I was a senior in high school, in May 1999, when my mother told me the curly-haired boy who’d once sung with me in our church’s children’s choir admitted to murdering his older sister in 1995 and burning down the family house. In a plea bargain with the D.A., Matthew Harper had received thirty-five years without parole for bludgeoning his sister with a rolling pin; stabbing her in the back with a large kitchen knife and penetrating her heart; then setting the house on fire as their mother and grandmother slept. For a number of seconds I sipped my coffee without speaking. “Matt?” I finally asked. I hadn’t thought about the Harper tragedy in years; and Matt’s full name now sounded like a stranger’s. “Matt who played David in David and Goliath?” The same fourteen-year-old boy I remembered singing the lead part in the Junior Choir’s rendition of David and Goliath as the biblical hero who slays the ogreish Philistine warrior with a rock from his slingshot later murdered his sister, Anne Harper, on Thanksgiving morning, 1995. This was three years after his starring role in the musical sermon, at our Episcopalian church. After killing Anne—a twenty-year-old junior at Hollins College who’d returned to northern Virginia for the holiday—Matt poured gasoline around her body sprawled in the living room and went upstairs to dribble fuel oil outside of their mother’s bedroom door. (Since the separation, their father had lived elsewhere.) Matt then set the red-brick house on Ryers Place ablaze. Although a neighbor was able to rescue the grandmother from her basement apartment, their mother Elizabeth Harper suffered first- and second-degree burns before she fell from a second-story window while trying to escape, breaking her back. She later refused to testify against her son. Matt was eighteen at the time he fled the burning house, flinging his blood-slick shoes into a shallow drainage creek.
As a shy, eleven-year-old fifth-grader, in the spring of 1992, I thought the eighth-grader Matt Harper the perfect sample of a teenage boy. I admired his dark, chin-length mane; his wry sense of humor; his confidence in leading the procession of red-and-white robed choir members as we bobbed and trekked to our purple seats around the pipe organ; his starring role as the hero David, in his Birkenstocks and white socks. David and Goliath was my first church musical. Although no one in my immediate family is currently religious, my parents, who were both raised in Mississippi, dutifully brought my younger sister and me to the nine o’clock service at the Church of the Good Shepherd every Sunday morning. And though we lived in Fairfax, Virginia—a metropolitan suburb of Washington, D.C.—they felt that church-going was the proper Southern thing to do. When my mother gave me the choice between joining the Junior Choir Choristers or attending Sunday school, I picked singing over Bible study.
In David and Goliath, I played an Israelite whose homeland was threatened by the encroaching Philistine army. I sported braces with rubber bands the color of old chewing gum and bushy, hair-sprayed bangs that my father had trimmed, with the kitchen scissors, into the shape of copper mushroom. For my costume I wore a magenta shirt with a purple-paisley “I,” for “Israelite,” appliqued across my flat chest. I layered my magenta “I” T-shirt over a white turtleneck, while my friend Lisa—a Philistine—wore a lima-bean-green “P” T-shirt over her turtleneck. I blended in with the rest of the chorus, my soft, girl-soprano bleating a defiant taunt to Goliath as I shook my right fist: “We warn you, Giiii-ant! You’re in a stew. You’ll be a client for the undertaker’s wagon when he’s through with you.”
In the musical, Goliath glided on wheels across the nave of the church, like a massive swivel chair—a hollow, ten-foot-tall puppet with facial hair and no visible hip bones or evident legs. Someone’s dad had built the Philistine giant’s plywood barrel-body in the shape of a vast cylinder with squared shoulders and a quarterback’s fat neck. Someone else’s parent had assembled Goliath’s black-and-white muumuu using what looked like a bed sheet slung over an old Senior Choir robe. They’d draped his head in a grey cloth helmet and given his rectangular face two furrowed caterpillar-eyebrows and a brown, pelt-like beard. For some reason Goliath didn’t have any ears, eyeballs, or a nose. He resembled an obese, craft-fair soldier-nutcracker on roller skates or a Cold War-era cartoon of a dark-bearded Russki. Instead of stepping toward the shepherd David for a fight, Goliath—pushed from behind by a member of the cast—rattled on his wheels, like a refrigerator, toward Matt Harper, who I remember raised his slingshot. I don’t remember whether Matt launched a foam rock. I do recall that instead of tumbling over when struck in the head, Goliath comically shrank to half his height, as if he’d been stomped on like an aluminum beer can. One tug of a wooden lever sent the top portion of the giant’s torso sliding down over his bottom half, like the larger barrel of a telescope collapsing over the smaller. With Goliath dead, the Philistine army fled. The audience roared and clapped with delight.
Anne Harper seems a more distant figure. Five years my senior, she sang in the ninth- through twelfth-grade choir called Lightshine and wore a navy robe cinched in the middle with tasseled gold ropes. I often watched her from my seat on the opposite side of the pipe organ. Anne had long, strawberry-blond hair and fair skin—like mine—and our first names differed by only a single letter. The image of Anne continues to linger in my memory, while the rest of the teenage singers in Lightshine have long vanished from their seats beneath the organ’s symmetrical lead pipes. Sometimes I’d look up from my plum-colored hymnal and catch Anne’s eye. She had a slender, pointed nose; wide hips; thick, slightly messy hair; and, without much makeup, a subtly old-fashioned paleness in her dark robe. Anne could’ve been cast as an extra in a movie about pioneers moving west in covered wagons. She’d smile at me through her bangs, though she didn’t have braces. I wondered if she might be what I’d eventually look like as a teenager.
In February 1992, a couple of months before Matt cracked Goliath in the head with a rock from his slingshot to cheers and applause, Anne reflected on the aftermath of her parents’ separation in her diary. Journalist Tom Jackman quotes several of Anne’s entries in The Washington Post. “Mom and Matt raised voices ‘cause he wants to stay with Dad,” she writes. “Matt punched a hole in the wall and cracked a door. Scary.” In other entries presented in the trial, Anne writes chillingly of Matt’s violence toward their mother: “Mom and Matt got into an awful fight today. . . . It got physical. Mom has an awful red mark on her R eye, and for a while her lower face (R) was swollen.” Elsewhere in her diary Anne notes Matt’s growing combativeness. “Matt and I had a major fight—one of the biggest in years,” she confides. “He’s been so damn aggressive toward me lately,” she writes on another date. “Why? I haven’t done anything.”
Because of my shyness, our choir director Marti declined to cast me as the notorious Phoenician queen, Jezebel, in a later church musical. Instead, she gave the role to Louise, who often showed up late to Wednesday evening choir practice still wearing her junior high school cheerleading uniform. I received my usual role as a member of the chorus. “Now Jezebel was their queen,” I sang, waving my jazz hands in Louise’s direction. “A meaner queen you’ve never seen. She prayed daily to a stone god. She bowed and scraped and acted odd.” The role of Jezebel was everything I wasn’t: flamboyant, loud, sexy, defiant. I thought, though, if given a chance, I might morph into the role, embrace Jezebel’s traits, and belt out her solo as she’s dragged by members of her court toward an open window to be tossed to the wild dogs: “This time tomorrow, you’ll be dead, so dead. Enough is enough! Hear what I’ve said: This time tomor-ro-ho, you’ll be dead!”
“When I think about my sister, I think of a beautiful young woman,” Matthew Harper said in front of a packed courtroom, in May 1999, after receiving his prison sentence for second-degree murder and arson: thirty-five years without the possibility of parole. For the past few years, as detectives built a case against him, Matt had majored in psychology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. He continued to attend classes at JMU, even after his first-degree murder indictment, and to visit his family, who’d posted his bond and refused to believe he’d murdered his sister. Matt finally confessed to killing Anne when he attended a court hearing at which prosecutors presented evidence that suddenly called up, he said, repressed memories of the crime. As part of the plea deal, the D.A. had reduced the first-degree murder charge to second-degree and had dropped the attempted murder charge. “I miss her every day,” Matt continued. “I can’t believe I took her life, but I know that I did.” It was his first public statement about his sister’s death.
I recall thinking that a sentence of thirty-five years seemed like a long time for a crime of passion, which is what I supposed the killing to be. Why else would an eighteen-year-old boy whack his sister in the head with a rolling pin and stab her in the back with a kitchen knife? Hadn’t my mother mentioned Matt’s alleged cocaine use and history of sibling rivalry? Maybe Anne came down the stairs, at two in the morning, and surprised Matt in the kitchen. Maybe he was balancing a bump of coke on the tip of a credit card or going through her purse. He must’ve been out of his mind when the argument started. The rolling pin and knife sitting right there, on the counter, ready for the Thanksgiving piecrusts.
Although my mother saved the program for David and Goliath and a number of photographs of the musical sermon, I’ve longed to find a videotape of the production. I remember a black tripod in the back of the nave, with the wide eye of a camera, recording away. I want to see for myself Matt singing the part of David, Matt killing Goliath, me looking with admiration on the star of the play, the savior of the Israelites and the whole day. I want to find out if I can “see” anything in him, any hint of what’s to come. Wasn’t anyone paying attention, besides Anne? And was she watching from the audience as Goliath imploded in what must’ve been a comic gesture to nearly everyone and a danse macabre to Anne and her mother? Wasn’t anyone else, over twenty years ago, able to ask, as Anne had: “Why?”
It’s Thanksgiving morning, eighteen years to the day Anne Harper died, and I’ve received from my father, via e-mail, nine scanned photographs of the musical sermon as well as the program my mother located. I got it all wrong. Instead of David and Goliath, the musical has the campier, Broadway-esque title, The Goliath Jazz. As I glance at the program, I find Matt Harper’s name, at the top, right beneath the name in all caps: “GOLIATH.” Matt never played David. He was, after all, the villain. Why had I so confidently, and over so many years, remembered otherwise? Why had I cast Matt as the hero? There is his name, though, printed in the old program, and there is his titular role as Goliath—the single and central name. Why did I remember “his dark, chin-length mane” when, in the only clear photograph I have of Matt, his blunt hairstyle is so clearly a frizzy mullet? He also wears hubcap-shaped, amber glasses. I almost didn’t notice Matt as I scrolled through the nine photographs, but there he is, in two of them. In one photograph—which shows the entire magenta-and-lima-bean-green cast holding hands and raising their arms for a group bow—the belled, red sleeve of the real David obscures Matt’s face. (According to the program, a girl named Valerie had played David; she’d slicked her shoulder-grazing blond hair back in a French braid.) In the other photograph, Matt has just slipped from his place behind the ten-foot Goliath, after pulling the lever that caused the giant to collapse to half his former height. Matt wears a white T-shirt with a black “G,” for Goliath, patched to the middle of his chest.
According to an article by Katherine Lenker, published in JMU’s newspaper, The Breeze, Matt Harper initially claimed that he’d been in bed at his girlfriend’s house at two a.m. when his mother discovered the fire in the early hours of Thanksgiving day. At four a.m., Matt and his girlfriend met his injured mother in her room at Fairfax Hospital. (His grandmother had escaped the blaze unharmed.) Several emergency room employees noticed traces of soot around Matt’s nose and mouth, and they observed a strained dynamic between mother and son. “Their interaction seemed unnatural and lacking in emotions,” one nurse said. Investigators also found soot-stains smeared into the girlfriend’s pillowcase. Matt claimed to have gotten soot on his face from embracing his mother while she lay in her hospital bed, but the nurses testified that he’d never once hugged her.
The musical score of The Goliath Jazz looks like a relic from the 1970s, which is precisely what it is. I bought a copy of it online. The slim, cream-colored booklet is covered in bubbly chocolate-brown and yellow biblical cartoons, including one of Goliath in his helmet and cumulous beard and a tiny, squirrel-sized David leaping above the giant’s shoulder, swinging his slingshot. Inside the booklet, Tracey Lloyd’s and Herbert Chappell’s lyrics haven’t aged especially well. Exclamatory onomatopoeia abounds: “Zam! Kersplatt! Ker-joing! And Pow!” And the jokes must’ve always been groaners:
GOL: I say, I say, I say.
I’ve got a goat with no nose.
DAV: You’ve got a goat with no nose?
GOL: I’ve got a goat with no nose.
DAV: Then how does it smell?
Other lines from The Goliath Jazz, in the context of Anne’s murder, resonate with a grim irony or an eerie prescience. “I prefer to pick on someone more my height,” sneers Goliath when confronted by the tiny Israelite. Later, Goliath warns: “From here on in it’s murder, Mister.”
When detectives questioned Matt about the crime, he suggested the killer was the same person who’d broken into the garage and stolen his expensive road bike. The police later discovered that Matt had in fact sold the bike to a consignment shop, filed a burglary report, and received a $3,600 payment from an insurance claim. Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh argued in court that Matt’s motivation for the murder was financial, citing Matt’s suspicious history of filing insurance claims, including one for a bike that had burned “accidentally” the summer before the murder. Matt received an insurance settlement for that bike as well. Detectives uncovered three other claims that the insurance company refused to pay because of Matt’s failure to cooperate with the company’s investigations. Maybe Anne heard a noise in the middle of the night and got up to find Matt dousing the house with accelerant, Morrogh theorized. According to The Washington Post, Matt had told a friend that, due to his family members’ insurance policies, “if everyone in his family died, he’d get over $1 million.”
I have trouble reconciling what I remember about Matt with what must have been true: that he could shove the wheeled Goliath-puppet through the church’s nave as easily as he could punch a hole through the wall of his house. How could he play the roles of both choirboy and bully who bruised the right eye of his mother? Those roles would’ve been, according to Anne’s diary, simultaneous. How could he change, in just three years, from campy biblical monster to real-life murderer? I should have scrutinized Anne more deeply as she sat across from me at the pipe organ. She was more than a mirror of my own narcissistic teenage potential. She was a young woman who loved cathedrals, who’d soon major in medieval studies and spend a semester in Europe, who’d continue singing as a member of the chapel choir at Hollins. All I have left of her is a few scattered diary excerpts, cited in old newspapers and floating among the debris of the Internet’s now ancient corners. And why didn’t I see Anne flinch as the bass notes of the organ mimicked the sudden echo of a male voice behind her, or notice the right side of her mother’s face, dark behind its thick foundation?
I could hardly believe this sentence about Matt printed in JMU’s The Breeze: “Harper was also involved in the Vestry, the leadership group of Canterbury Episcopal Campus Ministry.” Until he was finally arrested during his eight a.m. Sign Language class, in 1998, three years after the murder, Matt continued to play a role in the Episcopal church. He represented himself as a Christian “leader” and model college student, even after he’d left his sister, mother, and grandmother to the flames and ashes of a burning house. No photographs of Matt Harper (or Anne Harper), as far as I know, are available on the Internet—just this one scanned image in my inbox that contains Matt’s upper body and face. If I zoom in on his picture, I can correct his hairstyle in my memory. I can reassign him his right part. I understand that, from the very start, he’d always been Goliath. Why is it I still see him, though, so clearly and wrongly as the hero, leaning back to face the giant, calm and lethal, just beginning to take aim for his shot?
I can’t erase the old Junior Choir songs from my memory. I can’t get them out of my head. Most of the tunes are innocuous, melodic, reverent, nostalgic. Most of them are Christmas carols, hypnotic psalms, Easter hymns, slapstick musical numbers. But the ones from The Goliath Jazz burn on my tongue like a corrosive acid, exposing, too late, Matt Harper’s sinister role in real life, as he sang half-hidden behind Goliath—the murderer I should have recognized in time. The songs sneak up on me as I stand absentmindedly at the sink washing dishes, or while I work my shampoo into a white lather in the shower. They’re often wordless, just a scattering of notes, fragments of what I should have assembled and made whole from that fractured performance that will keep on repeating. Recently, I caught myself humming several bars of the score with a casualness that stunned me as I realized the context and stopped. I’ve wondered if the songs haunt Matt, too, if he ever thinks about the distant musical or replays our old roles, if the face of a Philistine giant mocks him from his cell’s small mirror. I do know that, more than once, I’ve glimpsed a red-haired girl in my own bathroom mirror as I splash water on my face and blot my cheeks with a washcloth. She often lingers, even after I shut off the light.
reprinted from Prairie Schooner