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Gone Boy: An excerpt

Need to Know’s February 22 broadcast “Gone Boy” is part of PBS’s After Newtown” initiative, a series of documentaries, news reports and public affairs programs that provides thought-provoking context to the national conversation about gun violence in America. The program traces the ripples of impact 20 years after a shooting at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts. Gone Boy is the title of a book by Gregory Gibson, father of one of the victims.Gone Boy by Gregory Gibson

Introduction to the North Atlantic Books Edition of Gone Boy: A Father’s Search for the Truth in His Son’s Murder

By Gregory Gibson

Gone Boy was published in 1999 and has remained in print ever since. Even now, more than a decade after its initial appearance, I get letters and emails from people to whom something very bad has happened. Invariably they describe the tragedy, then thank me for writing a sort of guidebook to the difficult territory they must traverse. Often they tell me how important it is to know that someone else survived such a journey, because there are times when survival does not seem possible.

As you can imagine, these responses are gratifying. It’s good to know that something useful can arise from such a catastrophe. And it’s even better to have a sense of the book being out there on its own, doing this necessary work so that my family and I no longer have to. So that we can “move on,” as the talk show hosts like to say. With this new edition, North Atlantic Books is continuing to make that possible. I am very grateful to them for doing so.

But what about this matter of moving on, and the healing and forgiveness it implies? There’s a lot of grand-sounding mumbo jumbo in circulation, but I’ve never read a book or seen a talk show that can explain the mystery of a person making a conscious decision not to be defined by a Bad Thing, and simply living life from that point on, day-by-day. Then the Bad Thing becomes just a part of a life, and when we look around at other people we discover that most of them have experienced bad things too, and have made similar decisions. Survival is the rule, not the exception, and I can’t understand the “why” of it any more than I can understand why a cut heals over.

The idea of forgiveness is a greater mystery still—one I’ll spend the rest of my life attempting to unravel. As it happens, I’ve got a helper in this endeavor, a strange sort of sidekick. His name is Wayne Lo and he’s the man who murdered my son.

Wayne writes to me a few times a year, usually with a small check, which I deposit in the Galen Gibson Scholarship Trust. He earns the money by selling his artwork on the internet. This made the news for a moment in the spring of 2007 when a zealous fellow down in Houston realized that murderers were cashing in on their crimes. He coined the term “murderabilia” and decided to put an end to this practice.

Media people contacted me for an opinion, expecting some juicy murdered-son outrage. I opined that donating money to a scholarship fund in Galen’s name was one of the few ways that Wayne Lo, locked in prison for the rest of his life, could try to atone for what he’d done. Society, I told them, has been very efficient about punishment, but backward about reconciliation and rehabilitation. This was not the answer they wanted to hear, so it didn’t make the news.

Then, a couple of years ago I got a letter from Wayne telling me that there was a new book on school shootings that plagiarized Gone Boy.

I bought a copy of the book and found it to be the work of a hack sociologist who’d appropriated whole chunks of my material, citing fictionalized names and incidents as if they were fact. When I confronted him he confessed his crimes and slunk back into his hole. I then published an unfavorable review of the book, characterizing it as something akin to pornography, and pointing out that it was part of a burgeoning genre of sensationalist school-shooting literature. (Search Amazon under “school shootings” and see how many hundreds of hits you get.)

A few weeks later, I received a long distraught letter from Wayne Lo. He told me he felt terrible. Not only had he damaged so many lives with his shooting, now he was responsible for ruining the reputation of the sociologist. I told Wayne not to worry, that the man had done sloppy work, and that Wayne had been right to call attention to this. Wayne wrote back, greatly relieved, and I returned to my meditations on the mysteries of moving on—this time to ponder the bizarre situation in which I console the murderer of my son.

I never expected to have a murdered son, and I never expected to find myself considering the degree to which—like the old Indian custom someone told me about—I have swapped my son for his killer. That’s not exactly what’s going on, but sometimes it feels close. Wayne keeps sending his letters and checks, and I keep writing back, and we inch toward whatever deep and inexplicable destination we have in common. Perhaps some day we’ll get there. Perhaps we never will. It seems strange to me, and I can only imagine how it must look to others, including my patient and tolerant family.

But that’s exactly the point. There are endless branches on this journey, and no two people’s experiences are ever the same. I hear a lot about what I “ought” to be doing and feeling and, as was the case with the “murderabilia” issue, I am often confronted by people who expect me to feel a certain way when, in fact, I do not feel that way at all.

Much of the time, I realize that what I’m really dealing with are people’s own fears or their overwhelming desire to normalize what for them must be an unthinkable situation. What is there to do but try to be honest with them, and keep on moving? If I’ve learned anything since Galen’s death, it is simply to follow my heart, regardless of the expectations that surround me.

That, as much as anything else, is what this book is about.

Excerpt from Gone Boy: A Father’s Search for the Truth in His Son’s Murder by Gregory Gibson, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 1999, 2000, 2011 by Gregory Gibson. Reprinted by permission of publisher.