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Monday, November 23, 2009

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Jackrabbit's Story, Part 2

One of the interesting things I've started to notice about trauma is the need to talk-- to talk to anybody, it seems. The few short days between Matt's assault and the night when he died were almost consumed with people talking-- about the beating, about sexual orientation and violence. That was the week I think I heard the word "hate crime" for the first time, and probably "homophobia," too. There was a sudden need to try and talk through the trauma, I guess in hopes of making it fit into how we saw the world.  But that's the problem with trauma-- it doesn't fit into how we see the world at all.  We can't just fudge it around until it squeezes into our sense of right and wrong.  For most of us, however, talking ended up being impossible anyhow because of the descent of the national media, and whatever dialogue that was happening after the beating promptly vanished.

So, sometime after the rally and I discovered how many people I knew were connected to Matt Shepard (I think it was the night before the Newman Center vigil), I found myself wandering aimlessly through the campus at night. I normally can't concentrate very well while sitting still, and so I walked instead, using my legs like pistons to force my mind into motion. For some reason, I gravitated towards Prexy's Pasture. To my surprise, there were about a dozen other people already there. I asked one guy why he was there, and he shrugged. "It felt like something I had to do," he said. None of us really knew each other. We sat down in front of a monument towards one end of the pasture and talked to each other in the darkness, trying to make collective sense of everything going on. We all remained there for about an hour and a half, I suppose, before we wandered off to other places. It's funny-- I shared some of the most personal thoughts I was capable of having at eighteen years old with that group of people, and in the darkness I couldn't even see their faces. To this day I don't know who any of them were. 

For the rest of that week, all the Honors English classes in Hoyt Hall ground to a screeching halt.  The beating was all the freshmen could think about, so it’s all we discussed in class on Friday and part of the following week. Instead of reading the Odyssey like I was supposed to, I was stuck in the middle of Lolita instead, unpacking and exploding my ideas on sexuality at the same time most of us were all talking frankly about sexual orientation and homophobia for the first time. Most of us were up for the challenge, but a few heated arguments broke out, and I heard about one English class where a kid started screaming at a female professor and stormed out.

My professor, Dr. H, divided his time between talking over Matt’s beating with us in class and talking over Nabokov with me during his office hours. After I got done with Lolita, I still had more questions than he had answers, so Dr. H let me do my next paper on Lolita; then he handed me Angels in America and Wise Blood— books I had to hide from my parents when I was home on Christmas break. I actually got into a screaming match with my father that started when my mother found my copy of Lolita in my suitcase. Thank goodness they never found the Kushner; I would have been dead meat.

But it was immediately after the rally that the satellite trucks and reporters started arriving en masse to the campus to corral every person they could get their hands on into an interview. In the first, more naive stage of our trauma, a lot of people talked openly with the reporters about what was going on, trying to get people to understand. Understand what? I don’t even think they knew, everyone was in so much shock. But after a couple of days, as we all watched the news reports we began to realize that the reporters neither shared our perspective nor reported it accurately, and that dumbfounded shock started to turn into outrage. Our conversations in Washakie caffeteria sounded something vaguely like this:
“Is it true he was burned? I read in the news that he was burned.”
“I heard he hit on them. Seriously? That's no reason to do what they did...”
“Did you hear that idiot they interviewed on ABC? Where the hell did they dredge that redneck up?"
" How many beers do you figure he pushed back before they stuck that camera in his face?”
"Who goes to a bar to get an interview in the first place?" 
“They’re talking to that guy from Bosler...”
“You gotta be kidding me—him? I wouldn’t trust him any farther than I can drop-kick him.”
“What are people gonna think of us?”
"My mom called, she wants to pull me out of school because she's watching the news and she thinks it's not safe here..."
“That asshole filmed my professor’s political science class for over ninety minutes, and what—he cut his footage down to those five seconds? I can’t believe it..."
Once we realized the tiny, distorting fishbowl that we’d all suddenly been thrown into, we all clammed up pretty fast. Some people on campus actually tried to explain things to the reporters that they had it all wrong, that we really weren’t like that, but what was the point? The story was already rolling; all the reporters could do was run alongside as it picked up momentum like a runaway truck. Our only response then, was to stop talking.  I trained my eye to look for reporters the same way I was taught to look for antelope when driving: the moment you see one, check both sides of the road.  Otherwise, you might swerve to avoid the one just to plow into the next one.  Be prepared to dodge them twice because they have a habit of cutting back in front of you.   

That advice, strangely, worked pretty well; I avoided getting hooked by a reporter for almost exactly one year.  By the end of two weeks, I had perfected my reporter brush-off to the point I was actually proud of it. Most of us walked the other way when we saw a microphone. A lot of us stopped going into the Student Union altogether, and none of us went downtown towards the courthouse. Even though I went everywhere by bicycle then, I would go out of my way to avoid Ivinson Avenue.

My distrust of reporters grew so great that I didn’t go to the vigil at the Newman Center either. I really regret that now. I had a lot on my mind Sunday afternoon, and since my boyfriend lived off-campus, I went to his place instead for a little commiseration at a safe distance from the media. I had toyed with going to the vigil in support of my friends, many of whom were still wandering around with stricken faces. Nevertheless, when he and I had walked as far as the Catholic church a little while after it started, I saw the fleet of satellite trucks parked to one side and the thick, orange cables snaking into the sanctuary, piled as thick as a man’s body—and I turned around and left. I was too sick to my stomach to try and get inside. Instead, I kicked a couple of satellite trucks in frustration and stalked back to my boyfriend's apartment, where we didn't talk about it, either.

Later that night, I watched footage from the vigil and wished I could have been there with everyone else, a feeling that only lasted until I saw the next video clip: a huge video camera on a swing-arm and a boom mic hulked over the worshipers in the sanctuary.  I instinctively changed the channel. Later that night, when we found out on the news that Matt had died, I had no clue how to respond.

I remember vaguely turning to my boyfriend and asking, “What’s going to happen now?”  He didn't know, either.  We just looked at each in complete confusion.  All we knew was that the future wasn't going to be pleasant. 

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