Anatomy of a Murder


October 6 will mark two years since Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson beat Matthew Shepard unconscious, tied him to a fence, and left him to die; two years, also, since the onslaught of special TV reports and hyped-up newspaper features (and later even an Off-Broadway hit) about the homophobic tragedy in Laramie, Wyoming; two years since the country dutifully wrung its hands, wiped away its tears, and then got on with its business.

Beth Loffreda’s occasionally insightful, quick-read chronicle of the murder, the trials, and the town is deliberately timed to come out on the anniversary of Shepard’s death. That alone makes it hard to separate Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder from the media exploitation Loffreda wants to take to task. Sure, her interviews with local people and, especially, with lesbian and gay residents of Laramie round out the silly portraits offered on the six o’clock news, and she blows big holes into the inane platitudes intoned by pert newscasters. But these are rather unambitious achievements. When she takes on the bigger political questions—the debate over hate crimes legislation, the all-important question of how government, edu-cational institutions, and regular folk might prevent such crimes—Loffreda remains oddly noncommittal. It’s hard to know whether that’s because, like The Laramie Project (the Off-Broadway documentary play about the town in the wake of Shepard’s murder), she doesn’t want to offend any of the numerous people she interviewed for the book. (Her profiles of a local lesbian activist and of the sheriff investigating the murder are downright hagiographic.) Or simply because she hasn’t thought through her answers—another consequence, perhaps, of that anniversary pub date. Repetitive, badly organized, and lacking an argument, Losing Matt Shepard seems self-destructively rushed.

Early in the book Loffreda, a professor at the University of Wyoming (and, jacket copy tells us, the straight adviser to the campus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Association), raises a crucial question about the endless vigils and concerts and public statements of indignation: “I wondered . . . when we’d stop talking about how we felt and begin talking about what to do.” But not only does she never tell us what she thinks ought to be done—or even what she did in her own classrooms—at the end of the book, she, and thus the reader, is still standing in the same place: “I’m tired of the ease with which so many people expressed outrage at Matt’s murder but then rested there, as if the expression of personal outrage were itself a political good, as if the therapeutics of emotion were enough.”

The sentence is telling, for, like the book as a whole, it is itself more an expression of outrage than analysis. Even her thoroughly legitimate, if familiar, critique of the mainstream coverage of the case is surprisingly shallow because she never cracks the crust of complaint to engage deeper questions. Throughout, Loffreda comes back to the theme of misrepresentation of the crime (Shepard was not actually tied to the fence like a scarecrow) and of Laramie (there is no trailer-park-strewn “side of the tracks”), but doesn’t consider how habits of mainstream journalism and attitudes toward homosexuality combined to produce such coverage. What is it about the ever narrowing notions of narrative structure in American news that practically forced the Shepard story into the shape it took? How, specifically, did the demands of deadlines and word counts and dramatic visuals circumscribe the story, and how might those forces be interrupted? Loffreda is content merely to take swipes at the effects.

Meanwhile, her own prose frequently mimics the worst quirks of hokey journalism, especially in its insistence on self-consciously colorful but entirely irrelevant detail. (Does it really matter that she was briefed on the history of Wyoming’s bias crime debate by a state legislator on “an unseasonably warm March morning in his small, unprepossessing house on the north side of town”?) And sometimes, she gets utterly tabloid: “If the answer [to Russell Henderson’s motive] could be said to lie anywhere, it lay buried deep in the mundane texture of his contradictory life, in the spiral of trouble, hope and darkness that wound through his days.”

Of course, one avenue to further understanding is forever closed: The court imposed a gag on McKinney and his lawyers—a questionable infringement on free speech. That doesn’t seem to trouble Loffreda, even as she argues, in a rare direct statement of opinion, for meeting offensive, homophobic speech not with attempts at censorship, but with corrective speech. That gag order is just one of numerous troubling aspects of the legal case—the role of Shepard’s parents in the sentencing is another—and our understanding of bias crime or of sentimentality-as-activism is hardly complete. While it’s heartening that a university press and an academic writer have chosen to take on an urgent subject in plain language, Losing Matt Shepard stays on the surface.