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What Happened in Laramie

Everything you know about Matthew Shepard is wrong

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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In his defense Jimenez says that if his witnesses seem unreliable, it is only because this is the sort of people Shepard and his murderers associated with. They knew the participants firsthand—and these are the same witnesses that authorities relied on to get a conviction. For each of his more striking claims Jimenez has been careful to gather multiple sources, usually named. No alert reader can come away from the book still believing the approved story of a shy young man robbed of his life because of his assailants’ “fear of the other.” The myth that thrilled the progressive heart for 15 years cannot survive Jimenez’s accumulation of evidence. 

So the note of triumphalism among conservative reviewers, while tasteless, is understandable. Conservatives, after all, often think rather highly of their country, particularly that part of it squeezed between the Boston-Washington megalopolis and the San Diego–Seattle corridor. We are not so susceptible to the sour view that held Shepard’s murder to be exemplary of American life, and we are annoyed at the ease with which others can assume it was. 

It’s hard to overstate how deeply embedded the Shepard murder is in the progressive understanding of contemporary America. No fewer than four TV movies have been made about the case, each more mawkish than the last. Tourists, both worshipful and ghoulish, still arrive in Laramie, hoping to see the fence. (It was removed long ago.) There is a thick catalogue of Shepard books—dramatizations, poetry collections, art anthologies, self-help manuals, memoirs, sociological studies, and political manifestoes. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, begun by Shepard’s mother and still employing her and her surviving son, sells T-shirts, hoodies, wristbands, books, acrylic tumblers, even sunglasses with a Shepard theme. (“Erase Hate This Holiday Season,” says one come-on.) Mrs. Shepard herself gives more than 50 speeches a year, turning a grief that has no dimension into an endless tour promoting same-sex marriage, anti-bullying legislation, and other causes whose relation to the murder, even in its approved version, is hard to figure. Each year the foundation auctions off specially designed and dressed teddy bears, signed by celebrities ranging from Barry Manilow to Lady Gaga. 

The most successful retailer of the Shepard myth is a long-running play called The Laramie Project. It was assembled from transcripts of interviews with Laramie’s townsfolk in the aftermath of the murder. It has been staged more than 2,000 times since it debuted in 2000. For several years it ranked among the top 10 plays got up by U.S. high school drama departments—a kind of Our Town for the new America of the 21st century. Like Our Town it requires no scenery beyond a table and a few chairs and no costumes beyond street clothes. What it does require is a school principal willing to tolerate its many F-bombs, its distasteful subject matter, and its unblinking depiction of middle-class American life as essentially psychotic. But of course we have plenty of those.

It is no accident, as an earlier generation of progressives used to say, that the publication of Jimenez’s book in October coincided with a monthlong staging of The Laramie Project at Ford’s Theatre in the nation’s capital—both play and book were timed to exploit the fifteenth anniversary of the murder. Ford’s, of course, is preserved by the National Park Service as the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Each week the theater bused in local middle and high school students to watch while the seemingly “healthy” town of Laramie disintegrated on the stage. Study guides were distributed for classroom discussion of homophobia, “Fear of the Other,” the culture of violence .  .  . all the “issues” that Shepard’s murder is said to have raised. 

The play is very long. It was written by a veteran of off-off-Broadway called Moisés Kaufman, who explained his playwriting method this way, the old fox: “We used a technique I developed called moment work. It is a method to create and analyze theater from a structuralist (or tectonic) perspective. For that reason, there are no scenes in this play, only moments.” 

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