Calling all Theater companies and performers!

Open Call to Theater companies, performers, researchers:
I would like to hear other voices besides my own on this blog. If you'd like to write about your TLP experiences here, e-mail them to me and I'll put them up.
Topics can include dramaturgy to staging to personal responses to the play. Anything goes!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fences, cont.: Memory, Tragedy and Entropy


I can't really explain my feelings when I found out.  I saw in a photo essay shortly before watching Ten Years Later that the buck fence where Matt Shepard was beaten had been torn down, and I gasped.  From the picture I saw, it looks like it had been replaced with a single-rail,  low, log zipper fence just to mark the boundary, something I hadn't actually seen much out west.   It was a weird sensation; I had never specifically been out to the fence (I didn't want to be one of the gawkers) so I had no personal frame of reference.  And yet, taking it down felt like an affront, or admitting defeat, or something-- I don't know what.  All I know is that I didn't like it. 

My husband and I had a long conversation about the fence that evening when we were getting ready for bed.  When I told him about it, I was a little offended; it seemed like a deliberate attempt to efface Matt's memory from that area.  My husband, however, disagreed.  "Well, why shouldn't the landowner take down the fence?"  He asked me.  "It's his property." 
"Well, because he's just trying to forget what happened there,"  I grumbled.  "That's not right.  There are too many people trying to just forget it." 
"But when does the landowner get to move on?"  He insisted.  "He didn't have anything to do with this.  When can he stop having people show up unannounced on his property, respectfully or otherwise?  Does he ever get to stop having that crime brought to mind when he's on that property?  Does  that spot ever get to be something besides a memorial?"  I gave him a glare.   "Moving on doesn't necessarily mean forgetting," he insisted. 
I still don't know for sure what I think, but my husband has a point.   Just because the fence is gone doesn't mean that Matt's memory is lessened, and it might have honestly been necessary.  Let me see if I can explain to you why...


University of Wyoming
Now that I've had some time to process our conversation, I realize that I've had a similar experience,  but with a different space: White Hall on the UW campus.  About six months after Matt was murdered, a guy who lived on the 9th floor of my dorm committed suicide by jumping out of the 12th floor study lounge.  (UW undergraduates: his name was James, and he is the reason that you can only open your dorm windows four inches.  Please remember him.)  When I came out of the basement into the lobby, I saw his body about twenty feet away from me through the lobby windows, draped over the top of a massive manhole cover for the steam tunnels.  The only image in my head for months was that scene-- his unsettlingly beautiful blue eyes, and the way his right arm sort of cradled that manhole cover.

Some of us felt that the university was trying to brush over that event, so we hung on doggedly to that memory.  There was a memorial service out on the quad between the dorms for him, right next to where he died, and for months that manhole cover became the focus of some pretty intense scrutiny.  Nobody would walk over that metal cover for anything, and every time I saw somebody walk around it superstitiously or standing over it, pointing to the sky as they explained the story to others,  I'd get fidgety.  The space radiated bad karma, a constant reminder of his body burned into my retinas. 

About halfway through the fall semester, I saw somebody for the first time (a freshman, I think) cut across that manhole cover with no hesitation.  At first I was angry-- Hey!! Doesn't he know what happened there?! my head screamed, but then I realized that I wasn't queasy anymore.  And I breathed a sigh of relief.  I finally felt that maybe it was time to let go of our vigil and let the space lapse back to what it had been before-- just a bump on the way to the bicycle lockers.   The reversion of that space certainly wasn't an act of forgetting.   I still remember his name, his clothes, the color of his eyes-- but I had to let the space heal so that I no longer felt traumatized by it.
Buck Fence in Morad Park
If I compare the buck fence to that other tragic space where James died,  I can see the logic.  If a memory inhabits a space in a positive manner, it's a commemoration; the act of remembering in that space is beneficial to the community at large and becomes part of their story.  But if a memory inhabits that same space negatively, if it prevents healing from taking place or creates new trauma, it's something else-- it's more like a haunted house.  Those haunted spaces, I think, are dangerous because they keep memory alive, which is good, but then they also prevent trauma from healing.  That ambivalent act of remembering makes them hard to handle: do you choose to live with the trauma, or do you move on, but at the risk of forgetting?  Would it have served James' memory any better if, ten years after his death, freshmen are still terrified to cross over that spot where the ghost of his tragedy still lingers, or if I'm still afraid to look at it when I visit the campus?  I don't really think so anymore.

One of the authors of The Laramie Project, Stephen Wangh, makes an excellent point on this regarding keeping the image of Matthew Shepard on the fence in our collective memories and its effect on forgiveness:
But this act of surrender requires not keeping images available to consciousness but rather examining them and then letting them go. This is not to say that we must forgive and forget, or that we should deny that those images exist. Indeed, if we are to move toward forgiveness, we must allow the images of horror to arouse our anger and our grief...
In Aeschylus’s (1953) Eumenides, as long as the Furies cling to their images of Clytemnestra’s death, they remain unable to listen to Athena’s offers of recompense. So I wonder if Frommer’s insistence that we keep in our consciousness the image of Matthew hanging on the fence is exactly what makes it so difficult for Frommer to entertain the possibility that the perpetrators of this crime might be forgivable.  (Wangh 54) 
Something tells me that Stephen Wangh wouldn't be for the destruction of the fence, which is fine; neither am I, really.  But he makes an important point about forgiveness when he talks of the image of the fence: if all we ever see is Matt hanging on it, does it keep us from finding some kind of psychic closure?  Maybe part of the healing process is to be able to look at this fence and see that-- just a fence. 

Just like the quad in front of White Hall, Matt’s murder location has changed, too; it has transformed in our imagination from an isolated, barren wilderness (a mistake no local person would make) to the spot “just past the Super Wal-Mart.” We can’t expect the land to remain static: as we change, so does it.  We likewise can’t expect that lonely little patch of earth to hold the impression of Matt’s body forever; just as we cannot clutch on to every memory forever, the land also forgets.  While I sympathize with those who felt horror at the removal of the buck fence-- I'm one of them-- we can’t freeze Laramie in that instant of time forever.  To do so is to misunderstand the entropy that governs tragic spaces like these; they slowly but surely degrade back into what they always were, once the people who walked their paths and spoke their significance will pass on.  It's also to misunderstand the process of healing. 

Reggie Fluty, however, makes a salient point about moving on in Kaufman's op-ed in Newsweek:  "[Move] on to what?... If you don't want to look back, fine. But what are we moving towards?"  What's that landowner trying to move towards?  Tearing down that fence could be an act of mercy or an act of obliteration; it all depends on their motivation.  If he or she couldn't stand seeing one more memorial party (or idle gawkers come to soak in the horror) without mental anguish, I suppose I can understand. In that case, my husband's point is a valid one.   But if it's just a way to try and kill Matt's memory in Laramie, it's wrong.  Moreover, it will never work.  Matt's specter is going to be a part of all of our lives-- whether the fence that held him there in that field is there to remember for us or not.

So, when it comes to the fence, I'm conflicted.  What did people go there for?  Why did we need it?  Was this place a commemoration or a haunted patch of ground, tormented by a spirit of hatred that we wouldn't let rest?  There's no good answer at the moment.



Works Cited:

Healy, Patrick.  "Big Opening for Epilogue to 'Laramie Project.'"  New York Times 3 Aug 2009.  Web.
Kaufman, Moisés, et. al.  "Has Anything Changed?"  Newsweek 9 Oct. 2008.  Web. 
Wangh, Stephen.  "Reply to Commentaries."  Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15.1 (2005): 47-56.

No comments:

Post a Comment