Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Natasha Trethewey is an English professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate familiar to me from Native Guard (2006), her third of five poetry collections – an elegant meditation on America’s complex racial heritage that won her a Pulitzer Prize. Memorial Drive is a striking memoir, as delicate as it is painful, about her mother’s murder 35 years ago.

Trethewey was born in 1960s Mississippi to a Black mother and a white Canadian father at a time when interracial marriage remained illegal in parts of the South. Having met as students in Kentucky, her parents had to go to Ohio to get married. As a girl, Trethewey noticed that she was treated differently depending on which parent she was with. The Ku Klux Klan was still active in Mississippi, and high-profile lynchings like Emmett Till’s were recent history.

When her father left for graduate school in New Orleans, she and her mother would visit occasionally, but her parents’ impending separation was clear. Mother and daughter moved to Atlanta, Georgia to start a new life. Trethewey quickly realized that her mother, Gwen, had two sides, one loving and one demanding, and she felt that she had to be perfect to please her. So, after her mother remarried, she kept quiet about her stepfather Joel’s psychological abuse, thinking that suffering without complaint was the mark of a good girl. But then Joel started to hit Gwen, and the beatings got worse if she stood up for her daughter. The one time Trethewey tried to tell someone about the situation at home, her teacher turned a blind eye.

In 1983, Gwen and the children (including Trethewey’s younger half-brother) escaped to a women’s shelter. A year later, after the divorce came through, Joel abducted Gwen and tried to kill her via a lethal injection, but the police showed up in the nick of time and Joel went to prison for a year. Jail time and psychiatric treatment did little to quash his determination to kill Gwen, and in 1985 he succeeded, shooting her twice at close range at her apartment.

Gwen’s death opens and closes the book; the long loop that joins the two is made up of flashbacks, impressionistic scenes in italics, and official testimonies and transcripts that Trethewey only accessed 20 years later. Nor did she return to that Atlanta apartment on Memorial Drive until 30 years had passed. “To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it,” she writes. Decades later, she finally put that whole story together in a way that allowed her to grieve her loss as if for the first time.

She continues to feel survivor’s guilt, especially because Joel confessed at his trial that he intended to kill Trethewey in 1983, taking a gun to a high school football game where she was cheerleading. She had no idea he was armed and unwittingly saved her life by, despite her wariness, smiling and greeting her stepfather. Had she not – had he shot her that day – he would have been locked up and couldn’t have killed Gwen. I found this detail so chilling; along with Chapter 6, narrated in the second person, it’s what will most stick with me.

True to her profession, Trethewey incorporates dreams and metaphors in the narrative, choosing to see the significance of symbols and even of the measly clues a medium dredged up for her in 2015. She dwells on coincidences and ironies, and returns to the image of her mother saving her from drowning on a holiday to Mexico in 1969. The metaphor of a wound – in Gwen’s head, in the apartment wall; the indelible effect on Trethewey’s life – recurs. “The place my mother was murdered [was] in the shadow of Stone Mountain, the symbol of the Confederacy and a monument to white supremacy that joins in my psyche the geography and history—both public and private, national and personal—of my deepest wounds.”

The blend of the objective (documentary evidence like recorded phone conversations) and the subjective (interpreting photographs, and rendering dream sequences in poetic language) makes this a remarkable piece of nonfiction that is unlike most bereavement memoirs or true crime narratives. I recommend it highly to readers of Elizabeth Alexander and Dani Shapiro.

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and writer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir (Bloomsbury Circus, 2020). 978-1408840016, 224 pp., hardback.

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