Last weekend I read Judy Shepard’s new memoir, The Meaning of Matthew. I figured I had two options: spread it out over several weeks, knowing that I would run the risk of prolonging the inevitable sadness it would bring. Or simply sit down and read the thing, which is what I did last Saturday. It has sort of devastated me ever since.
After following the story for so many years (reading about it, watching the television movie, studying HBO’s film version of The Laramie Project when I was at BU) and having the name Matthew Shepard become synonymous with the continuing struggle for fairness and equality for LGBT people in this country — specifically around the issue of hate/bias crimes legislation — I was finally able to read the one story that I’d always wanted to hear: his mother’s. Judy Shepard writes in the introduction to the book that this is her attempt to reconcile the symbol that “Matthew Shepard” became with the person “Matt,” who was her son who was beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998 because he was gay. It is a very important book.
The reason I read it now is because Judy and Dennis Shepard are receiving the first Edward M. Kennedy National Leadership Award in two weeks at the Human Rights Campaign’s national dinner in Washington, DC. I will be there that night, and while I certainly will not have the chance to meet Judy Shepard, I wanted to have read her book before then; in a silly sounding way, I feel like it’s a small thing I can do for her, as a silent tribute to her experience — as a mother, an activist, and a writer. She speaks often; I saw her as part of a panel several years ago at Harvard. But she does not tell her own story when she speaks. She tells the story of discrimination, fear, violence, and death instead. She tells the story of hope, of action, of justice and equality. But this book is something different. In its pages we finally get to hear about the phone call she received telling her that her son had been attacked. We read about the agonizing amount of time it took her to get to the hospital in Colorado — many days, as she and Dennis were coming from their home in Saudi Arabia. She writes about the first inkling she had that the story had become something bigger than Matt, as she was walking through the airport in Minneapolis to catch her connecting flight to Colorado. She saw, but did not read, several news stories about her son staring back at her from the news kiosks she passed in the terminal. And the bedside vigil that they held. The waiting. The praying. The saying goodbye. As someone whose own brother died after spending 5 days in a coma (following a car accident), I was interested in what Mrs. Shepard had to say about her other son, Matthew’s brother. Those were particularly difficult passages to read and yet, again, I was getting what I thought I wanted: her version of the story. Her take on things, minus all the media filtering, minus the camera lens, minus the distance.
And now she has told her own story about those events in October 1998 and the days and weeks that followed. At one point in the book she writes, “I hate October.” And yet, I feel so privileged to be able to see her and hear her speak during the very month that she hates so much, only two days before what will be the 11th anniversary of Matthew’s death. I can’t help but notice that the dates line up this year just as they did in 1998. It’s such a small thing, marking time like that, but it’s also something that can carry tremendous weight. I know that when I acknowledge the anniverary of my own brother’s death the lingering grief always seems a little more palpable in years when the timelines match; it’s almost like time is marked with an even more authentic cruelty.
That will be a busy weekend around here. The following day, Sunday the 11th, is the National Equality March. That Monday, the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, the Tectonic Theater Project is premiering its new play, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, an Epilogue. Debuting in theatres around the country, each performance will be linked to the Lincoln Center in New York City, where Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project will participate in a Q&A following the production. I reserved tickets today for the Washington DC performance at Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre.