Newman, Leslea, “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard”, Candlewick Press, 2012.
The Emotional Impact of the Death of a Son
Matthew Shepard was our son—yes, he was a son to all of us who possess humanity. He was also a hero to the LGBT community and his mark on us, even thought it was not by his own hand, will remain with us as long as we live. His murder was one of those events that every person can remember where he was when he heard the news. We wept together and then became strong together and we were not going to let him die for nil.
October 6, 1998 was the date that Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten and tied to a fence post and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming. He was a twenty-one year old college student who had his life in front of him but that night it was stolen from him by two young men who killed him because he was gay. (Whether or not there were other reasons is insignificant and we have all heard the stories). That very week, Gay Awareness Week was beginning at the University of Wyoming and writer Leslea Newman was the scheduled keynote speaker. When the time came for her to speak, she was still haunted by what happened to Matthew and it was then that she wrote an essay (which is now the afterword of the book) and published it in 20 gay newspapers across the country. She also dedicated all of her speeches about gay rights to Matthew Shepard from that point on and later she decided to write a verse novel about that day in which she would personally respond to what happened.
This is one book you will not forget once you have closed the covers. As Newman was haunted by what happened to Matthew, so was I haunted by what she wrote. In her introduction, she tells us how she felt standing and addressing a crowd in Laramie and she said to them that she would make sure Matthew Shepard would never be forgotten. It took her eleven and a half years before she could write this book and when you read it you will understand why. I could not tell which tears were hers and which were mine on the pages. I have rarely been so affected by a book; so much so that I would have to stop every few lines and regain my composure. In poetry the imagination can go where it cannot go in prose and Newman uses fictitious dialogues from different and various points of view to tell us what happened that night. It was not just humans that cried but the stars and the animals of the field wept as they watched over his bloody body tied to that fence.
Composed of sixty-eight poems, this is a fast read but be warned that the emotionality of it will make it take quite a while. I remember having this book with me as I left Arkansas and headed for my new home in Boston and thinking to myself that this very same thing could happen any day in Arkansas where rednecks rule and Christian fundamentalism determines how people live. I was so glad to be moving to a place where gay people can be themselves openly and with little or no fear. Of course something like this could happen anywhere and I firmly believe that education and human values have prevented it from indeed happening somewhere else.
The poems here touched the core of my being and made me realize that we can never feel too safe. Matthew Shepard died on October 12, the day that Christopher Columbus is said to have discovered America and the day that we knew for sure that the earth is not flat. His discovery of this continent was a prelude for the existence of the greatest democracy the world has ever known and yet, in this democracy, a youth can be killed because he is different. Matthew’s death influenced and impacted the world and I would have thought that we learned a strong lesson from it. Yet in the last few years we have had kids killing themselves because our society refuses to allow them to be who they are. Yes, it does get better but at what price? Do we have to lose more innocent young and beautiful Matthews for the world to sit up and notice that something is wrong?
Read Leslea Newman’s book and share her pain…our pain. Each poem is a pearl of wisdom and Newman can say so much in just two lines:
“Somebody entered the world with a cry
Somebody left without saying goodbye”.
We learn here that the land upon which the fence that held Matthew’s body has been sold and there is a new fence some fifty yards away from where the original was. People still come to pray there and to say goodbye once again to a beautiful young men who left us before his time, who was taken from us because he was not like what some consider the “norm”. Do yourself and Matthew a favor and get a copy of this book and let Leslea Newman take you to a place where we can be reminded that this should never happen again. She can be your guide with beautiful words and thoughts and she will open your eyes to emotions that many of us have forgotten that we have.