This isn’t much of a review. I’ve been trying to put together a review of both books ever since I read them earlier this year, but just really don’t want to critique the stories or styles or messages in either The Meaning of Matthew or The Laramie Project.
The Meaning of Matthew is Judy Shepard’s biography of her son and her account of the trial of her son’s murderers. She’s not a writer but she does tell her story in earnest and without canonizing her son. He was a flawed young man with problems that he was working to overcome. His mother is very candid about this. As much as the book is about Matthew and his death, however, it is also about the public response and the family’s engagement with the family. The overwhelming public support that the Shepards received led them to set up a charity in their son’s name, which is still going.
I expected that at least some part of the book might be bitter; it was not. On the contrary, I found it to carry a different message altogether: Instead of accusing society of its failings to protect her son, the message the book seemed to carry was one of amazement of how people of different faiths, different backgrounds, different views, could rally together in a crisis, and one of hope that society as a whole will grow from that crisis.
The Laramie Project is a play based on interview’s that the theatre group conducted in Laramie in the wake of the murder. The interviews captured the shock of the community and the disbelief that such a senseless act of violence could have happened in that community.
Much like The Story of Matthew, The Laramie Project also focuses on the humanity and kindness that came to the fore in the aftermath of the murder. My favourite scene – which is also features in Judy Shepard’s memoir – is how a group of students made up angel costumes and formed a chain around a group of Westboro Baptist Church protestors to block them from shouting abuse at the family at the funeral.
What led me to picking up these two books is that I have my own memories of the media coverage and discussions about the murder. When Matthew Shepard died on 12th October 1998, I was a teenager, away from home for the first time on my own for a long period of time. I had accepted a placement as a foreign exchange student in a small town in West Texas. What I remember mostly about the actual event, is that a lot of people I went to school with – only a three years younger than Matthew – were full of homophobic nonsense and full of conviction that their view of the world was the only one that was valid. It was scary.
So, I was both surprised and grateful that both books chose to not focus on the fears and prejudices in people they, I am sure, must have encountered in connection with the events, and instead chose to create a memory to people who found a way to share their humanity.