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Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Piece of Rope

I've been thinking a lot recently about what we learn in the Epilogue from Henderson and McKinney about Matt's murder.  I saw some interesting things come out of those two interviews, such as McKinney's sociopathic lack of sympathy and the way Henderson believes he's eternally helpless over his own fate.  Tonight I guess that I'm interested in something else entirely: in the Epilogue, Henderson and McKinney's stories about who tied up Shepard to the buck fence simply don't line up.  This isn't entirely surprising; it would make at least the second time that McKinney has changed his story about that night.  It's easy enough to just assume that they're both lying, but what if one or both of them are sincere?   If we picture that scene eleven years ago, who was holding the end of that piece of rope? 

Getting into the vagaries of personal memory usually makes me want to beat my head against a wall because the more I read into the psychological and philosophical perspectives on memory, the murkier it gets.  Right now, I tend to side with St. Augustine; in his view, all of our experience, past and future, only exist on the "knife's edge" of the present.   Since the past can never exist except as a memory in the present, we can only access them in the present-- by reaching through our current perspective and experiences to grasp at the point in the past.  The past becomes, in a sense, eternally colored by all the things which proceeded from that point and our current, present experience.  When it comes to memory, you really can never go home again; just as our present eternally changes, so does our perception of the past along with it.

But what can this tell us about the extent of Henderson's culpability in Matt's murder?  Probably nothing factual; but we might, however, tease something out about the narratives McKinney and Henderson have told themselves over the last ten years since their convictions.  This single piece of rope, stretched through ten years of retrospect-- tied by whom, and in what manner-- can tell us a lot about the nature of our memories, and perhaps how McKinney and Henderson try to understand their own histories as well.

Just to give you some background, when I teach my course on literary memory, the first thing I usually have to do is smash a lot of preconceived notions about how memory works.   In a cognitive sense, memory doesn't work anything like a camcorder or Plato's wax tablet.  Rather, it works a little more like oral history.  The things that get recorded and then get reworked and recalled later, depend highly upon contingencies like person's emotional state, the circumstances of their recording the memory, and the narrative context.  For instance, in a study of crime eyewitnesses, it was found that what eyewitness thought was supposed to happen in a robbery could have a profound impact on what they actually did recall.  These narrative "schemas" which we use to organize information into coherent narratives and give them meaning can also color or distort our recollection of objective reality.  (There are some great examples in TLP, but I'll refrain from going into that here.) 

But the situation in which someone recalls a story or a piece of information might have a profound effect on how the story is remembered.  This is an exercise I have my students try in class: I tell them to take a vivid personal memory and tell it to three different audiences.  What they find is that the circumstances, details, and plot of that narrative will change drastically depending on the relationship between the teller and her audience.  I've tried this with medium, too: usually their oral stories are completely different from their written ones.  This relationship between storyteller and audience also applies to the relationship between interviewer and interviewee-- and this is what can make ethnographic research so tricky sometimes.  The position in which you place yourself in relationship to your interviewees can profoundly change the things that they recall-- or what they are willing to tell you.**   These are the little mysteries of memory I love to tease out with my class when we study it.

But let's now go back to our original question: who tied up Matt Shepard to the fence before he was beaten to death?  In Henderson's interview in Ten Years Later, he claims that he was the one who tied Shepard to the fence, albeit very loosely.  It's fairly clear that he sees himself implicated somehow in Matt's murder even though he didn't wield the murder weapon.  When we get to McKinney's interview, however, he claims responsibility for tying Matt to the buck fence and claims that Henderson was hiding behind the truck or something.  The interviewer for this scene (Stephen Belber, I think?)  actually points out this discrepancy to McKinney, who insists that he tied Matt to the buck fence.  So, who's telling the truth?  Perhaps they both sincerely believe they're telling the truth:  in that case, who is right?

We now have two conflicting stories about that night.  Let's add in a third.  In the original Laramie Project, Reggie Fluty tells us this:
"He was tied extremely tight-- so I used my boot knife and tried to slip it between the rope and his wrist-- I had to be extremely careful not to harm Matthew any further."  (37)
I tend to trust Reggie, and her memory is that Matt was tied up very tightly to the fence.  Although this would seem to corroborate McKinney's story at first blush, maybe it doesn't-- maybe Henderson just doesn't want to admit that he was involved in the killing more than just as a horrified onlooker, so he remembers trying to be compassionate by tying him loosely.  So, Fluty's testimony might give us the factual truth, but it cannot help us to choose between McKinney or Henderson's version of the events. Things get more mystifying if we look at what we have of McKinney's confession in the play:
ROB DEBREE:  So Russ kinda dragged him over to the fence, I'm assuming, and tied him up?
AARON MCKINNEY:  Something like that.  I just remember Russ was laughing at first but then he got pretty scared.
ROB DEBREE:  Was Matthew conscious when Russ tied him up?
AARON MCKINNEY:  Yeah.  I told him to turn around and don't look at my license plate number 'cause I was scared he would tell the police.  And then I asked him what my license plate said.  He read it and that's why I hit him a few more times.
ROB DEBREE:  Just to be sure?...  (92)
This is version number four.  Does this help us any more than the previous testimony?  Here it sounds pretty damning to Henderson-- he "dragged" Shepard and tied him up.  The problem is that this is entirely at DeBree's suggestion.  McKinney just affirms that it was "something like that."  Depending on his motivation, we might need to doubt McKinney's confession here-- maybe he was trying to shift part of the blame on Henderson before, but now he wants to protect him and so denies that he had any involvement.

And what about that awful 20/20 interview?  What the heck-- let's give these muddy waters one more stir.  I have a copy of the transcript, and here's what Russell Henderson says:  
AARON MCKINNEY:  The fence stopped us. And I decided it would be an even better idea to go ahead and tie him up while I was at it.
RUSSELL HENDERSON:  And so I went and got the rope out of the back of the -backseat of the truck.
ELIZABETH VARGAS:  (Off Camera) And who tied him to the fence?
ELIZABETH VARGAS:  (Off Camera) Did you ever once try to stop Aaron from hitting Matthew?
RUSSELL HENDERSON:  Yeah, I did. I told him I think he had enough. Didn't do any good, 'cause it didn't help Matthew any.
Personally, now that I see all these stories, it seems to me that we can infer that both McKinney and Henderson are wandering away from the factual truth somewhere; we just don't know where.   The most reasonable narrative that I can tease out is that Henderson was in fact involved-- involved enough to bind Shepard tightly to the fence before McKinney gave the fatal blows.  Henderson, however, claims that he bound loosely, and yet Reggie Fluty remembers having to cut the knots with her boot knife.  McKinney claims that he tied Matt up at the fence, and yet his and Henderson's own confessions suggest otherwise.  If we assume this narrative to be "the truth," or whatever we can see of it, then Henderson feels a need to mitigate his role in Shepard's murder by showing some gesture of compassion for Matt, and McKinney protectively tries to take all the guilt on his own shoulders in a misguided but possibly genuine act of friendship.

For the sake of argument, however, let's now assume that the opposite is the case: let's assume that McKinney's telling the truth in the Epilogue, and he really did tie Matt up-- tightly-- at the buck fence.  We have a different scenario now with different motivations.  McKinney is still trying to own up to his role in the murder now in an attempt to protect Henderson, but now-- why would Henderson implicate himself?  If he didn't in fact tie Matt up, then maybe this memory is a way to implicate himself in the murder he didn't commit personally but still is guilty of.  That memory of tying Matt to the fence is thus proof of his own underlying guilt for the murder he couldn't stop then and can't expiate now.

The interesting thing about these scenarios is that none of them require McKinney and Henderson to actually be lying; maybe they've just convinced themselves that these stories are the truth.**  (Although off the record, I don't trust McKinney any farther than I can throw him.  Perhaps he really is trying to cover for his friend.)  Narratives tend to morph to meet our personal exigencies, that is, we tend to speak to our lives in a particular moment, and these two men have probably rehashed this story in their heads hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in the last ten years.   How might the narrative that has defined the rest of their lives changed now, ten years after the event?   We might never be able to get at a clear explanation for what happened that night; in a very real sense, all we can do is look at these narratives, how they have changed over time, and speculate.


1) adapted from "Truth," from jasoneppink's Flickr Photostream:

*A good source for this is:  Kurt W. Back (1994), "Accuracy, Truth and Meaning in Autobiographical Reporting," in Autobiographical Memory and the Validity of Retrospective Reports, New York: Springer-Verlag, p. 39-53. 

**There is a good analogue to this in the literature: John Dean's testimony in the impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon.  Neisser, 1981 compares Dean's testimony to the actual Nixon audio tapes made of their conversations and finds that Dean is almost never correct about details.  The suggestion is that he's rehearsed these conversations so many times that he's convinced himself of a narrative that never took place.  

Back, Kurt W. (1994), "Accuracy, Truth and Meaning in Autobiographical Reporting." Autobiographical Memory and the Validity of Retrospective Reports.  New York: Springer-Verlag.  39-53.  

Neisser, Ulric (1981).  "John Dean's memory: a case study."  Cognition 9(1): 1-22. 

Vargas, Elizabeth, host.  "New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder."   ABC News 20/20.  20 Nov. 2004.  Video.  [Online report linked here.]

1 comment:

  1. Hello! I have been devouring your blog for the last few months as I've prepared to produce & direct TLP. I also played the track with includes the Reggie Fluty character, and I ran into some of the same questions about the rope. After a bunch of research, I came up with a theory that seems to work and corroborate all of the stories.

    In TLP: 10 Years Later it's discussed that Henderson said that Matthew tried to get away when they were out at the fence. I'm wondering if Russell did indeed tie Matthew to the fence initially, very loosely, which enabled him to break free, AND THEN McKinney tied him to the fence much more tightly...?