Before Judy Shepard arrived at her son's side in a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital, every national newspaper had already broadcast her private tragedy to the world: Gay Man Beaten and Left for Dead; Two Are Charged.
Matthew Shepard was 21 years old, the victim of an especially violent hate crime. On Oct. 6-7, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, of Laramie, Wyo., lured Shepard from a college tavern, robbed him, beat him unconscious and left him for dead in the elements, tied to a split-rail fence on the outskirts of a Wal-Mart parking lot. Shepard died in the hospital five days later. He never regained consciousness.
More than a decade later, Judy Shepard, still doggedly advocating for a national hate crimes act in her son's name, has revisited this world of hurt to produce a memoir of remarkable clarity and restraint.
"He was my friend, my confidant, my constant reminder of how good life can be," she writes, "and ultimately how hurtful." Ironically, the more tenderly Shepard asserts the singular nature of her relationship with her son - "the normal bond between mother and child was for some reason stronger between us" - the more universal the example of their connection becomes.
Shepard begins her book with a glimpse into the all-American family before disaster struck. She and husband, Dennis, had met at a fraternity party and fallen in love. They were good country folk; her father the small-town postmaster in the same office as her mother, his father a veteran of World War II. Their boys, Matthew and Logan, learned to hunt, fish, camp and ride horses alongside their grandfather in the summertime. Matthew excelled at theater, showed moments of incredible empathy as a big brother and grew into his mercurial teenage phase with clockwork precision.
Privy to such an intimate portrait of a loving, imperfect, everyday family, readers may be shattered when Shepard then proceeds - methodically, specifically - to trace the slide toward Matthew's anguished death.
As Detectives Rob DeBree and Jeff Bury piece together the order of events, Judy Shepard is learning details no mother should possess about her son: that a hard strike of a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum pistol butt crushed his skull, that he was discovered slumped on the ground and caked in blood except for the tear streaks down his face, that he screamed for mercy.
Shepard presents McKinney and Henderson even-handedly, recounting details of their broken families, their rap sheets, drug abuse and grisly particulars of the other crimes they had committed that night. Excerpts of her court statements measure out both rage and compassion. Her husband read, "I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process, to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy."
As plainspoken and unassuming as this memoir is, the scenes from the life interrupted are indelible: both parents watching on a hallway monitor as their son Logan weeps over the unresponsive body of his brother; their being shuttled through the courthouse parking garage only to come face to face - in a sudden, chilling instant - with McKinney; sorting through tens of thousands of letters or standing before throngs of journalists and sympathizers to try to articulate how all this makes them feel.
Shepard is at her best when she lets her guard down and speaks frankly, as a mother and an activist with a wincingly simple message: "Go home, give your kids a hug, and don't let a day go by without telling them that you love them."
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The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed
By Judy Shepard
Hudson Street Press, 273 pages, $25.95