Page 27


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Truth of the Matter BY DEBBIE NATHAN Trail of Feathers: Searching for Phil True. A Reporter’s Murder in Mexico and His Editor’s Search for Justice by Robert Rivard Public Affairs 400 pages, $27.50 In 1998 Phil True, a good-looking, hippie-ish foreign correspondent for the San Antonio Express -News, vanished while backpacking alone in the Sierra Madre Occidental north of Guadalajara. This is one of Mexico’s wildest, most isolated regions, and if it hadn’t been for Express -News editor Robert Rivard’s search after True went missing, evidence suggesting he’d been murdered might never have been found. True’s body was located after Rivard enlisted Mexican politicos and military forces to take him into the Sierra. There he personally helped dig True out of a shallow grave. With his own hands, he touched his reporter’s rotting corpse. Hours later, he was in the autopsy room when a coroner determined that the cause of death was homicide. Few would be able to walk away from such an experience, and Rivard vowed to find the culprits and bring them to justice. Starting just after the murder and continuing for years, he used his power as a Hearst Corp. newspaper editor to exert pressure. He pushed the Mexican government to send soldiers to flush out suspectswho turned out to be two members of the Huichols, a destitute, indigenous group native to the Sierra. They confessed to the crime, but no clear motive was ever established. When the accused Indians were acquitted, convicted, and acquitted again during various legal proceedings and appeals, Rivard continued to press for a guilty verdict. After five years the Huichols were convicted once and for all, though today they’re still at large, presumably in the mountains. Rivard is still offering reward money to nab them: money he’s advertised by dropping flyers from airplanes, and by distributing to destitute Huichol children basketballs emblazoned with the logo of the San Antonio Spurs. All this is recounted in Trail of Feathers, which takes its title from the goosedown that seeped from True’s ripped sleeping bag as the killers dragged his enshrouded body while searching for a burial place. Hanseland-Gretel-like, the feathers led Rivard to the site. The feather image has mythic appeal and Rivard provides a protagonist with a mythical, tragic flaw: True’s supposed compulsion to go into the wild by himself, even if doing so proved irredeemably dangerous. Where did this need come from? Three places, according to Feathers. One was True’s working-class background: When he was young, his father had operated a gas station. That upbringing gave him a yen for leaving the beaten track to report on underdogs including poor, marginalized Mexicans like the Huichols. More important was his longtime failure to settle down as a responsible adult. Until a few years before he died, at age 50, True had led an “unfulfilled” life, according to Rivard. He’d been a ’60s-era campus radical and later a union organizer and college degree-holder who chose wallpaper hanging over white-collar work. He’d attended Marxist study groups in the home of socialist-feminist Barbara Ehrenreich. He’d harbored a Marxist aversion to marriage. His wardrobe invariably consisted of blue jeans and huaraches. But by the time he hiked into the Sierra, True had become an ExpressNews reporter with a wife, and a baby was on the way. According to Rivard, his trip to the mountains was “the last solo trek in a lifelong journey to leave behind” his pre-newspaper past, “a final walk before embracing his future.” That future included monogamy, fatherhood, andRivard impliesa nose-to-thegrindstone loyalty to the paper that presumably would lead True to trade his Levis and sandals for Dockers and sensible shoes. Why had he waited so long to get with the program? More to the point, why had he left his five-months pregnant wife at home in Mexico City to venture into the hostile Sierra? And why by himself, with no one to watch his back? According to Rivard, these questions are answered by the third, and most salient, factor in True’s life: his rotten childhood. Feathers’ entire first section consists of extraordinarily sleazy dirt that Rivard unearthed about True’s family posthumously. His father was a closet bisexual who photographed himself fooling around with men and who molested Philip’s younger sister. The elder True was eventually kicked out of the house; Mrs. True divorced him, then remarried and divorced a string of losers. Years later, we are informed, Philip went to therapy and recovered “memories” \(whose truth he apparently didn’t question, and neither molested: by his mother. That’s why Philip True marched against the war in Vietnam, knocked around the hemisphere on a bicycle, backpacked in the wilderness, hung around Central America in solidarity with revolutionaries during the 1980s, and otherwise rejected the usual trappings of corporate, yuppie U.S. life. \(Never mind that millions of young people his age all over the world did Furthermore, explains Rivard, it was psychological damage that kept True so long from journalism. His first mainstream reporting job didn’t come until his early forties, when he got hired at the border-rat Brownsville Herald. Later, after moving to the more prestigious Express -News, he was skeptical of “anyone in power, in government, and even 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 13, 2006