The Meaning of Matthew: Judy Shepard on Her New Memoir, Her Son's Lasting Legacy, and Moving Forward While Looking Back

What is the meaning of Matthew? At a time when the gay community is struggling to secure the right to marry, Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming student who died after being violently beaten because he was gay, may seem like an emblem from days long past. And though Shepard's death was seen as a turning point─a point when the majority of Americans decided that no one should be targeted because of whom they chose to love─the truth is, Shepard was not the last gay American to die from a hate-motivated attack.

It's been a little more than 10 years since Shepard died at age 21. Those 10 years have seen an increased visibility of gay Americans and increased acceptance of gays and lesbians by mainstream society, but the struggle still continues: both for equal civil rights, fought in courtrooms and legislative halls across the country, and basic human rights, fought every day with dignity by gay men and women everywhere.

In her moving new memoir, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed (Hudson River Press), Judy Shepard writes about her family: first the joy and frustration of parenting a complicated teenager, then the horror and resolve when that child is the victim of an unspeakable crime, and how it felt to watch her dying son become a symbol for the entire nation. The book is beautiful: heartbreaking, honest, and written with a lovely open voice that makes the familiar story of the Shepard family's loss all the more devastating. (Read an excerpt from the memoir on Newsweek.com.)

Judy Shepard, who is now the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, spoke to NEWSWEEK about her decision to offer more personal details about her family, why she wanted to revisit the past, and how she hopes to move forward while working to honor her late son. Excerpts:

Why did you decided to write this book now?
For a long time I had wanted to publish a book of letters that were sent to [my husband] Dennis and I while Matt was in the hospital, and then soon after he died. There were beautifully written notes and letters from all walks of life. I acquired a book agent who thought it would be good to start with my story, or our story, and then do the book of letters.

Was writing the book a collaboration with the whole family?
It was. I had to send Dennis memories and say, do you remember any more about this, or is this even right? Because people tend to forget and sometimes change what they remember.

Was the process it therapeutic, or just difficult?

It was really hard. I found myself remembering even more things as we started to unlock doors, and so did Dennis and so did [son] Logan. I said to Dennis, there may be a time I never really can finish this book. We just might remember forever and I might never be happy with it. Finally it just became, we've got to let it go and be what it's going to be.

Therapeutic? I think maybe it was. It was much more difficult than I thought it was going to be, and things that you wouldn't think would make me break down made me break down. I do deal with Matt's death and that quite a lot in my work, and it was the little things that really broke my heart

Like what?

Just memories about Matt when he was growing up, and Logan and Matt's high-school friends, going back and talking to them─see, I'm doing it right now─it was really hard. It was great to know how much they loved him, but it was really hard,

In the book you talk about the difficulty having to "share" Matt with the rest of the country while he was in a coma, and even after he died: on one hand being grateful that so many people supported him, on the other being overwhelmed by everyone who wanted to claim him. How has that feeling evolved over the years?
There are still some things that as a family that we've chosen to keep to ourselves. We've loosened up a little bit, but there just doesn't seem to be a need for the world to know everything about us or Matt. The reason I wrote the book was because I wanted to reconcile the public Matthew with our Matt. As I said in the book, he had a life before he was killed.

The book is a very realistic portrayal of a teenage kid figuring himself out, and it's not always flattering.
We get so much mail and e-mail from young kids who say how much they admire Matt and want to emulate his life, and how they wish they could straighten out their drug use or their depression or whatever. They seem to have the misconception that Matt never went through all that angst, and he totally did. He's just an everyday kid.

He was not by any means a perfect child─he would be the first to tell you that. Depression was a huge problem for Matt, from his younger years, even in junior high. It was something he was always battling.

I just want people to know that he just wasn't that angelic young man that some have tried to portray him as or want him to be. It wouldn't be fair to Matt to not remember him with all the foibles and wrinkles of his real life.

As you said, a lot of your job has to deal with talking about Matt and his death. Do you feel like that forces you to look back? Are there days where you'd rather just be moving forward?
Of course. It's yin and the yang, which has become my favorite thing: the yin and the yang to everything. It does force me to go back when I'd kind of like to move on. In fact, sometimes I don't even talk about the event anymore: I talk about where we are now and where we should be and where we're not.

On the other hand, I could tell stories about Matt endlessly, and no one says, "But Judy, I've heard that story a hundred times." I can keep him as close as I want and remember and tell stories as much as I want, so this whole last 11 years in my work and my private life and my grieving for Matt, it's allowed me to grieve but also feel that I'm making a difference in Matt's name.

Many people saw Matt's death as turning point: never again. But of course, Matt isn't the last gay person to die at the hands of an attacker. Have things gotten better?
I think at the grassroots level, things have honestly gotten better. Legislatively, legally, I question that. There are pockets of this country where we will never be able to be totally accepting of the gay community, but I think that's true of every minority.

I don't think we're any worse off than another minority. I think there's a higher level of ignorance about the gay community out there, but that's because people aren't out. They don't talk about their lives, and we absolutely need to do that. When I went to see Milk, even Harvey Milk was saying back then, "We need to tell our stories, we need to talk about who we are, because people never get to know us."

Can you talk about the legislative level, and specifically the hate-crimes bill?
We've been at it for a long time. Senator Kennedy was of course a great champion of our causes. We really lost a leader when we lost him.

Right now the legislation has passed the House on a stand-alone bill. It was in the Senate attached to the Department of Defense bill and it passed. Now because it changed from the House version, it's in committee. We're looking at maybe October before it's actually out of committee. We know the president will sign it if gets to him, but we may run into more wrinkles like we did last time.

In the book you talk about not being completely convinced of the need for the bill at first. Why is it necessary? How do you legislate thought?
Hate crime is different on such an elementary level from other crimes. I didn't realize that until I actually was part of one. You actually have to be a part of it to understand that the fear created by that crime doesn't come from an ordinary─from a crime that's not a hate crime. Hate crimes are committed to terrorize a collection of people, not an individual.

The part of the hate-crime bill that I think is most important and I wish was in every hate-crime legislation is education. If we find people doing basic things like graffiti on a synagogue, where there's no actual person that's the victim, you can educate them about what diversity is and how respect moves our country forward. If we could change one person's mind, that's brilliant. So like driver's school: you get a speeding ticket, you go to driver's school.

If laws prevented crimes, we wouldn't need jails. On a very basic level, [the bill] sends a message of respect to the gay community that we realize this is a problem. Members of the gay community are singled out for violence above and beyond, so it's actually a recognition factor.

If you're comfortable, can you talk about your son Logan and some of the challenges in devoting your life to protecting Matt's legacy, while making sure your other son didn't feel overshadowed?
Logan works for the foundation and he wrote a blog on Matt's birthday and sort of explained his journey of being─because he's very shy─of being very afraid of people singling him out, and his friends being his friends for reasons other than him. It took him a while to get comfortable with the idea that Matt doesn't dominate his life.

We've tried to do that with both boys when they were here: they were both so totally different in character that we tried to make sure neither one was overshadowed by what the other one was doing. I hope we laid a good groundwork for that. We knew Logan supported us in everything we did for Matt, but we also made a point of including Logan in all our decisions. Many things we didn't do because Logan was uncomfortable with them.

He's very comfortable with it now. He has many friends who are gay who sort of set him down and said, look, this is what's going on, the work that your family is doing is really important to us. I think up until then he didn't really understand what we were doing. He knew what we were doing, but he didn't really understand the impact of what we were doing. It was a journey for him, for sure.

Often when a death occurs, especially one that's violent or traumatic, families are unable to stay together. They can't deal with emotions and responses as a family unit. How did you stay cohesive?

We all were very comfortable in our standing with Matt when he died. There was no blame put on anybody or on ourselves. We all felt we were in a good place with him when we lost hm. There was no talk about, well, my last conversation with him was angry.

We were very cognizant in our understanding that our family unit may very well suffer from what had happened to Matt if we weren't careful about each other. We honestly made a really, really diligent effort to keep in contact with each other and talk things over and make sure everybody was comfortable with what was going on. We were scattered─Dennis was working in Saudi Arabia still because somebody had to have a real job, I was doing the work here, and Logan was in school─so it was a matter of e-mails and phone calls and an understanding that we had to be aware of what was going on.

Some of my friends even asked me, why do I want to keep this going in the press? Because they would have been a family who would have retreated rather than moved out. I knew that wouldn't be right for Matt or for me. I would have gone crazy, we'd all have gone crazy. We thought there was a small amount of time, this window of opportunity for maybe our name, Matt's name, could make a difference. We wanted to take advantage of that.

The Meaning of Matthew: Judy Shepard on Her New Memoir, Her Son's Lasting Legacy, and Moving Forward While Looking Back | News