Matthew Shepard was a typical American young man. He grew up in a small Wyoming town as the oldest son in a loving family. He had his share of teen angst and problems, but he rarely got into trouble. This sensitive boy grew into a kind, caring young man who was always ready to lend a helping hand and was eager to make new friends. The only thing that made him different was being gay.
On the evening of October 6, 1998, Matthew was kidnapped, robbed and brutally beaten by two men he met at a local bar. Six days later, he died of his injuries, never having regained consciousness. Matthew's murder rocked the nation and the world, as people started to become more aware of hate crimes motivated by a person's sexual orientation. The Meaning of Matthew is the story of Matthew Shepard's life and death as told by his mother, Judy Shepard, who has since become an advocate for LGBT rights. She chronicles not only the events themselves, but how Matthew's death changed both his family's lives and the lives of strangers around the world.
The Meaning of Matthew is the story of the life and heart-breaking, violent death of Matthew Shepard in October of 1998 as told by his mother Judy Shepard. Matthew's story caused a firestorm of media attention because he was gay and his murder was deemed a hate crime against his sexual orientation. In large part, it was Matthew's death that began to bring greater attention to the LGBT community and the prejudices they face.
As I read this book, I was struck by how incredibly normal the Shepard family were. They were, and in many ways still are, a typical American family. They worked and raised children, celebrated special occasions and took family vacations. There was nothing about them which would have predicted what happened to them. But then, it usually is the most ordinary of people who find themselves in the midst of extraordinary circumstances that not only change their lives, but also the lives of others by shedding light into darkness.
Matthew sounds like he was a really lovely young man, a kind, caring, empathetic person who was always willing to lend a hand or befriend someone in need. He is remembered as being friendly, and someone who his peers were comfortable talking to, especially when they had problems. Matthew wasn't perfect though. He had his share of teen angst and troubles. I think that things really started to go downhill for him when he was attacked and gang raped in the streets of Morocco during a trip there with some classmates. He never really fully recovered from that incident, and afterwards, had a lot of emotional issues including PTSD and severe depression. He also started drinking heavily and wasn't taking his medications as prescribed. I can only imagine the terror he must have felt when his murderers abducted him. It would be incredibly frightening under any circumstances, but must have been doubly so because of what he'd been through before.
As a mom, I really sensed and understood Judy's frustration at not being able to help Matt get out of the destructive behavior he was in. I think there's a very fine line between helping a person help themselves and doing everything for them which is unhealthy. It appears that she and her husband did their best to help Matt, but he just wasn't ready, or able, to do what needed to be done to get better at that time. I felt very deeply for Matt. I get the feeling that he was probably trying to mask the pain of the rape and a certain degree of confusion about his sexual orientation by abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. It's so very sad that some people are never quite able to get out of that kind of destructive cycle. It's sadder still to know that at the time of his death, Matthew seemed to be trying to turn over a new leaf, but his efforts were snuffed out prematurely.
I can't even imagine how difficult it must have been for Judy and Dennis when Matthew passed away. It's hard enough to loose a child, but to have to go through that kind of pain under the intense glare of a media frenzy must have been excruciating. On top of that, they had to deal with Fred Phelp's "church" coming to protest at the memorial service, which caused the need for bomb sniffing dogs, a SWAT team, and Dennis having to wear a bullet-proof vest to a press conference. It all must have felt extremely surreal, like they'd just walked into the middle of complete chaos, when all they really wanted to do was just say goodbye to their son. Thankfully, Matt's murderers were arrested pretty quickly, but then the Shepard family had to deal with their trials. During one of the proceedings, the defense attorney essentially tried to paint Matt as the guilty party merely because of his sexual orientation or because he may have possibly hit on one of the men. If I were Judy, I probably would have been a basket case, but she somehow managed to handle everything with grace and dignity.
I really admire Judy's ability to write a book that was very fair and balanced. She never tried to paint her son as a perfect angel, and in doing so, she presented a portrait of a young man who was very real and human for all his faults and foibles. She also could have easily used this book as a platform to rail against the unfairness of it all. I have no doubt that she asked, "Why my son?" many times, but here she simply presented the story as it unfolded. She also could have ripped into a number of different people for various reasons, but she always chose to take the high road and look at things in a more positive light instead. Even though Judy stuck to the facts and tried to keep her emotions in check, I still couldn't help tearing up several times while reading this book.
I would highly recommend The Meaning of Matthew to anyone who is interested in learning more about LGBT issues and hate crimes. I also think it would be a good book for teaching teens to be more understanding to their LGBT peers. Other than the sensitive nature of the story itself, there is nothing in the book which would be objectionable for a mature YA audience. It can often be difficult to see the good in bad things, but this is one case where I think a lot of good has come from tragic circumstances. I think that Matthew's death, as unfair and horrible as it was, helped to open the lines of communication and opened doors for many in the LGBT community. I wholeheartedly believe that Matthew would be proud to know that his life, and death, have had such a positive impact in the world, because that's just the kind of person he was.
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