Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Life-Defining Event

Journal Entry:  Stephen Belber

My trip to Laramie was short but it so clearly reminded me of what a life-defining event this was for so many people, including myself.  There was Matt Galloway, who runs his father's bar up in Casper, and who still feels the sting of guilt for not having stopped Matthew from leaving with Russell and Aaron that night, and who (repeatedly) made the point of telling me how proud he is that his bar is a place where his gay friends can come in and feel comfortable being who they are.  This from a former small-town frat boy who didn't even know that he knew gay people before Matt was killed.  He remains a funny, talkative, thoughtful and huge-hearted person.  

I also sat with Russell's Mormon spiritual advisor, for whom this was also a life-defining event.  He spoke about how awful he feels for Russell, (his remains convinced that Russell tried to stop Aaron that night, and that while Russell surely deserved time, his bleak future in prison (two life terms), with no clear chance at parole, is unfair)---and yet he also admitted to me, when asked what, if anything, positive might have emerged from all this, that Russell's life may well be for the better, in that he now has a GED and several college credits to his name, and that he is a more spiritual, thoughtful person than he may have been had he continued on the path he was on.  This man also spoke of his own, personal transformation, which he feels now separates him from other members of his church, in terms of the way he thinks about people who live differently than he.

There was also Dave O'Malley, the former chief of police in Laramie, who led the investigation at the time of Matt's murder, who verged on tears several times throughout his interview as he spoke of his former, homophobic self, in relation to who he is now--a man who has testified repeatedly on the Hill in favor of hate crimes legislation, a man whose wife now helps organize the Laramie AIDS walk, a man who feels genuine, palpable shame in the way he used to think.

And lastly there was Russell Henderson's grandmother, about whom I won't say much because she didn't want to be quoted in any way, and who is someone I've wanted to speak with for 10 years but never had the chance to until Monday.  All I will say is that sitting with her for two hours, as Leigh and I did, was in a way the perfect way to revisit Laramie, in that our conversation reflected thoroughly the complexity of human nature in terms of this entire event.  There is NO black and white, sound-byte-encapsulated, one-note summary to what did or didn't happen--not only that night but in terms of Laramie as a whole.  The true nature of how the people of that town lived through this, reacted to it, learned from it, and will continue to live, is a still-evolving, many-layered, inspiring and heartbreaking beast.  It is truly life-shattering, on many levels, for many people, each of whom continues to try hard to understand, to learn, to love, to forgive, even just to persevere----despite the fact that their perspectives are sometimes obscured by what life has handed to them in terms of tragedy and loss. And this seems to be true for EVERYONE involved.  The people of this play, and much more importantly, this tragedy, are all so profoundly human, and if anything, going to Laramie again and asking them what ten years has done, underlines that with an intense, deadening, sometimes-inspiring bold black pen.  As I looked on the wall of Russell's grandmother's small living room, and saw the intricate, truly beautiful and minutely detailed sketches of Christ that Russell had sent to her from prison, the prison he was in prior to the one where he is now, where they don't allow him to draw at all, all I could think was that 
nothing can be written in stone about this event;  nothing can be definitively declared, about change, about condemnation, about forgiveness.  Because as much as evil acts exist, and history is made, and laws are or are not passed, there will always be the undeniable human-ness of the specific, individual people involved, from Judy Shepard and her relentless and courageous fight on behalf of her son's memory and the future of others like her son---to the small window of hope and its inherent opportunity for solace---dare I say redemption?---for Russell and his grandmother---all of which exists amidst the sadness of the many lives devastated by what happened in Laramie 10 years ago this October.


1 comment:

PLH said...

Hi Stephen - Just saw the Epilogue last night in Chicago. Very powerful and what an awesome nation-wide event! My daughter portrayed Matt Galloway in our high school's production two years ago so we were of course wondering what happened to him as he is not mentioned in the Epilogue. Found your post and was happy to find some information as he was such a presence in the first piece. There is something especially powerful about portraying actual, living people and I know she feels a connection and felt a tremendous repsonsibility to do the person justice. She identified so strongly with the guilt he felt that he did not do more to protect Matthew--it is poignant to read in your note that ten years later it still haunts him.