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Monday, March 1, 2010

Fear, Loathing, and "The Laramie Project": Hindsight

He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
--Aeschylus, Agamemnon; tr. Edith Hamilton

Okay, so all bets are off: this is memory stuff no longer any fun.  It seriously sucks.  

Just like I did with my first posts on my personal memory, I wanted to look back through my memories of 2000 to 2009 and see if I could find any similar lapses in memory like I saw in my first stories.   This little exercise, however, has led to some seriously personal introspection that I didn't want to have to do.  If you therefore don't want to read any extremely personal and depressing revelations about the Jackrabbit, then by all means read no further in this post.  Consider yourself duly warned.  

 Anyhow, I figured that, since these memories were more recent, I wouldn't have quite the same problems of recollection I had earlier.  I discovered that this wasn't necessarily the case; the more recent memories have just as many vagaries, and regarding one very important omission, there's more.  Here are some things I discovered that I fudged, left out or misrepresented in my previous recollection:
  • I broke up with my boyfriend of several years in early 2000, a few months after the McKinney sentencing, because I was a psychological wreck.  I sort of hinted at that, but seriously-- would it really have killed me to come out and say it?...  It's sort of important. 
  • I made mention of my reaction to the "media descent" scene in TLP in the question-and-answer session after the 2000 Tectonic performance, and the comment actually made one of the Tectonic actors really defensive because she's an ex-journalist.  This really put me off because I was still upset when I told her and I felt like I was getting lectured.  
  • When I try to picture the first time I saw The Laramie Project on a shelf and I freaked out, the bookstore I picture in my head is the one in the UW student union, not my college in the Deep South.  Why? While it is technically possible that I could have seen TLP for sale in Laramie just before I moved to the South, it's extremely unlikely, and I know my nasty comment was made to a friend in the South.   Which memory is the false one?  In any case, these just might be two different memories once again compressed into a single event. 
  • The first time I discussed my connection to The Laramie Project in relation to a performance wasn't with "Joe" in 2009-- it was with the kid who played Jed Schultz in that 2006 production I saw on my college campus.  He and I had a long chat after the production about the play, and I told him a little bit about my involvement-- mostly about how I knew the characters he played and no deeper.  I didn't tell him too much about how traumatic the play was; he saw me bawling after the performance anyhow, so what was the point?  Chatting with "TLP Jed" was an important step in dialoguing with the play, but I sort of left him out of the big picture.  Why?  
  • I had a bit of a flip-out moment with 10 Years Later the week before the premiere.  I was at a Veritas Forum on (ironically) the nature of Justice when I saw a stack of posters for the new play for the first time in the foyer.  When I scanned the premiere locations and didn't see Laramie listed, I got profoundly pissed.  It didn't seem just.  That was practically the first question I asked "Joe" when we met later, and he actually checked for me to find out if there was a Laramie performance.  I was so relieved to hear that there was.  It meant that Laramie could participate in the creation of their own narrative for once.  
I wish that were everything, but it's not.  When I read through the story again, I realized that there was a gap in this story big enough to pass a truck through, and it goes to the heart of my engagement with the play after 2006.  I unconsciously skipped over this because I didn't want to talk about it.  Please forgive me my dishonesty-- I need to come clean now.  
His name was James, just like the kid who jumped from my dorm back in 1999.  My James, however, killed himself in early September of 2006.  He was a year or two my senior when my husband and I met him at my church in the Deep South.  He was a tall, lanky fellow with sharp, ice-blue eyes and an infectious smile-- passionate, impulsive, and, as I was to learn later, a little manic.  James was a believing Christian, but a little while after I met him he confessed to the singles group in our church that he was gay and struggling with addiction.  I and several others from our Sunday school sort of took him under wing and gave him a support group, but it was really hard when my pastor was weirdly unsympathetic and full of bad advice, and the rest of the church didn't really know what to do with him.  Then James moved up north to take a new job after graduation and checked into a gay-to-straight program, and I never saw him again. 

The psychological torture of addiction, trying to reconcile his sexuality to his faith and the tepid response of our church eventually sent his depression spiraling out of control, and James committed suicide a little over a month after I left for graduate school.  The shock of his death paralyzed me for months, and I entered a spiritual war with the Lord that lasted almost three years.  That was the reason that I reacted so irrationally to the 2006 performance-- because that same kind of intolerance for gays, although in a much more diluted and well-intentioned form, had just helped to destroy someone I loved like my own brother. And my emotional response to it was so debilitating that I sort of just shut everything down. 

So for three years I thought hard, and I wrote poetry and doodled in church, but I didn't really pray because I was so furious at God for letting that happen to someone I cared about.   And I was furious with myself, too-- for not doing more, for getting frustrated and backing off, for not checking on him more when he moved north, for ignoring that last, desperate email because I didn't know how to handle him...  you cannot imagine the guilt I had on account of my inaction and the rage I had at God.   And then, for some reason this summer, the Lord sort of grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me awake.  If this were a conversation, it probably would have sounded something like this:
"Jackrabbit, wake up.  It's time." 
"Huh? What?" 
"I said wake up, Jackrabbit.  This has gone on long enough." 
"But... I'm still mad at You.  Aren't I?"
"I'm moving you forward.  You can't stay here forever."
"What about James, then?"
"James is still Mine, Jackrabbit; that never changed.  You've mourned him long enough; now it's time to do something." 
So, with a little bit of divine revelation and some seriously painful conversations with my minister friend, I finally figured out how to make James' death, and by extension, Matthew Shepard's, mean something personally to me.  I got involved in the LGBT community here this past year, and my hope is that I can eventually act as an advocate for a loving and compassionate approach to gays and lesbians within my evangelical community.  So, that was the tipping point that forced me to address the central question of both plays: what kind of self-revelation comes from tragedy, and how should you respond? How do you honor the senseless death of someone with lasting change for the better?  How has Laramie changed in the light of that personal revelation?

I have to ask myself those same questions now.  How have I changed?  And how has the fact of James' beautiful life and his tragic death moved me toward lasting, loving change in my own community?  It took me three years to figure out a response to these questions after James died-- but learning how to speak James' story is a large part of why I can look back on Matt's murder and speak back to this story now.  

That is the story I didn't want to tell you and I deliberately forgot.  James, please forgive me, I still love you...


1) Remembrance, from gingerburn's Flickr photostream:

2)  Blue eyes, from butler.corey's Flickr photostream:

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