Clea Matson is the daughter of Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, who wished to share how the loss of her parents has impacted her. All words below are hers unless specified otherwise in italics.
TW: death, murder, grief.
I know we talked a little about how it is much more common to be fascinated by the perpetrators of things, to the point where the victims become sort of one-dimensional characters. You also mentioned the way time passes and things change and stay the same. Was there anything in particular that made you want to do something with your thoughts and experience now?
Yes – I was just thinking about that. I realized that I think about all three of my parents every single day, and I struggle with sadness and missing them much of the time, but it is not something that is a big part of my life outside of my own head. I have been thinking about this aspect of things for a while. However, it just sort of solidified this year, which is fifteen years after my dad and Winfield died, that for my own well-being I need to make this story more a part of my life outside of myself – start telling the story and making it a part of the person that other people see as well, since it is really such a large part of who I am.
Around the time I wrote to you again, I also decided to join an organization called Murder Victims For Reconciliation, which is an organization of victims’ families against the death penalty.
To be honest, it’s hard to find ways to reach out and use mine and my family’s experience in productive and positive ways.
I guess I would like to use my non-work time to do more volunteering, primarily for groups that promote non-violence. I think that regardless of the motive, losing someone to murder is a particular experience and I still hope that at some point I could at least be there for someone who is going through a similar thing. I remember wishing so hard that someone would say to me “Oh, the exact same thing happened to me – I know exactly what you’re going through!” Strangely enough, that never happened. Involving myself more with groups that are working on things I believe in, and sharing that part of myself more. It’s not something that I can share in my job as a math and science educator, and it’s not something friends/acquaintances like to talk about, so I’m on the look-out for avenues.
That does seem strange that no one reached out to you.
I had a lot of support, actually! My parents were really well known in the community. My grandparents had moved there when my dad was a year old and he had grown up there, went to college, came back and did so many amazing things for the community, including starting numerous community gardens, a food collective, a science museum and arboretum. All of these were successful largely because my mom, who was a pragmatist and great manager/doer was involved as well. My mom also had great friends, and to this day I feel that I have many surrogate mothers/parents.
Where I grew up, losing a family member to murder was certainly not a common experience. I think at the time I just wanted to talk to someone (and sometimes I still do) that had had the exact same type of loss that I had, but I’m not sure that person exists. My family was definitely an outlier in our community – which I felt a lot growing up. I didn’t share a lot about my home life with people, although now I wish I did, because who knows what I would have found out about others? But as I kid I really wanted to be “normal.”
My mom definitely took on the role of an activist immediately after my dad and Winfield were murdered. It was so important to her, and became a huge part of her life until she died about four years later.
That’s great that you had a lot of support, even if it wasn’t exactly what you were looking for. What do you remember the most about your parents?
Wow – that’s a tough one. I remember that my dad was extremely smart. He was a horticulturist – he had studied biology, then botany in grad school, both at the University of California (Santa Cruz, then Davis). He was also extremely productive – he was always working on his own projects and never wasted time. He read only non-fiction, never watched TV and hardly watched movies – except some comedies. He mainly read in his field, and he truly was an expert – although humble about it, and when people would say he knew “everything,” he was always quick to correct them. But he knew a lot, and was someone that people went to with plant/gardening/farming-related questions.
Winfield was extremely creative, caring and a wonderful parent to me. I remember him saying that he never thought that he would get to have children, being a gay man, and that he felt so lucky to be wrong – and that that child was me. He made all of my Halloween costumes and decorated my lunch bags. He was also really smart – and encouraged by my dad to go back to college, and was an amazing student. He adapted his study habits to his dyslexia. He actually graduated with a degree in archaeology at the end of May in 1999 – right before he died.
We had a 40th birthday/graduation party for him in May.
Many good memories – and great parents, really. I was extremely lucky, I think.
For some of the people I’ve spoken with, these memories are more what they want their loved one to be remembered for – not just that they were hate crime victims. Do you find that true for you?
For sure – especially in their community, but generally as well, I want them to be remembered for what they contributed, not mainly for how/why they died. There has been an effort to keep their story alive and acknowledge the things they did there, and I’m glad that information is still out there. But it’s hard – because people forget.
The reason they died was so disconnected from who they were, and remembering who they actually were and what they did is important to me. However, I don’t want how they died to be forgotten. I think one of the reasons my mom became such an activist was that the realization of our family as a target of violence was so unexpected. It was a testament to how dangerous ignorance, dogma, and ideology can be.
Are there any particular memories that stand out to you about your experience?
I wasn’t in Redding at the time. I was in Mexico doing an intensive language course – my plan was to become fluent and study abroad in Spain. I wish I had done that! I had been there a little over a week – I think I was supposed to be there for two months or so. I was living with a host family and the woman who I was staying with came into my bedroom and told me that my mother was there. I immediately knew something was wrong, then my mom walked in and just told me that my dad and Winfield had been killed. I screamed/cried – some combination of those. Her friends had decided she had to go get me and had just put her on a plane and helped her get there. Our plane back didn’t leave for a day or two, we were in a sort of limbo for a couple of days. I remember we went to the zoo, and that one of those days was July 4th.
When we got back, I remember they hadn’t figured out who did it yet, and they had these strange theories that they would interview us about (the detectives) – for example, they theorized a love triangle. Our family was offended by that, but to be fair, they probably had to consider every possibility. I’m glad that it didn’t go unsolved… I shudder to think of the ways they might have been portrayed in the local media had it not been clear that they’re murder had nothing to do with them having some sort of “risky” lifestyle.
I also remember tons of family and friends basically camping out at my grandpa’s house/vineyard/winery. I stayed there for days or weeks – not sure. My study program gave me a week or so to decide whether to return to Mexico, but I just couldn’t. So I stayed in Redding until college started in the fall. My best friend Lyra was my constant companion – she was awesome. It was all extremely hard on her too. We have been friends since we were babies, so my family was very much her family as well.
To be honest, right after my mom told me, I just imagined the actually murder happening, and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I didn’t know at that point what had actually happened – only that they were killed – so my imagination took over. I remember feeling like I was drowning.
I avoided knowing the details for a long time, and the little bit of information I get makes me worry that what I imagined is not even as bad as what actually did happen. That’s really hard still.
That being said, I think it’s neat that you want to work with groups that advocate non-violence including one that’s for victims’ families against the death penalty.
As family members we had to make a decision regarding the death penalty. Well… I don’t know that we had to, but we could push for it. Some people in my family wanted to. My mom and I talked about it, and we both just realized that it didn’t fit with our morals – how we thought about the world. I don’t think that killing people makes the world less violent – no matter who we kill. And I definitely don’t think it deters crimes like this.
When I first found out who did it, I think I wanted to kill them. But that feeling was short-lived. Then I wanted to show them what they did – how much they had hurt us. I imagined that they didn’t realize who they had really hurt – and I don’t think they did. My grandfather was at every single part of the trial and sentencing for the younger brother – and he spoke directly to my grandfather at his sentencing hearing. I can’t remember what he said, but the visibility of our family had an effect.
What is it you want people to take away from your story or your parents’ story?
The primary lesson I have learned (I think!) – both from the experience and my life since then – is to avoid assumptions about people, and to realize that a person – their life, thoughts, contributions – are impossible to know at first glance. For this reason, it is likely that we have more in common with people that we feel estranged from than we think.
I also think it’s important that my parents are not seen as gay men who died, but as parents and community members who lived their lives honestly and did not ever hide who they were. They really gave their whole lives to their community and family. I know that that distinction was important to my dad. I wish that I had talked about it with him more. I know that coming out was very hard for him – but being exactly who he really was and living a life that was honest and matched his own values, regardless of what was expected of him, was very important to him.