The Journey from Bill's Story
Excerpts from my journal and letters...
by Gabi Clayton
August 24, 1995
Someday I know someone will read these journals. They may wish I had written something between April 29th (when I believed Bill was going to be OK) and today. I couldn't. I tried 3-4 times, but I would read that last entry and it stopped me from knowing how to do anything. Today I begin again.
Bill committed suicide on May 8th. I miss him terribly - almost every moment. I will miss his smile and his twinkly eyes and his wacky sense of humor and his logical/infuriating/wonderful mind for the rest of my life. He chose to leave and now I have one wonderful son instead of two.
October 30, 1995
It is my own personal hell. I am hurting so much. The grief of losing Bill has not eased. It grows. And it affecting me physically in ways I am not sure how to handle. Sometimes a dull pain washes over me that I just drift out on. Not fighting it - I float on it. In a very strange way it is pleasant, and I let go and float on it for a few moments, not even caring if I come back... I am so tired.
August 18, 1996
Yesterday two people asked me how I could survive Bill's suicide. I told them that at first I didn't think I would. Then I realized that I had two choices - to be overwhelmed by the grief or to fight back. That was my choice. Nothing I can do will ever bring that sweet young man back into my life, but by doing what I can, maybe I can help change things so that some other kid doesn't see suicide as a better choice than living in a world filled with hate. I suppose the third choice would have been to "recover" and go on with my life as if nothing had happened. But that was not an option for me.
September 25, 1996
We finally put Bill's ashes in the ground in our backyard a little over a week ago, and planted two trees there. One was a little hawthorne tree that Bill and Catherine had "saved" from the woods across the street when they heard they were going to be developed a couple of summers ago.
Bill was safe here - it was the only damn place he felt safe.
...Until last week the ashes were sitting in our hall linen closet. So Bill got to come out of the closet one last time. There is some humor there - Bill would have liked that - he was quite the imp.
October 2, 1996
Steve Schalchlin wrote me and said:
I think I might have beaten the older boy senseless if I had been there knowing he took advantage of a kid that young. I despise these kinds of predators. (Can you tell?)
Yes, I can tell. Me too. Guess I did the next best thing - put him in prison. 13 months - and we were lucky to get that - damn lucky - we had a good judge.
The prosecutor - wasn't he s'pozed to be on our side? - asked the judge to go easy on him 'cause he was a good boy and he was cooperating with the police to help them catch another molester (a lie - the day before court a police officer who had been involved in Bill's hate crime case told me he heard Bill's molester was playing games with the police to make himself look good and stall for time, but wasn't "helping" at all - and that the police had told the prosecutor that.) I don't know if the prosecutor was suffering from burnout or homophobia. I suspect both.
And then there was the defense attorney. Can you imagine - he actually had the nerve to say in court - in front of us - that "Bill Clayton must have been looking for something when he went to that homoSEXual support group." I gave the judge such a look! She looked over at our prosecutor - I think expecting him to object. He said nothing.
Did I tell you that the molester actually had the nerve to show up at the anti-hate rally held in support for Bill and his friends? Catherine saw him on a city bus a few days before the rally and made a point of telling him "Don't you dare come to that rally." When he showed up, Bill ran over to us and was really freaked out. Catherine walked up to him and told him he'd better leave. (Isn't she amazing!) He left only when we started looking around for a phone to call the police! Then he got out quick.
Well, in court which was not long after Bill's death, I was allowed to make a statement. I told the judge that he had come to the rally, even after being told to stay away. I also said that while I couldn't blame the molester for Bill's suicide, but that Bill had never been suicidal until he was molested.
The defense attorney then spoke and claimed that his client didn't know that it was a rally for Bill - that he just happened to be walking in the park that day... I made eye contact with the judge again and shook my head "no" and held up a copy of the local daily newspaper which had a story announcing the rally.
When the judge sentenced him, she said, "While I can't take Bill Clayton's death into account in sentencing you, I also can't forget that he is not here. Therefore, I sentence you to 13 months."
It doesn't sound like much - does it? But it was a small triumph. He was wanting to get less than a year - so he could get work release and keep his job!
October 10, 1996
Note: This is a letter I wrote to Mimi, my sister. Her daughter Jessica was 8 months pregnant and went into a coma about a month after Bill died. They saved the baby - beautiful Jazlyn - who Mimi is raising. Jessica never came out of the coma. She died a couple of months later. Jazlyn has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
This piece is what I call my "mucky stuff". I see it as a turning point for me in coming to terms with Bill's death.
From: Gabi Clayton
Sent: Thursday, October 10, 1996 12:06 AM
It has been a long couple of days. I know you understand about cycling back through the grief process. I'm OK - but I had to go into some dark corners. I want to share some of it because I know you are dealing with something similar in your own situation about Jessica and in your own ways.
I told you I have a friend named Steve - the gay songwriter in LA who is surviving with AIDS. He found my web page and wrote me last summer and we have now decided to adopt each other. Something about what happened to Bill touched this man who never met him. Anyway, the letters back and forth have helped me work through some big stuff - about Bill's time in the hospital after the hate crime.
I thought I would share some - first is my long letter - Actually I wrote it in two, but I put them together. Then comes Steve's response to what I said.
All this time since Bill's suicide there has been one piece hanging over my head that I was afraid to really deal with - my feelings about the doctors in the hospital where Bill was before he committed suicide. Yesterday I wrote the letter I have been putting off for a year and a half. I haven't mailed it yet but it is in progress. This was yesterday's draft:
First of all I would like to thank you all for your letter of sympathy and the phone call after Bill committed suicide last year. I don't know if you have any idea how much those things mean at a time like that - let me assure you that it makes a huge difference.What they know that you don't is that the therapist who Bill saw for the sexual abuse was a woman I worked for. I had finished up my internship and she had just hired me as a contract therapist when Bill finally told Sam about the assault. The doctors had problems with him having seen her - dual relationships are s'pozed to be avoided in my profession. His counselor and I were both aware of that as an issue from the beginning, but Bill said he wanted to see her because he knew that she worked with sexual assault and was really good at it, because he knew she was safe, and because he liked her and trusted her. And it worked. We were really careful to keep it all separate. When I talked to her about Bill, I was just his mom.
We are healing and coping the best we can. I waited until the court trials were over (for the four boys who assaulted Bill) and then found a counselor - I didn't have the energy to do both at the same time. Alec, Bill's dad is doing well and so is Noel, his brother. They chose to work through this without professional help, and are both doing well - as well as anyone could with the death of a son or brother.
The reason I am writing is that on the phone and in your letter you said that if we ever wanted to talk you would be glad to. I guess it is time. The time Bill spent with you in the hospital is something of a blank space for us and I was wondering if you could share anything with us that might fill that space.
I had spoken to (one of the doctors) on the phone before we came up for the pre-discharge family meeting and in my notes from that conversation I have several things written down:
That Bill needed a new therapist - and that you strongly recommended a male therapist - that there needed to be a re-focus in therapy on identity formation and emancipation. That sexuality was not the issue. That I was too involved - there too much; and that he needed to develop his relationship and increase his connection with his father.
Bill saw a psychiatrist for his med check once, but other than that he was not in therapy after he came home. You told us let him do it on his own and not push him - and we didn't. Bill said he agreed with you, so in spite of a feeling that you might be wrong, we went along with your recommendations. I backed off - some, not completely. I stayed connected to him but didn't push him on finding a new therapist.
I am not sure where I am going with this. Just looking for some answers on what you saw in your time with Bill. I am not at all looking to place any blame on any of you. I am just trying to work through my own questions about how this happened.
Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Well I took the letter I wrote yesterday and showed it to a good friend who I used to work with. She said it wasn't clear what I wanted from them. Then I read it to the counselor I have been seeing for about a year to work on grief and loss etc. about Bill. She reminded me that I had written one before - a few months ago - not one to be mailed but just for me to see what came up. She said (today) "So, where is the anger?" She thought I was dancin' around too much in the one I wrote today. I think she's right. I was trying to keep them from being defensive and thinking I was going to sue them. I'm not going to sue them. That isn't what this is about. My friend had said there is no way to keep them from going into protection mode when they see it's a letter from the parent of one of their patients who committed suicide so soon after leaving their care. (I guess that is their problem, not mine.)
I got out the one I wrote before (and never sent) and now I am trying to put the two together in some way that makes sense for me. God, this is such hard, scary stuff. The part I left out of the first draft that I wrote last May was:
Right before the hate crime he was finally doing well. He wanted to live - he had plans for the future - he was beginning to feel whole and believe in himself again.I recently found a high school English paper Bill wrote soon after he started therapy for the sexual assault. He was writing about "Les Miserables" and Jean Valjean's life and then he wrote:
And then he was assaulted again. The support from the community carried him for the first few days, but then he sank and said he didn't want to live. He couldn't promise that he wouldn't hurt himself, so he went back to the hospital and he wound up with you. I spoke to one of you on the phone after Bill died, and I said I placed ALL the blame for his suicide on the four men - boys -animals who beat him. I meant it at that time.
Now - I still believe that they carry a lot of the responsibility. Bill carries some too - he made the choice and took the pills. I carry some -- for listening to you. You told me I was too strong an influence in his life and that Alec was disconnected or weak. You told me I should back off - "It's time for him to grow up. He needs to find his own therapist. Don't help him do it."
Well, I did what you said.
I was exhausted from the crisis - coming so close on the heels of the long, long crisis when he was sexually assaulted. I wanted somebody - some "expert" - to tell me what to do to keep my child alive and help him come back once again.
I heard you tell me that Bill's issues weren't about his sexual identity and the hate crime. I had a problem with what you said, but I didn't argue because I wanted to believe that you had helped him.
Now, what I have to say to you is that you were wrong. Now when I look at what you said (weak father, overbearing mother...) I see homophobia - "the old school" where homosexuality was considered a disease or a disorder - or maybe it's ignorance - but I doubt it.
By telling me to back off, and that he shouldn't see his old counselor you cut his lifelines at the time when he needed them the most. And I listened to you - when deep down I knew better. DAMN YOU.
In the world today many people's careers and happiness are ruined by small mistakes in their past which for one reason or another cannot be forgotten. I myself am a good example of this. Over a year ago I gave into pressure to have sex with an older man, and to this day I suffer from bouts of suicidal depression, have nightmares every other night, and am constantly uncomfortable around adult males....mistakes in their past which for one reason or another cannot be forgotten. There it is. And I blame me. Not completely but it's there. I might have Bill here alive today if I just hadn't listened to the damn doctors. I only went along with their plan because Bill convinced me that he agreed with them. But how do I know what they said and did to him and with him while he was in the hospital? And how the hell do I forgive myself?
I am talking with myself and with you - trying to work it out, wondering how I will ever get to where I can let it go. When I send it to them - after I work this all out, I don't know what answer I'll get - if any. In the end it doesn't really matter how or even if they respond (although I hope they do). I think the important thing is that I am not so afraid to deal with it any more.
I guess being the mom of a son who committed suicide it is natural to blame myself - to look at everything that happened and see the mistakes I made. I know - I'm human. But the stakes were so high and Bill lost, and in the end so did all of us who loved him.
And Steve wrote:
I've had time to look at your letter to me regarding doctors.
I heard you tell me that Bill's issues weren't about his sexual identity and the hate crime. I had a problem with what you said, but I didn't argue because I wanted to believe that you had helped him. Now, what I have to say to you is that you were wrong. When I look at what you said (weak father, overbearing mother...) I see homophobia - or maybe ignorance - but I doubt it.TOTAL HOMOPHOBIA and ignorance.
"mistakes in their past which for one reason or another cannot be forgotten" There it is. I blame me. Not completely but it's there. I might have Bill here alive today if I just hadn't listened to the damn doctors. I only went along with their plan because Bill said he agreed with them. But how do I know what they said and did to him and with him while he was in the hospital? And how the hell do I forgive myself?Gabi. Listen to me clearly. Let this piece of truth sink in very slowly. You are not, in any way, responsible for Bill's death. You did what you thought was right at the time and second guessing your decisions is a useless task that will only cause you more pain. Bill is not dead because of something you did or did not do. You have no proof whatsoever that a different doctor or a different therapist or a different room color could have changed what happened.
Also, in dragging this stuff up with the doctors. I'm not sure what your goal is here. I'm not saying you shouldn't do it, I'm just saying that it's not clear to me what good it will do. If you really feel the doctors were being blatantly bigoted in the way they handled Bill, then you should come out and say it. If it's a matter of people making honest mistakes, then the chances are they feel just as badly as you do.
Clearly, all of you were in the heat of a disaster in the making and no one had any answers. The worst thing I hear you saying is when you blame yourself for Bills' death, thinking that if you done this or that, it might not have happened. Ultimately, it was Bill's decision and it was based on his fear that his life would be full older rapists or of gangs lying in wait for him. That is not a perception you or anyone else could change. All this tragedy happened at too young an age for him to be able to handle it. This breaks my heart in ways I cannot describe. And I know it breaks yours.
You can review your actions until the cows come home, but the only reason to do it in my opinion is to help others if they find themselves in that same position. In other words, to save another kid's life. But each situation is so different. We cannot, no matter how hard we try, go back and undo what's been done.
My feeling is that your energies (and mine) should be directed at the future, not the past. What can we do now that will save someone's life. Already, in your last letter, you've mentioned others who are getting courage from your stepping forward with all this, as you've said you've gotten power from my story.
We feed each other. We heal each other. When I meet a kid like Shawn, who sounds so strong, and yet is so very vulnerable, I'm reminded that our duty is to the living. I intend to lift Bill's Story as high as I can as beacon to what hatred can do to precious youngsters. I feel as if he's my own brother.
There's more, by the way, but I need to save it for now because I'm not quite ready to tell you what I have in mind. All I can tell you is that this story hasn't even begun. The more we lift Bill Clayton's life (and the lives of others such as Shawn) into the light of truth, the more lives we will save. Gabi, my readers have been touched deeply by Bill's life story as I have.
I also don't want to forget you. It's *your* heart that bears the deepest pain, and I have a feeling that every time we change someone's life with his story, the pain might lessen just a little bit. I respect you and salute you and care for you. Good luck, Sweetheart.
Mimi... I am fine and getting through it. At this point I don't think I am going to send the doctors a letter - it really isn't about them.
Well, guess I have said enough for tonight.
The "more" Steve referred to was dedicating his CD to Bill's memory - at least that's what I think it was. He did that - he told me that he was going to dedicate one song, but when I got it in December he had gone and done the whole wonderful thing in memory of Bill and in honor of one of our friends, Shawn Decker.
October 15, 1996
I just need to whine a minute. My back hurts, my head hurts, my stomach is in knots, and I "forgot" to eat dinner 'till around 11pm (I did have a late lunch). I should go to bed, but this time I thought I'd write first. I spent the day hanging out with Catherine, running errands, dodging raindrops. It was a good day - even saw the sun sometimes.
Everything was "cool" 'till about 10:30 tonight when the phone rang. When I answered, the voice on the other end said, "Can I speak to Bill?"
I asked "Bill Clayton?" and she said yes. My stomach was a knot, and I asked who was calling. It was Holly. She was a young woman Bill had met and became close friends with during his last stay in the hospital... When he was discharged they promised to stay in touch with each other. Or maybe she left first, I can't remember. She called and left a message on our answering machine (for Bill) within a few days after he died, but we couldn't understand the phone number. I tried calling the hospital, but they couldn't give out information. I remember telling Alec that she would probably call back some day out of the blue. I was right.
So I had to tell her that Bill had committed suicide. God, those words are so hard to get out... Holly took it well - especially considering that she thought she was going to get to talk to her friend and got me and bad news instead. She was totally shocked when she found out how soon after he got out of the hospital he died. She said she thought he had been in really good shape.
And she said that Bill was "brilliant."
December 9, 1996
A friend, David, wrote and asked:
Gabi, I hesitate in asking about this because I don't want to bring up the pain, but I have to know - have the two guys that attacked Bill ever expressed any remorse at all? How about their parents? One can only hope that even people like that have some conscience somewhere.
There were four guys. And no. Not any real remorse. One of them said he was sorry in court. But the judge even noticed that he wouldn't look at me when he said it. And commented on it. They were pretty scary kids.
One of the parents said that she was shocked at her son's behavior - that she was divorced from his dad and her son didn't live with her. She said that she had gay friends and she told the judge to do whatever he thought was best.
Unlike the dad of another one of them who spoke before his kid was sentenced and begged the judge not to send his son to juvy 'cause his son would lose his summer job! I was given a chance to speak after that, and I said to that man that my son would never have a summer job.
Then there was one dad who was pretty shut down through the court proceedings. After court we were standing outside the building and his son walked by (without looking at us) and he walked by and then stopped and turned to me - Catherine was right there ready to "protect" me - bless her heart. So were Sam's parents. The dad - he says "I'm really sorry." and then he turned and left. He meant it. That was a nice moment. It was something anyway.
I missed the last trial. They changed the date or time and forgot to tell me. Catherine went with Sam's family and Jenny's mom. Alec couldn't handle the court stuff and didn't try. I think he was afraid he would explode if he had to sit in the same room with them. I still don't know how I got through it - lots of love and support - that is the only thing that saved me. But I had to be there, and I had to speak and tell them and the judges what they did. Anyway, Catherine said later she was glad I didn't go to the last one. He plead not guilty and it lasted for hours and hours and they went over every second of what happened with all the kids - Sam and Jenny and the others. She said it was much worse than Bill had told us, but he didn't know or didn't remember because he had blacked out and then was in shock.
I'm not helping am I? I still can hope that the boys that did this will someday realize what they have done.
December 10, 1996
Catherine and I just buried Falcor - our dear kitty... We had to make a hard decision and had him put to sleep. Damn. Falcor was king of the house, and he was so loved.
So, instead of being warm and dry, we are damp from burying him in the yard in the rain. In a special and beautiful basket of Catherine's. He is wrapped in her old bathrobe - the one he so often curled up in to purr and sleep on her lap. I don't know if we made the best decision. There wasn't a good one. He was in so much pain, and facing so much...
We buried Falcor in the backyard, next to the two trees where Bill's ashes are. They loved each other so much - they used to chase each other around the yard in impish glee. And they are together now, and chasing each other still.
January 5, 1997
Today I watched some video of Bill with a friend - she asked me if it was hard to see it and I had to say no. It felt really good - and I am glad that while there is tons of sadness - and I miss him terribly, I am not having to avoid memories or feel like I can't handle it. It's not too much. It just is.
The work I have been doing on my webpages has been an amazing part of the process. The people I have met because of posting "Bill's Story" and the responses they have sent me have been incredible... This internet thing still amazes me.
January 7, 1997
I talked to an old friend who I used to work with at the teen shelter here. She runs a similar program in another state now. She doesn't have internet access (yet) but we talk on the phone occasionally and she knew both the kids and came back when Bill died - for the memorial.
Anyway - she told me on Sunday that I have changed lives down there. She said that she had 17 kids this year who were kicked out or mistreated and ran away because of being gay and coming out and not being accepted by parents. She said she knew about PFLAG only because of me - and she told me that 11 of those kids parents are now in PFLAG. And doing OK.
She said I did that. WOW. Eleven kids. (Of course - then there's the other six - and the ones she didn't know about...)
We do make a difference. Never doubt that. I don't know if you have heard the Starfish story - I found it a few years ago - and I get it out and read it whenever I feel like the battle is too big. Here it is... Love, Gabi
As the old man walked the beach at dawn, he noticed a young man ahead of him picking up starfish and flinging them into the sea. Finally catching up with the youth, he asked him why he was doing this. The answer was that the stranded starfish would die if left until the morning sun.
"But the beach goes on for miles and there are millions of starfish," countered the other. "How can your effort make any difference?"
The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it to safety in the waves. "It makes a difference to this one," he said.
January 26, 1997
I can hardly believe that when I write these letters I am writing to so many people - I counted over 70 of you tonight - and from all over the world! My 44 year old brain is awed! I hadn't even touched a computer until 1988. Of course, Noel was just 12 years old then, and he is now almost 21 and a junior in college. WOW.
This time of year is usually very grey in the Pacific Northwest, but we have been blessed with some sunny days. Today I was able to see the Olympic mountains across Puget Sound - they are covered with snow and quite stunning.
The sight of those mountains made me remember visiting Mount Saint Helens a few years ago with Alec and Noel and Bill. When we visited, the volcano had erupted years before our trip. The power of the destructive forces that had been unleashed still seemed overwhelming and un-survivable. Whole pieces of St. Helens were gone, as were people, creatures, whole forests... A lodge by the edge of Spirit Lake was buried there in the water that rose from all the trees that jammed and flooded the lake.
The mountain was forever changed; the losses were huge. And yet...and yet there was life returning to the mountain. A new tree pushing up here, a little animal there. We were delighted and awed by the healing that was taking place. Nothing would ever be the same, but something wonderful was growing out of those ashes.
And here I am, thinking of Bill, and of our losses. And seeing that it is SO huge, and that our lives are forever changed. The power of the destructive forces that were unleashed on Bill were overwhelming and un-survivable for him. And now, nothing will ever be the same for us.
And yet, there is healing - and there is something quite amazing happening - out of those ashes. You are all part of it... and knowing you all floods me with hope.
All my love... Gabi
April 7, 1997
The day is almost done. Today was the 2nd anniversary of the hate crime assault on Bill. A day I dreaded more this year than last, because last year I was still so numb that I got through the anniversaries without big feelings...
No such luck this time. I am being sarcastic here - I am grateful that my healing allows me to feel more - even when that which I feel is the loss of my beautiful baby boy. Even when the feelings are so hard.
Better that than numb any day...
When Bill died, Alec's sisters came out to be with us. They did not know Bill was bisexual until he died. Mississippi is a long way from here. Linda and I took a walk to the Azalea garden a couple of blocks from our house and we sat on a bench and I told her how afraid Bill was to come out to us because he had heard of kids losing their families when they did. Linda, bless her heart, looked at me and said "How can someone stop loving a child?" I couldn't answer that for her then, and I still can't.
(Here I am speaking to a parent who's son had recently come out) ...Then I read that you said:Question: When does this sort of thing stop? When does a parent get a chance to catch their breath a little?
From where I sit, my friend, you are the lucky one. I would give anything to have back those years of major crisis and sleepless nights - night after night - when I was SO tired and wondered the same thing. Count your blessings. I hope you have all the time in the world. On the other hand, please don't take one precious second for granted.
April 9, 1997
...As far as Bill goes, I feel his spirit working on me and others, and I know that while I have lost his body and his mind, that doesn't mean I have lost him completely. Call it memories, love, spirit, whatever... nothing ever being destroyed into nothingness applies to how I feel about Bill's death... some energy or force that is still here and lives on. The impact he had on me and those who knew and loved him. In that sense, he is not gone.
April 19, 1997
Someone wrote me and said he was sitting in an internet cafe looking for ways to commit suicide, and came upon my pages. He asked:
i just want to know how you found the energy and power to go on after all that has happened to you..."
At first, right after Bill died, I was numb. Very numb, very shut down. And honestly, I am amazed that I survived through that first time. The grief was so overwhelming that I was having all kinds of physical things going on. And I would be lying if I told you that suicide didn't cross MY mind then - it did. I wanted out, but also was somehow not too focused on it for long. I knew that it was from the grief, and I was able to just watch the thought of it float in and then out again when ever it came up. I told myself that it usually was not a permanent thought and I would see - and it wasn't... I did not hold on to it too tight as an answer.
Finally, a while after the memorial - which we had TONS of help pulling together or it would never have happened, I eventually was able to put "one foot in front of the other" and return to living some of my life. I went back to work slowly, and I managed somehow to deal with things. Or not, sometimes...
My family and friends got me through the time of the trials of the boys who assaulted Bill - and I continued to shut down as much as possible to do that. When it was done, I found a therapist to work with. Eventually the numbness started dissipating... That was this last fall and winter. I was finally not able to hold back the horror any more, but I was terrified that if I really let go and did go into it, I would never come back up and out of what I call my "mucky stuff".
What I can tell you is that I would NOT have survived it without the love and support of people in my life - people who were there for me and who trusted that I was doing what I had to do. And who also believed that I would come back out on the other side. I have never felt so loved as through that time - and that is not something I expected to find. But I was able to somehow let people in - very carefully at first - to protect myself, but then more and more... I needed the connection with them in order to come back.
I am not "done" with my grieving - but I have come a long way on this journey since 2 years ago. Yes, the world is still filled with hate, but there is also so much that is good and loving. I have to stay connected and open to that or I will not have the energy or the power that you mentioned to go on.
© 1997 by Gabi Clayton
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