jimenez interviewed lend credence to Jimenez? How would they profit from lying? And why is the burden of proof assumed to lie solely on Jimenez rather than on those defending a conventional wisdom unsupported by reporting as thorough and extensive as Jimenez’s? The book has given our broader media a perfect opportunity to explore these questions and perhaps to rebut Jimenez’s claims. That opportunity has been met with silence.
The Shepard story must be understood in relation to the dominant story of gay politics in recent years: gradual victory through the demise of radicalism. By the time of Shepard’s murder, the gay rights movement was well-organized and well-funded, taking advantage of the groundwork laid by the heroic efforts of those involved in AIDS activism groups like ACT UP. Movies like Philadelphia, and TV shows like Will and Grace, for their abundant flaws, helped bring gay people — and crucially, gay relationships — further into the mainstream.
But this increased attention coincided with an abandonment of the radicalism that had driven the movement since Stonewall and the adoption of an effective, if self-limiting, rhetorical move: Gay-rights activists began asserting not the right to difference but the claim that we are all essentially the same. This is not an inconsequential change.
The change in attitude toward gay people in the U.S. represents one of the most profound examples of moral progress in American history, and I would not change it for the world. But that progress has come at the expense of the commitment to respecting difference, insisting not on the legitimacy of different kinds of romantic and sexual practice but by insisting that there is no real difference to be respected. Macklemore’s song “Same Love” is just the saccharine apex of a conscious decision to advance the cause of gay marriage by divesting it of any connection to the unusual, the provocative, or the queer.
Examine the cultural objects that have been represented as victories for gay people, and the failure becomes clear. In a world where mainstream Americans might first really grapple with gay identity by way of Will and Grace, as those pathetic caricatures often literally dance for the enjoyment of a square, straight audience, it’s no wonder that trans people are not yet broadly included in the circle of caring.
This is the inevitable failing of checklist politics. But part of the enduring power of Shepard’s story lies in its capacity to move us from the theoretical world of abstractions like hegemony and difference back to the decidedly nontheoretical reality of gay vulnerability. For someone like me, who flatters himself as committed to gay rights but for whom the stakes are low, Matthew Shepard’s murder snaps the focus back to the terrible corporeality of physical violence. The assimilationist vs. radical dynamic is real and important, but the Shepard story makes me want to place these theoretical issues in a more human context. In my proud, self-aggrandizing radicalism, I had long assumed the superior virtue of a radicalism that, for me, had little personal investment, little risk. I have frequently failed to recognize that these issues, for too many gay people, are ultimately a matter of the first right, the right that precedes all others: the right to life. When I think of Shepard’s slowly dying body tied to that pole, I ask myself: What difference does this debate have for him?
However well intentioned, the urge to treat Matthew Shepard as a blameless angel demonstrates so many of the pathologies in contemporary social liberalism. First is the left’s attraction to heroes and martyrs — a drive to personalize and individualize every issue, in a way that seems to directly cut against the theoretical commitment to identifying structural causes for social problems. After all, it is the right wing that prefers to reduce complex social issues to problems of personal character and claim economic outcomes are entirely the result of individual work ethic and talent. Advancing individuals as the symbols of a political causes invites attempts to discredit the causes by discrediting the inevitably flawed martyrs pressed into service to emblemize them. Yes, the personal is political. But the person is not the politics.
Neither are the activist groups entirely synonymous with their causes. Despite recent declarations of victory thanks to the advance of same-sex marriage, queer people in America continue to suffer from vast and entrenched discrimination in a variety of arenas. The gay rights movement remains essential and in need of protection against reactionary power. But no activist group is the movement. Like all institutions, they inevitably become more devoted to their self-perpetuation and to the needs of those working within them than to the cause with which they are identified. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, started by his parents, is an example. It has repeatedly worked to delegitimize not just Jimenez’s work but the very legitimacy of questioning the facts surrounding Shepard’s death.
But what, exactly, do Jimenez’s critics fear? What if every bad rumor about Matthew Shepard were true? For years, I have argued against the “race realist” arguments about race and IQ, the notion that our broad racial categories are significantly different in intelligence. But I have also argued against the notion that we just shouldn’t investigate the question — that some types of investigation should be taboo. This argument, voiced by writers like John Horgan and others, seems an enormous tactical and rhetorical mistake. What are they scared might be found? Regardless of any studies, I have no fear that we will somehow “discover” the inherent inferiority of any particular racial group. I have no fear that social science will result in our rejecting the equal dignity, value, and rights of people of color.
If empirical tests suggest that our social construct of race align with differences in our social construct of intelligence, it invites consideration of how those constructs have been assumed or theorized, how those tests have been designed, and how structural aspects of our economy and our society have created conditions that make such perceived differences possible. No test results could undermine our pre-empirical commitment to the social and political equality of all races. Likewise, no journalistic revelations will change the fact that Matthew Shepard was strapped to a post, has his brain bludgeoned, and was left to die in the snow by killers who worked consciously and with premeditation. The right to live is not deserved. The right to not be killed does not stem from the perceived social legitimacy of one’s sexual or gender identity. McKinney and Henderson took Matthew Shepard out with the intention of killing him, and they did. That fact alone is reason for grief, disgust, and horror.
What, ultimately, is true about what happened in Laramie? I don’t know, and neither does Stephen Jimenez, and neither do his vitriolic critics. But I feel confident in the following: Someone who was innocent of anything immoral, as opposed to illegal, was intentionally and brutally murdered. His murderers were possessed, at the time, of some degree of homophobia, whether those feelings included the self-hatred of McKinney or not. The victim was forced to live in an unrepentantly homophobic country, one which refuses to meaningfully address the physical vulnerability of its unjustly targeted gay population and which was thus tacitly implicated in his murder. He died for no reason, and his killers deserve to spend the rest of their lives in jail. All that is true.
But the notion that this killing was a simple story of strangers meeting a defenseless gay man, being panicked by his homosexuality, and executing him in a fit of hatred, is no longer a responsible or informed position.
If Jimenez’s Matthew Shepard — involved in the drug trade, intimately acquainted with his killers, despairing — is the real Matthew Shepard, we face the same moral questions that we do when we consider Shepard the secular saint. Even if his death was not a black-and-white morality play which spoke perfectly to the assumptions of those who mourn him, and he not a media-ready victim but a complex and flawed human being, would he then lie outside of the boundaries of our compassion and our responsibility? And if he did, where is left for a movement seeking human justice to go?