As Only a Mother Knows

As private as Shepard is, she’s also determined that people know her son’s and her family’s real story.

BY Jon Barrett

September 10 2009 7:00 AM ET

Although Judy Shepard is portrayed in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (An Epilogue), she’s never seen the original play in its entirety (she watched only parts of it when it was performed as part of a fund-raiser for the Matthew Shepard Foundation on what would have been Matt’s 30th birthday).

It’s not that she doesn’t like the show -- she has the highest praise for Moisés Kaufman and his company and is incredibly grateful for their part in helping to create and maintain her son’s legacy. It’s just that Shepard’s a private person who tries to be as emotionally guarded as possible. She doesn’t like people to see her cry, and although she appreciates the sentiment, sympathy makes her uncomfortable. She’s made thousands of speeches in support of gay rights but always does so without going there -- without dwelling on the circumstances of her son’s murder, without picturing him tied to the fence outside Laramie (she’s still never visited the site), and without recalling the nightmare week between the phone call alerting her and her husband, Dennis, of Matt’s attack and the snowy afternoon when they were finally able to lay him to rest. Watching The Laramie Project, in her mind, wouldn’t only require her to go there but to do so in front of others.

But as private as Shepard is, she’s also determined that people know her son’s and her family’s real story. Where The Laramie Project gives an accurate representation of the town and its residents, every attempt by others to portray the Shepard family -- including the 2002 TV movie The Matthew Shepard Story -- misses the mark, Shepard says. That’s why she decided to write the memoir The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed (Hudson Street Press), which went on sale in September. Without question, the book (on which I worked with her as a writing partner) required that Shepard go there. But in doing so, it freed her to tell her family’s real story -- about a 21-year-old gay man who encountered more obstacles than most in his pursuit of adulthood and about his parents and brother, who were devastated by his murder, dumbfounded by the ensuing media attention, and determined to fight ignorance and intolerance with education.

Shepard equates the many speeches she’s given over the years to walking over hot coals. That’s because when she’s faced with specific questions about Matthew, she usually races over the answers so she doesn’t get burned by her emotions. But in The Meaning of Matthew she is candid, sharing intimate details of her relationship with her son. Many of her anecdotes are about the sort of things that seem insignificant in the rush of everyday life -- an argument here, a scuffle or two there. But as Shepard very powerfully explains, it’s the smallest things that sometimes become the most important -- and the most telling -- when life as you know it stops mid-step.

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