On a bitingly cold October night two years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, a biker came upon a young man, unconscious, his sweet face ruined by a rain of blows, bound to a fence with ferocious tightness. Rushed to a hospital, he lingered for five days in the twilight world between life and death, never regaining consciousness.
Even before his death, this young man, Matthew Shepard, had been molded into an icon whose name and image were known to the world. Overnight, he became the centerpiece of a Princess Diana-like cascade of candlelight vigils, more astonishing because of their spontaneity, the inspiration as well for prayer meetings and angry protests. Meanwhile, Laramie was also being remade, tagged by the media as a town without pity.
In the months that followed, the Matthew Shepard story was ceaselessly retold and re-spun. There were stories dissecting the murder and re-creating the events leading up to it. There were biographical sketches of the victim–everyone's brother, everyone's son or secret lover; accounts that constructed, and afterward tried to tear down, the myth of innocence despoiled. There were renderings of the killers, hapless and shiftless characters, caught by the police even as Matt lay dying, young men whose biographies could have been lifted straight from Boys Don't Cry. And there were stories about the place itself, variously portrayed as Our Town and living hell, where these events occurred [see Donna Minkowitz, "Love and Hate in Laramie," July 12, 1999].
The print reporters and TV crews came and went, migrating with the seasons like whales–on the scene in the aftermath of the killing; back again for the killers' days in court. In their wake came those who saw in the tragedy the stuff of film or theater, as well as celebrities like Elton John and Peter, Paul and Mary, resuscitated for the occasion, who charged $42,500 for a benefit concert that wound up losing money.
Beth Loffreda arrived in Laramie a few months before the murder to take up a teaching job at the university, and she's still there. Losing Matt Shepard benefits greatly from the long-view perspective, as well as from Loffreda's personal struggle to come to terms with her adopted hometown.
In the tradition of Melissa Fay Green's Praying for Sheetrock, another beautifully told tale of love and violence in small-town America, Beth Loffreda has crafted a richly layered narrative that encompasses both the deed and the community where it occurred. Laramie is as liberal as things get in the pridefully insular world of Wyoming, a state with fewer than half a million souls, little known to the rest of the nation. The state university is there, its faculty listing slightly to the left, and there are trace elements of "Bo-Bo" life, decent cappuccinos and stylish pottery on offer. But Laramie can't be confused with Austin or Madison–its values are far less worldly, its tacit code of conduct narrower and more rigid. To those who belong, Laramie embodies the best of the American past: unforced hospitality, concern for one's neighbors. Yet many people who live there are treated as if they don't belong. Latinos and Native Americans talk about themselves as outside the pale–exotics if not threats, the subject of unapologetic stares and sometimes worse. Though Wyoming calls itself the "Equality State," the people who live on the wrong side of the tracks in Laramie, their trailers fronting unpaved streets–among them, the men who killed Matt Shepard–are similarly excluded.