Gil Harrington describes as “unflinching” the book she co-wrote about the abduction and brutal murder in 2009 of her 20-year-old daughter, Morgan, the desperate quest to find Morgan and then her killer and, finally, the aftermath of his arrest.
Readers likely will agree with Harrington’s assessment.
Her chronicle of the waking nightmare her family endured and the ultimate transcendence of that bone-deep suffering is as unsparing as a forensic autopsy.
Harrington, 60, and artist Jane Lillian Vance, 58, through Nepal-based Vajra Books, have published “Morgan Harrington: Murdered and Dead for Good — A Mother’s Quest to Find a Serial Killer and Healing.”
The 217-page book features an unconventional mix of material. The contents include narrative text, journal entries and poetry by Gil Harrington, along with essays by Vance and letters by Morgan Harrington to her parents and her brother.
Stark black-and-white photos show Morgan Harrington’s bones. Her skeletonized remains were found in a heap on an Albemarle County farm field on Jan. 26, 2010. She had been abducted on Oct. 17, 2009, in Charlottesville, where she had traveled with friends to attend a concert by Metallica. At the time, she was a student at Virginia Tech.
She left the concert early, was not allowed to re-enter the John Paul Jones Arena and was last seen alive on the Copeley Road bridge, where witnesses later said she appeared to be hitchhiking.
In a poem in the book, Gil Harrington writes, “Now I have felt the heft of her skull in my palm/An abomination for any Mom.”
During a recent interview at the home she and her husband, Dr. Dan Harrington, share in Roanoke County, Gil Harrington said she felt an obligation to present an authentic account of her daughter’s brutish death at the hands of Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr.
In March 2016, Matthew pleaded guilty to abducting and murdering Morgan in October 2009 and to abducting and murdering Hannah Graham, 18, in 2014, when she was a student at the University of Virginia.
He was sentenced to serve four life sentences, set to run consecutively. He is imprisoned at Red Onion State Prison, a penitentiary in Wise County where the inmate population includes prisoners prone to “predatory-type behavior,” according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Matthew became a suspect in Graham’s abduction after video surveillance and subsequent witness reports revealed he had stalked and then interacted with Graham on the night of Sept. 13, 2014.
Her remains were found Oct. 18, 2014, in a remote part of Albemarle County.
DNA analysis linked Matthew to both murders. Forensic analysis also tied him to a brutal sexual assault in September 2005 in Fairfax, when the victim was a young woman from India.
Referencing Morgan and Hannah, Gil Harrington said, “These girls did not go to heaven on a pink cloud. They were bleeding and screaming and their bones were broken. I don’t hate Jesse Matthew. But I wanted it to be very clear what happened.”
That clarity helps skewer the illusion of invulnerability that often accompanies youth, she said.
“It brings the message home that this does not just happen to other people in other places,” Harrington said.
The book includes Harrington’s description of details from Morgan’s autopsy: “He ripped your ribs from their cage; he did a two-handed twist on your upper arm and spiral-shattered your living bone; he knocked out your front teeth; he fractured your skull.”
During the prolonged search to find Morgan’s killer before he killed again, Harrington’s explicit candor about the agony of her grief and her and Dan Harrington’s dogged work to keep the case in the public eye occasionally stirred controversy.
“I don’t know another way to do it,” Gil Harrington said recently.
She said she learned as an oncology nurse that false words of comfort ring hollow to patients and grieving family members.
“It’s like giving Styrofoam to eat to someone who is starving,” she said.
Vance likened Gil Harrington’s decision to include the photos of Morgan’s remains in the book to the decision made by the mother of Emmitt Till in 1955 to display in an open coffin the bloated body of her disfigured, 14-year-old African-American son, the victim of a brutal, racially motivated killing in Mississippi.
“Gil is one of the most remarkable and brave voices of her generation,” Vance said in an email.
Many historians of the civil rights movement suggest Till’s death and his mother’s decision to display his mutilated corpse were a catalyst for change.
“To become an effective advocate, you have to individuate the suffering, become the face of the issue,” Vance observed.
She said the image of Morgan’s “sorrowful jumble of bones in that lonesome field” helps communicate the savagery of the crime committed against her and provides wrenching evidence about the potential impacts of sexual violence.
“It’s true: What Jesse Matthew did to Morgan Harrington is too horrific to convey with words alone,” Vance said in an email.
Vance and Harrington believe the circumstances of Morgan’s death and her parents’ founding of Help Save the Next Girl have helped raise awareness about the potential for sexual violence against women and a host of related issues.
Hence the double meaning implied by the book title, “Dead for Good.” Harrington said her daughter did not die in vain.
She said there are now more than 50 chapters nationally of Help Save the Next Girl. Young people reached by the nonprofit’s work “are less likely to be perpetrators or victims,” she said. The organization also provides support to victims’ families.
Separately, the Harringtons have established the Morgan Dana Harrington Memorial Scholarship at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Morgan Harrington Educational Wing at Orphan Medical Network International’s OMNI Village in Ndola, Zambia.
The couple also has lobbied successfully for legislation that might help law enforcement arrest sexual predators like Jesse Matthew before they spread terror and grief to more victims and families.
And Gil Harrington’s blunt portrayal of her grief has led people to reach out for her support in the midst or aftermath of traumatic loss.
Vance said she believes the book’s vivid account of Harrington’s day-to-day struggles with loss and despair and her ultimate transcendence of those forces blazes a trail toward healing.
“As Gil and I speak to groups and universities about our book, and as we sign copies and hand them to people, I know we are giving medicine,” Vance said in an email. “I don’t think there is a comparable book for providing such a strong inoculation against fatal despair.”
In the book’s introduction, Vance writes, “I believe Gil knows and shows us all a way out of hell.”
In the book, Harrington observes, “I want to be an alchemist, able to stop the pain, the nightmare, to dispel the dark gaping throat of another day which devours us with anguish.”
She writes, “My blessing is that I experience this agony. I am aware that the rock of suffering contains the precious gem of grace with its many facets and brilliant colors.”
Harrington recruited Vance to observe and write about the court proceedings tied to Matthew’s cases in Fairfax and Albemarle counties.
“During the trials I did not want to archive,” Harrington said. “I wanted to be present with what was happening.”
Morgan Harrington had been a student in a class taught by Vance at Virginia Tech titled “The Creative Process.”
“When Morgan was missing, I wrote her dozens of emails, encouraged by Virginia State Police to do so,” Vance recalled.
The police were studying Morgan’s emails and social media presence, looking for clues, Vance said, that might help find her.
“Later, I learned that the Harringtons had seen also all of my attempts to reach my student Morgan, which must have shown her parents my persistent dedication to their daughter,” Vance said.
Vance and Gil Harrington became friends and, ultimately, collaborators.
“Gil and I are a perfect fit as co-authors. We are similarly spiritual, similarly resilient and similarly determined to limit injury and alchemize grief into medicine,” Vance said in an email. “We both love words, we both appreciate details, and both treasure conversation, art and storytelling.”
Vance’s decades of work in Nepal helped establish the connections with Vajra Books in Kathmandu. Its catalog of books lean toward texts about the Himalayas, Nepal, Tibet, Dharma teachings and more. At first glance, “Morgan Harrington: Murdered and Dead for Good,” seems out of place — a perception that owner Bidur Dangol addressed in an email.
“On the surface, it may appear that Morgan’s book is not the norm for Vajra,” Dangol observed. “But to respond to devastation with compassion is a spiritual art, and we publish spiritual wisdom.”
Violence against women is a global problem, he said, and “happens in the Himalayan country of Nepal as well as in Virginia.”
He added, “Protecting women and children is a responsibility in every country in every world. I said to Jane Lillian Vance, ‘I want to Help Save the Next Girl.’ ”
Vance said Gil Harrington responded to devastation with compassion. The book describes a healing interaction Harrington initiated with Jesse Matthew’s mother during a court proceeding.
“I am incredibly grateful that readers will see how Gil thought and behaved under inconceivable pressure and anguish,” Vance said in an email.
”Morgan Harrington: Murdered and Dead for Good — A Mother’s Quest to Find a Serial Killer and Healing,” can be ordered at helpsavethenextgirl.com. The cost is $20 and all proceeds benefit Help Save the Next Girl.