Recipient of the 2014 Stonewall Book Award-Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award
"Utilizing an empathetic narrative nonfiction approach, novelist McConnell, co-chair of the Lambda Literary Foundation, casts a humanizing eye upon monstrous deeds...a journalistic tour de force made all the more impressive by jailhouse interviews...McConnell's unquestionable skill as a writer gives both literary helot and immediacy to the narratives."
"McConnell convincingly shows how fluid terms like 'gay' and 'straight' can actually be...The author's case studies reflect an intensive investigation into the economic and cultural backgrounds of a wide variety of extremist cultures, research that involved interviews with law enforcement officials, families of victims and the convicted criminals themselves. A shocking look at the subculture of violent crime, not for the fainthearted."
"A masterpiece of reportage...Homophobia is not accepted as a mitigating circumstance in murder, but there is no doubt that men are still murdered for being gay. From Jon Schmitz ('The Jenny Jones Killer') to John Katehis (the teenage hustler who murdered radio personality George Weber), novelist McConnell...has compiled a number of these cases and looks into the culture of masculinity for clues to the dynamics behind these killings...with no clear answers, but some very intriguing questions, these vignettes of masculine pride and rage will appeal to those interested in gender politics and gay studies as well as true crime fans."
"A dark and disturbing portrait of the hate crime murderers of gay men as men who are also gay....The glimpse into small town America that American Honor Killings presents is a strong rationale for gay positive role models, including ally groups and self-esteem activities in the educational systemand the sooner the better."
" American Honor Killings is a strong addition to any criminology or true crime collection with a side focus on gay issues, very much recommended."
Midwest Book Review
"A superbly written and engaging entrée into a cultish world."
Gay & Lesbian Review
In American Honor Killings , straight and gay guys cross paths, and the result is murder. But what really happened? What role did hatred play? What about bullying and abuse? What were the men involved really like, and what was going on between them when the murder occurred? American Honor Killings explores the truth behind squeamish reporting and uninformed political rants of the far right or fringe left. David McConnell, a New York-based novelist, researched cases from small-town Alabama to San Quentin's death row. The book recounts some of the most notorious crimes of our era. Beginning in 1999 and lasting until last year's conviction of a youth in Queens, New York, the book shows how some murderers think they're cleaning up society. Surprisingly, other killings feel almost preordained, not a matter of the victim's personality or actions so much as a twisted display of a young man's will to compete or dominate. We want to think these stories involve simple sexual conflict, either the killer's internal struggle over his own identity or a fatally miscalculated proposition. They're almost never that simple.
Together, the cases form a secret American history of rage and desire. McConnell cuts through cant and political special pleading to turn these cases into enduring literature. In each story, victims, murderers, friends, and relatives come breathtakingly alive. The result is more soulful, more sensitive, more artful than the sort of "true crime" writing the book was modeled on. A wealth of new detail has been woven into old cases, while new cases are plumbed for the first time. The resulting stories play out exactly as they happened, an inexorable sequence of eventsgrisly, touching, disturbing, sometimes even with moments of levity.
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About the Author
David McConnell is the author of the acclaimed novel, The Silver Hearted, 2010. His short fiction and journalism have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including The Literary Review (UK), Granta and Prospect Magazine (UK). His novel The Firebrat came out in 2003. He’s the former co-chair of the Lambda Literary Foundation. McConnell lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
INTRODUCTION: SPECIES AND REALITY
As a child I could hardly master my terror of a particular encyclopedia page, a tipped-in color plate illustrating species of bees and wasps. I knew exactly where the page came in the book, and as I neared it, my eyes squinted half-shut and my leafing hand moved more and more slowly. The page — this was a very old encyclopedia — was covered by yellowed glassine paper, but that only made the images, which showed through dully, more horrifying. Pictures and reality didn't feel safely different enough to me. A fear that intense is also fascination, so I kept going back to the book pretending that I wasn't deliberately risking my fingertips with those monstrous insects.
Working on this book has involved a similar fascination and aversion. There's lurid and uncomfortable content, yet I've felt compelled to learn and tell as much as possible. I'd like to think I've been as precise and informative as a natural history illustrator, though my subject isn't as well defined as bees. It's men and their anxiety and violence.
As I researched and wrote, it dawned on me that you can't talk about violence among men honestly without also talking about sex. The fact is, all relationships between men — friendship, rivalry ... murder — are casually characterized by sexual metaphors. Everybody's familiar with the sexual nature of male vulgarities, trash talk, locker room boasting. We see the obvious link to competition, violence, and aggression, but we don't want to think deeply about what the sexual words actually mean.
A man I know from a rough masculine milieu happened to invite a gay friend to dinner with his buddies. Afterward, he commented to his friend in wonder, "I had no idea we talked so much about gay stuff." Only self-consciousness about the presence of a gay friend had made it apparent to him.
I had a similar epiphany while writing this book. By picking situations where straight and gay men came together and the result was conflict and murder, I realized I'd hit on a "trick" to observe a mostly unspoken truth about violence and men. The metaphorical and the real neatly aligned.
I worry a little about aversion on the part of some readers, and not just to the difficult subject matter. I've written a story about men. Around half of them, most of the victims, are gay. Many people still find it hard to accept that gay men are part of the story of masculinity, but they are, and understanding what goes on in this book demands an integrated view of men. There are different — many — kinds of men, but none belongs to a separate species.
That said, the modern gay demimonde looms large in a few places, so this particular story of men could only have taken place in America or in another developed Western country. But once again, as I worked I felt the story burgeon under my typing fingers with almost chemical energy and I understood that the fundamental subject is ancient. This isn't a discussion of one decade's or even one century's mores.
To cover as many aspects of the story as I could, I've taken a handful of American murders and retold them in narrative form. The telling is simple. Interpretation is kept to a minimum. The language is frank and sometimes offensive. The stories are all more or less recent, but together they make for a little study of things unspoken until now. I've deliberately looked at different parts of the country and different subcultures. The actual sexuality of the players is surprisingly various, and the motive for murder is different in every case. Picking stories that were all alike could have turned into a political or forensic exercise. I wanted to conjure reality. My approach was literary, not academic.
I haven't treated straight men with quite the respectful delicacy they may not even realize they still expect. A common American image of men as rough, clumsy buffoons is probably the product of the powerless fondly teasing the powerful. Another — men as terrifying brutes — may come from the powerless raging against the powerful. But straight men, who really are socially powerful, have been accustomed to a veil of discretion when it comes to the truth about their private selves, their weaknesses, anatomy, fears, silliness. Beneath the cartoon images of men, a profound discretion is still largely intact. In some cultures, image alone — an exaggerated, feline dignity — defines masculinity itself. Because masculine notions of honor and privacy and dignity play such a huge role in the story I tell, I had to be careful I didn't subscribe to those notions myself. You can't leave it as an unexamined truth that men are a certain way if you're trying to write about how they really are.
As cold-eyed as I've been about the sensitivities of straight men, I've been just as cool to the myth-making of gay activists. The gay people in this book, unlike those in a politically aware Hollywood movie, don't instructively embody the exact opposite of every gay stereotype. One or two appear to have tawdry or uncomfortably stereotypical lives that would make sophisticated straight guys blanch, not at the homosexuality — who cares? — but at the cliché!
"Hate crimes" and "gay panic defense" are terms used by activists and lawyers. They weren't what interested me, though they were my jumping-off point. (After all, these were situations where vastly different sorts of men came together.) I wanted to write something humane but politically indifferent. I settled on the exotic-sounding words "honor killings" in the book title because, incredibly, that's what these crimes resemble. America isn't organized by clan or tribe or even family. It's a nation of individuals and groups based on culture or identity. The seat of honor for men is personal, religious, racial. And among the worst affronts to that honor today are gay sexuality, "immodesty," and "decadence." These killers weren't outraged because someone made a pass at them. They saw, or needed to see, themselves as believers, soldiers, avengers, purifiers, as exemplars of manhood.
What emerged as the prime mover of violence in these cases was a shadowy and explosive tension I invariably observed in the minds of young men, something I'd experienced myself. It begins, I suppose, as self-consciousness about one's own masculinity. It can involve a fear of being unmanly, or a fear of being seen to be unmanly. It can be a fear of being or being seen to be gay. It can be the weight of religious or cultural beliefs about behavior hammered into you or the simple, spooky realization that without those beliefs or social inhibitions nothing really prevents you from being, for example, a coward or having sex with another man. The tension can even be a rage at feeling self-conscious about these things at all. Sometimes tension devolves into an ecstatic contempt for social pollution or for what young men, hungry to take their place in the world, see as social pollution — an assault on the traditions they've just learned (the forensic psychologist Karen Franklin has pointed this out). It can be an intoxicated hatred for and need to separate oneself from a weak or inferior class of people. Anyone can experience this miasma of thought. It's familiar to some women and to many gay people. But straight or gay, it's the special province of young men, especially when violence comes into it.
Yet I don't want to insist on ignoring gay and straight. A look at the short history of the scorned "gay panic defense" gives background to the story. Claiming gay panic is the legal strategy used to describe the kind of violence I had in mind when I started my work, the kind that occurs when different types of men come into conflict. The story goes like this: A pervert hits on a nice American boy who reacts with shock and outrage. Understandably, things get violent, and the pervert winds up dead.
The popular idea that only repressed homosexuals can really feel gay panic is false. But that was the original idea. The term "homosexual panic" is usually traced to a 1920 article in the journal Psychopathology. The author, Edward J. Kempf, was writing about soldiers he'd treated who experienced a paralyzing conflict between homosexual desire and heterosexual expectations. But the Kempf cases don't have much to do with the legal invention "gay panic defense," which is recent.
Though it's likely defense lawyers engaged in ugly hinting to juries long before then, the first explicit "gay panic defense" occurred during People v. Rodriguez in California in 1967, not coincidentally just at the media dawn of "gay liberation." Rodriguez was running wild with friends, one of whom had just snatched a purse. When an older man came into an alley to see what was up, Rodriguez threatened and beat him with a branch. The man died. Belatedly, Rodriguez claimed he'd been urinating. The man, he said, came up behind him and started touching him or reached for his penis. The jury didn't believe it.
A handful of cases followed in the '70s (e.g., People v. Parisie in 1972, State v. Thornton in 1975, Commonwealth v. Shelley in 1978). But the "gay panic defense" only entered popular consciousness with the so-called "Jenny Jones" murder in 1995 and with a cluster of cases in 1998–99, including the most notorious of all, the murder of Matthew Shepard (though in the Shepard trial the judge refused to allow a gay panic–like argument).
Looked at legally, there's a very narrow historical window for a crime of exactly this type. Gay panic couldn't exist before "gay" was perceived as a separate condition, a shift in outlook historians often locate in the late nineteenth century (though that's extremely contentious). Since then, a young man could — in theory — panic because he was taken for "homosexual" rather than because he feared seduction or rape or insult. But the historical window seems to be closing fast. Gay panic crimes can't occur except when being gay is perceived as so horrible that it induces understandable panic. Judges and juries are increasingly unlikely to understand the reaction themselves or to tolerate it in others.
If the legal "gay panic defense" has an expiration date that's passed or approaching, at least in the United States, the experience it purports to describe may be dying out, as well. Gay isn't quite the big deal it used to be. We don't nod in comprehension when anger is a young man's automatic response to another man's desire. At least the more sophisticated among us don't. But, again, this isn't one decade's story. The deeper subject of the book wells up. If I struck "gay" from this book, or miraculously made "gay" a social and cultural nonissue with a wave of my hand, almost nothing I've written would change. I've written about young men and pretense, pride, tension, fear, arrogance, ignorance, anger, foolishness.
In a sense the story begins with the end of gay panic. The murders in this book don't look much like that kind of crime. They're far more complicated, atavistic. Hence, "honor killings." They involve honor, manhood, desire. When used in the phrase "honor killings," honor obviously has a negative connotation. We're not talking about real honor. But remember, the nineteenth-century campaign against duelling also involved a conceptual attack on the meaning of honor. With the very modern imagery or reality of sex thrown in, these crimes are the remote cousins of duels.
Of the cases I studied, only one looked anything like an authentic instance of gay panic. That was the "Jenny Jones" case in 1995. Jonathan Schmitz, a troubled young man who'd already attempted suicide twice, was pestered by the attentions of a gay man, Scott Amedure. The "pestering" was the kind of thing considered cute in romantic comedies, but as women know, cute masculine movie behavior doesn't transfer well into real life. Amedure and a friend tricked Schmitz into appearing on the Jenny Jones Show. During the show Amedure revealed his secret crush on Schmitz. Though for a couple of days Schmitz tried to absorb what he felt was a huge public embarrassment, he eventually snapped. You could say he panicked. He killed Amedure with a shotgun and promptly called 911 and confessed.
Interest in the Jenny Jones case ran so high, so much was written about it, so many Court TV broadcasts devoted to it, that the story acquired a false air of familiarity. This is common with our headlong news media. Each new detail or development in a story is prefaced by a recap of what's already happened, which becomes ever briefer and more formulaic. When I looked at this story I did nothing more than assemble the details into a simple narrative for my own convenience. The result was completely unexpected.
In news accounts, the painful story was lost in moral grousing about trash TV. And, as always in these cases, the rumor started that Schmitz had to be gay himself. He wasn't. In fact, he'd made some effort to be relaxed about the gay issue with several gay friends and with Amedure himself, but his good looks and perhaps his palpable vulnerability made him an object of sexual fascination for both men and women. The issue for him was a deformed idea of personal honor. I've written Schmitz twice to ask for his opinion about my take on the case. He hasn't replied.
* * *
At the Chicago studios of the Jenny Jones Show, producer Karen Campbell and associate producer Ron Muccianti conducted preshow interviews on a Sunday morning. They were skilled at shepherding wide-eyed guests through the hectic routines of television.
Shortly after arriving, Jonathan Schmitz accepted a beer to take the edge off his nerves. As if no time had passed since the phone call months before inviting him to go on a show about "secret admirers" (apparently he had one), the young man again tried to get Karen to tell him what to expect. He said he didn't want it to be a guy. Karen later testified that she told him it could be a girl, a guy, or a dog. "I told him, It'll been fine, Jon. Relax. Have fun. Someone likes you."
Jon, as everyone called him, was pint-sized and cartoonishly handsome in his brand-new collarless shirt. Slightly prim, bee-stung lips set on a broad, Kennedyesque jaw cried out for caricature. His eyebrows were black-as-greasepaint circumflexes. The out-of-fashion way he feathered his dark hair couldn't undermine overall classic good looks. The eyes, best of all, were startlingly pale green. Like a movie star's.
Later, Jon's father Allyn pulled a heavy curtain across his son's childhood, saying only that he was a "normal kid" until he started having problems at eighteen. The problems were drinking, depression, anger. Because mental illness so often starts in adolescence, the problems may have been written, or at least outlined, in his genes. Jon's maternal grandmother was manic-depressive. In 1988, Jon had to be hospitalized for a week for depression. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He'd attempted suicide quite recently, after his girlfriend Kristen broke up with him.
Those working on the show had no idea how fragile Jon was. After speaking with him, Karen Campbell went to talk to the secret admirer himself, who was waiting in another room. Scott Amedure seemed wired, curious about everything. ("Is this a green room?") His face was flushed. After an easy chat (getting Scott to half-rehearse what he'd say on air without realizing it was rehearsal), Karen jotted down a note for Jenny Jones: Scott has an inkling that Jon is bisexual. Jon's going to die when he sees Scott! She folded the note and had someone take it to the star.
In yet another room, Scott's "gal pal" Donna Riley, who was going to appear on the show with him and who had originally introduced him to Jon back home in Michigan, was being interviewed by Ron Muccianti. An open bottle of Absolut vodka and tumblers were on the table. It was unclear whether the vodka was there to help guests relax or to loosen them up. No one said anything about it, Donna later remarked. It was just there.
Ron Muccianti reportedly asked her, "You had the feeling Jon was interested?"
"We think he's a little gay at least," Donna said.
When he appears on the clip I saw, Scott is grinning so hard his cheeks must have been sore. The audience hollers. He wears a dark vest. His thinning hair is slicked too flat on top. He's pale-skinned, seems prone to flush, and is near-enough blond that the mustache he's trying to grow has a juvenile transparency. His troublemaker's smile and trim, jittery good looks are the "bad boyfriend" kind some people adore. (A friend later recalled that Scott always got whatever guy he went after.)
He's a born performer. With show-offy bashfulness he seems delighted by the crowd's enthusiasm about his crush. Everybody roots for a lover. He describes his first meeting with Jon: "Saw this little body sticking out from under her car." Jon had offered to do some work on his neighbor Donna's car in the parking lot of the Manitou Lane Apartments where they both lived. After meeting Jon from the neck down, Scott's crush developed quickly in the succeeding days. He found a chance to leave a friendship bracelet for Jon at Donna's apartment. It was never picked up. Jon said he was straight, but Scott was undaunted. A flier Scott found in a gay bar (Same sex — secret crush?) inspired his Jenny Jones Show ploy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "American Honor Killings"
Copyright © 2013 David McConnell.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note 9
1 Introduction: Species and Reality 11
2 Matson, Mowder, and the Williams Brothers, 1999 30
I An Education 30
II The War 47
III Escape 68
3 Bad-Good, Not Good 89
4 Domer, Qualls, and Madden, 2007 93
I Nervous 93
II Wild 109
III Oklahoma 129
IV Los Angeles and Truth 145
5 A Pretty Mouth 156
6 Parrish, Rawlings, Hollis, and Flythe, 2008 176
7 Gangs and Loners 198
8 Weber and Katehis, 2009 202
I Boy, Man 202
II John's Version 215
III The DVD 217
IV Discrepancies 224
V The Trial 232
VI Time 243
9 Destruction 246
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