At age nineteen, Natasha Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the twin pulls of life and death in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey explores this profound experience of pain, loss, and grief as an entry point into understanding the tragic course of her mother’s life and the way her own life has been shaped by a legacy of fierce love and resilience. Moving through her mother’s history in the deeply segregated South and through her own girlhood as a “child of miscegenation” in Mississippi, Trethewey plumbs her sense of dislocation and displacement in the lead-up to the harrowing crime that took place on Memorial Drive in Atlanta in 1985.
Natasha Trethewey is an American poet who was appointed United States Poet Laureate in June 2012; she began her official duties in September. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her 2006 collection Native Guard, and she is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi.
She is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, where she also directs the Creative Writing Program.
Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, on April 26, 1966, Confederate Memorial Day, to Eric Trethewey and Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, who were married illegally at the time of her birth, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws with Loving v. Virginia. Her birth certificate noted the race of her mother as "colored", and the race of her father as “Canadian”.
Trethewey's mother, a social worker, was part of the inspiration for Native Guard, which is dedicated to her memory. Trethewey's parents divorced when she was young and Turnbough was murdered in 1985 by her second husband, whom she had recently divorced, when Trethewey was 19 years old. Recalling her reaction to her mother's death, she said, "that was the moment when I both felt that I would become a poet and then immediately afterward felt that I would not. I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened".
Natasha Trethewey's father is also a poet; he is a professor of English at Hollins University.
Trethewey earned her B.A. in English from the University of Georgia, an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University, and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1995. In May 2010 Trethewey delivered the commencement speech at Hollins University and was awarded an honorary doctorate. She had previously received an honorary degree from Delta State University in her native Mississippi.
Structurally, her work combines free verse with more structured, traditional forms like the sonnet and the villanelle. Thematically, her work examines "memory and the racial legacy of America". Bellocq's Ophelia (2002), for example, is a collection of poetry in the form of an epistolary novella; it tells the fictional story a mixed-race prostitute who was photographed by E. J. Bellocq in early 20th-century New Orleans.
The American Civil War makes frequent appearances in her work. Born on Confederate Memorial Day—exactly 100 years afterwards—Trethewey explains that she could not have "escaped learning about the Civil War and what it represented", and that it had fascinated her since childhood. For example, Native Guard tells the story of the Louisiana Native Guards, an all-black regiment in the Union Army, composed mainly of former slaves who enlisted, that guarded the Confederate prisoners of war.
On June 7, 2012, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, named her the 19th US Poet Laureate. Billington said, after hearing her poetry at the National Book Festival, that he was "immediately struck by a kind of classic quality with a richness and variety of structures with which she presents her poetry … she intermixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it." Newspapers noted that unlike most poets laureate, Trethewey is in the middle of her career. She was also the first laureate to take up residence in Washington, D.C., when she did so in January 2013. On May 14, 2014, Tretheway delivered her final lecture to conclude her second term as US Poet Laureate.
"You are in the fifth grade . . . At home you catch your mother alone, sitting on the bed, her left temple dark and swollen. Standing in front of her, eye level, you shift your weight from one leg to the other, your head down. 'Mommy,' you say quietly, so as to not be overheard. 'Do you know how, when you love someone and you know they are hurting, it hurts you too?'" -- page 103
Author Natasha Trethewey is probably best recognized as a 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry winner and also as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014. Her latest work, though, is a million miles away from her usual stock-in-trade - Memorial Drive is part biography / memoir and part true crime story.
Trethewey is the offspring of an interracial marriage that originated in the deep South, notably at a time just prior to the landmark Loving vs. Virginia (1967) decision. Although she had a happy early childhood - there is a noticeable upbeat tone when describing her maternal family in Mississippi - her parents divorced in the early 70's. She and her mother Gwendolyn moved to suburban Atlanta, and Gwendolyn soon married Joel. Right from the start of this new union Joel is, frankly, a scumbag - he's depicted as a shifty, suspicious, abusive and controlling man-child. Gwendolyn unfairly suffers years of physical violence and mental cruelty, but seems to make a clean break after ten years in the relationship. Then Joel, that sorry excuse for an adult who is desperate to have the last word or action, forces his way into Gwendolyn's new apartment and cold-bloodedly shoots her in the head.
It was heartbreaking. It was raw. It was anger-inducing. It may now be thirty-five years after this horrific crime but Trethewey is understandably still dealing with grief and loss. (Or, as author James Ellroy - who, as a child, lost his own mother in an unsolved murder - quipped, "Closure is bull****") I appreciate her boldness and candor with sharing this very personal part of her life with an audience.
Memorial Drive is Natasha Trethewey’s memoir detailing her life with her mother, who was murdered when Natasha was just 19 by her abusive stepfather. This devastating event is revealed at the start of the book, which moves through Natasha’s childhood as a biracial child in Mississippi, describing her family life and her mother-daughter relationship.
When her parents separated, Natasha and her mom moved to Atlanta. Her mom met Big Joe, starting what would become a volatile relationship. Reading some of the conversations with Joe that are revealed in this book, it’s haunting to know people really operate with such a delusional mindset. Her mom also had a son with Joe, Joey. When they later separated, Natasha, her mom, and Joey moved to a new apartment on Memorial Drive.
Memorial Drive is a tragic story with a terrible outcome. It’s also very well-written, you can feel Natasha’s pain and grief. She is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and I will read more from her after reading this.
Natasha Trethewey has twice been appointed poet laureate of the United States. Her beautiful words, her turn of a phrase, her ability to reach inside the reader and herself by turning thoughts into language in Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir, testify that this was a well-deserved appointment.
Ms. Trethewey takes us back to her childhood, growing up as a mixed-race child of an African-American mother and a white Canadian father. She brings forth memories of her relationship with each parent, but most especially of her mother, as her parents divorced when she was small. The author writes about racial situations that occurred in her life, and her touch on these topics is deft, meaningful, an underlying but not overwhelming focus of her story.
She tells with pride and love of her mother throughout the book, and although we know ahead of time that her mother was killed, shot point-blank in the head by her stepfather, it's still a shock to read her description. Her mother did the right things, reported her abuse to the police, kept detailed records and recorded phone interviews of and with her abuser, but he was still able, in a quick moment, to end her life.
The author tells of her stepfather's brief times in mental health facilities, yet her mother's recorded phone conversations with him pointed to a severely unstable and dangerous person who needed extensive help that he didn't receive. I can't help but wonder how things would have turned out if he had received that help.
This book is written beautifully and poetically. As I read each chapter, I kept getting the feeling that Ms. Tretheway was still trying to make sense of what happened and how often situations could have played out differently. So many times at the end of the chapter, I felt a wistfulness, and wondering, a "perhaps," in her trying to understand it all.
This is a poignant, touching book that I recommend. However, be aware of the descriptions of domestic abuse depicted within.
Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins Publishers/Ecco for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.
[4+] The strong bond between mother and daughter is the core of this searing memoir. We know from the first pages that Trethewey's mother is murdered. The suspense building up to that terrible event runs through the pages. Along the way, Tretheway poetically reconstructs moments of her girlhood and family life, carrying the reader along so that it is impossible not to feel her love and grief. (I listened to the audiobook, beautifully read by the author)
Some thirty years after her mother’s death at the hands of her brutal stepfather, Natasha Trethewey is documenting the long, arduous and painful process of reclaiming her memories of her life with her mother, memories she purposely had left dormant for years as a form of self protection, it seems. Here she presents her life with her mother in a style to be expected from such a skilled poet.
This is not the usual memoir as such or the story of her mother; rather it is an exegesis of their relationship, her mother’s marriages, the results of her murder and the tale of the formation of a writer from childhood. That childhood began in Mississippi at a time when her parents’ marriage was literally a crime, her father being a white Canadian and her mother a black woman. But it was apparently not a crime within her family of extended relatives on her mother’s side. Over the years, without Natasha’s understanding, her parents became estranged, separated and divorced. But both were supportive parents in her memory. Then mother and daughter moved to Atlanta setting the stage for triumphs and tragedy and a course of events that took the author time and distance to unravel, to find her place, to find her mother.
One of the interesting facets of this book for me is Trethewey’s use of literary terms or features to discuss aspects of her life. Those most used are metaphor and imagery. These often intersect with dreams and emotions of all kinds.
I definitely recommend this memoir.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
In her riveting memoir, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey examines the interplay of grief and memory as she attempted to come to terms with her mother’s brutal murder thirty years ago. Natasha was born in Mississippi in 1966 to an African-American mother and a white Canadian father when miscegenation was still illegal. Although she spent her early years in the warmth of her mother’s loving extended family, both Natasha and her parents were constantly subjected to the Gulfport white community's disdain and racism.
Natasha’s parents divorced when she was six. She moved with her mother to Atlanta, where her Mother worked and studied to become a social worker. She also met and married Joel, an African- American Vietnam veteran. Joel became physically abusive, and the abuse gradually spiraled out of control.
In her memoir, Natasha shares her recollections of Joel’s toxic behavior and her mother’s attempts to get help, leave and divorce Joel, followed by his relentless stalking. Natasha is 19, and her mother is 40 when Joel shoots her in her apartment's parking lot. Twenty years later, Natasha obtains the police files on the case. She includes the transcriptions of her stepfather’s final threatening phone calls to her mother in the memoir. These revelations cause her to relive and reexamine the trauma anew.
Memorial Drive is beautifully written. I listened to the author read the book on audio. It was a moving experience.
Click here to hear my thoughts on this book and my experience joining Cheryl Strayed's book club on the Literati app over on my Booktube channel, abookolive.
This is a hauntingly beautiful memoir written by the former United States poet laureate in which she discusses her early life and the tragic murder of her mother by her one-time step-father back in 1985. For such a somber topic, there is such light in this book, and you can absolutely tell it was written by a poet (in the best possible way). It's one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year thus far.
Catching up on reviews after finishing a three week stint as a zoom proctor, yet another term to add to the vernacular during these times. Natasha Trethewey is one of my favorite poets and one of the most gifted and respected poets in the United States today, having been appointed poet laureate twice. Her words are luscious and combine traditional poetry with history and primary source documents, so the reader never knows what to expect with her eclectic style. Trethewey is the product of a mixed marriage at a time when it was illegal for her to exist in her home state of Mississippi; yet, she prevailed, and even that was a struggle. Trethewey has turned to writing about the past so that she could push aside the most traumatic event in her own life: her mother’s murder at the hands of her step father. She had referred to her fractured life a few times during her other writing but never explored it in depth. When I found out that Trethewey had found the courage to write about her mother’s murder in a new hyped up memoir, I knew that I had to read it, even if the subject was raw and out of my comfort zone. I have read everything else that Natasha Trethewey has written; I owe it to her to read about her pain and suffering as well.
Natasha Trethewey grew up surrounded by a loving extended family in rural Mississippi. Her grandmother and aunts did well for themselves, building a church and owning plots of land so that the family could remain united. Trethewey’s parents met as literature students at college during the era of freedom riders. Her father came from the north where interracial marriage was not yet common but no longer illegal. In Mississippi it was, so the couple traveled north to wed. Natasha was born in Mississippi when her father was away at work, simplifying her race for legal purposes even though her skin and hair both fell in the middle of the color spectrum. Even though both parents attempted to make their marriage work for her sake, it was obvious that the couple had married out of shared ideological beliefs rather than love. Natasha’s one happy memory of that time was a car trip to Mexico where the family did not have to hide their racial identity, even being able to use a hotel pool. By the time she was four years old, her parents had separated, and Natasha moved with her mother to Atlanta so that she could attend graduate school there. In hindsight, they should have remained with her mother’s kin in Mississippi.
Natasha’s mother was quick to remarry, but the man she chose was unstable and jealous of the fact that she had a higher station in life than he did. In his eyes, the man was supposed to be the bread winner, yet he did not have a higher education and could barely hold down a job. The couple wed and had a son together, Natasha’s half-brother Joey. Big Joel detested Natasha’s presence in his life, reading her private diary and preventing her from socializing with friends and engaging in activities. It was obvious from her teachers that she was destined to be a writer, enjoying everything from biographies to Shakespeare and everything in between from an early age. Teachers who knew of her family situation, which included much domestic abuse, encouraged her to write and write some more, her happiest memories occurring on her summer vacations spent back in Mississippi. The one person who did not think that writing amounted to anything was Big Joel who grew more and more unstable with each passing year. He associated writing with Natasha’s father, a literature professor, and thought that writing in a diary was a girl’s passing fancy, not an income. Yet in Atlanta during the 1970s and early 1980s, it was not so easy for Natasha’s mother to leave her marriage. It would take years and building up the courage to do so, and even then it would be too late.
Natasha Trethewey is indeed a gifted poet. Readers of this memoir are treated to prose that includes some poetic instances. Other than the descriptions of the sun creating sparkles in her childhood home in Mississippi, I found this memoir to only be a little above average at best. Perhaps, it is because I have read all of Trethewey’s poetry so I know of her family background, being the product of an interracial marriage, and living with the baggage that came with it. Having briefly touched on her mother’s murder in her other writing, I knew what was coming. The writing is raw and dark, and it must have been difficult for her to grasp with the lowest point in her life, an event that fractured her life as before and after and one that she had not relived until she began to gather information and thoughts to write this book. Trethewey desired to do justice to her mother’s life, and her descriptions indeed show a strong woman who attempted to provide for her two children amid the worst of life’s circumstances. Trethewey also reveals domestic abuse, a social issue that still remains hush hush to most people even though shelters and safe houses exist for battered women. For this reason alone, I thought it courageous of her to finally address her mother’s life in her writing, also drawing attention to this societal issue that should be touched upon more. Having read her other books, however, I have been desensitized to this particular instance of domestic abuse turned murder, as gruesome and painful it was for Trethewey to relive.
Memorial Drive has been billed as a top memoir of 2020 and it should be because the writing is excellent. Trethewey does justice to her mother’s life, reliving happy memories of her childhood as well. People who are not poetry connoisseurs are able to be exposed to Trethewey’s writing in a capacity where they would otherwise not think to read her work. I have read her Pulitzer winning Native Guard as well as Belloq’s Ophelia, all paying homage to racial tensions that have existed in the south since before the Civil War. Her genre-breaking poetry has earned Trethewey accolades and her place as a top poet of her era. In my eyes, perhaps she should stick to poetry. As tough as it was for her to pen this memoir, I feel that her poetry is that much better and an homage to her mother in poetic verse would have been that much more powerful. Kudos to Trethewey to stepping outside of her comfort zone and writing in a genre that is not her preferred one in order to explore her life’s darkest moments. I know it was a step outside of my own comfort zone to read it.
As she says in this, her memorial to her mother, Natasha Trethwey observes "Three decades is a long time to get to know the contours of loss." Her mother, murdered by an abusive stepfather in 1985, had accomplished much in her 40 years, but was unable to unburden herself of a second marriage that never should have been. Augmented with transcripts and pages of evidence, Trethwey attempts to face her grief at this loss she sustained at the age of 19. Now, older than her mother ever was able to be, she addresses it, even more effectively due to her power as a poet. In addition to the tragedy of losing her life at a particularly young age, Gwen was denied the pride of enjoying the brilliant success of her award winning, Poet Laureate daughter.
Today I was privileged to see her in a Zoom interview courtesy of Politics and Prose. It was highly emotional for her, and made me appreciate her accomplishment even more.
This book is incredible. An incredibly well crafted memoir. A story that is devastating. The writer is superb. There were parts that took my breath away. Wrecked me. This is a must read story of the layers of trauma of domestic violence on family and survival. Wow.
Trethewey is a gifted writer, and this deeply personal story unfolds in beautiful prose and with gut-wrenching vividness. And yet, when I came to the end of the slim memoir, I had more questions than when I'd begun reading it. Firstly, why is there no explanation of how or why the author's parents' marriage ended? This event was life-changing for the author, no less than for her mother, Gwen (for whom it precipitated her death, considering who she married next). There's no mention of strained racial relations between her Mississippi-born African-American mother and her white Canadian father, quite the opposite, with her father living within the matriarchal kinship community in Gulfport when the author was young -- there is only a suggestion of growing distance based on their academic and professional lives. I longed to know what the actual cause of that split was, considering the disastrous consequences it had for mother and daughter as they commenced new lives in Atlanta. Secondly, how could Trethewey's mother NOT have known, or certainly suspected, that it was dangerous to leave her daughter in Big Joe's care while she was working, every day, for years? The author states that she intentionally didn't tell her mother, but that begs the question of why an elementary school-child should be responsible for ending her own abuse. Gwendolyn Grimmette had a MSW degree and was a supervisor in a Social Services agency in a large metropolitan area, so one assumes she would have had an informed perspective on this. No? Also, I didn't quite know how to respond to the lengthy transcript of the phone calls made between Gwen and Joe after he got out of prison, when he was threatening her and Natasha and even his own young child, Joe Jr. It certainly demonstrates the thought processes of a violent psychopath, but I was uncomfortable with what it was demonstrating about the author's mother: that she kept engaging with him, rationalizing with him, giving him the attention he was craving. I hoped that the author would summarize the transcript with her own interpretation of the relationship between her mother and her murderer, but this was not provided. (Nor was a clear explanation of the relationship's genesis, which we are left to guess at -- Big Joe claims that he left a wife and son to marry her, but Gwen states in her handwritten notes that she never loved him. Was Joe a rebound relationship, then? A man she was trapped into marrying because of a pregnancy and because of how much he sacrificed to be with her? Again, I wanted to understand why she left her first husband and the father of her daughter in order to attach herself to a second man who was so fatally flawed.) Ultimately, the beautiful woman smiling out from the cover of Memorial Drive remains enigmatic. For most readers, that may be enough.
“What matters is the transformative power of metaphor and the stories we tell ourselves about the arc and meaning of our lives.”
Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Natasha Tretheway, former U.S Poet Laureate, is also well known for the fact that her mother was killed by her second husband when Tretheway was nineteen years old. I have read a lot of her poetry, though no whole collection, but am correcting that error now. Monument is one book dedicated to her mother, but that terrible event weaves its way through a lot of her work, I am aware. Of the time she was notified of the murder, "that was the moment when I both felt that I would become a poet and then immediately afterward felt that I would not. I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened.”
Born on Confederate Memorial Day to a black mother and white father (poet Eric Tretheway), which was illegal in Mississippi at the time Tretheway’’s work has always been based on her life growing up biracial in Mississippi and her research on and experience of racism, especially in the American South where she grew up.
Though I knew what this story was about long before I read it, I was reluctant to read it, knowing it would have brutal elements of domestic abuse and violence in it, but I finally decided to read it anyway because I knew her poetry, and ultimately, I knew it would be elegant and thoughtful in plumbing her pain for herself and others, and it surely was. It’s not till decades after the murder that Tretheway got her hands on the case files and this opened up every wound she ever had about the event, I am certain. She shares with us her mother’s journal entries detailing abuse, and one last agonizing phone call transcript of a conversation between her mother and her second husband.
Maybe ultimately it's a mother-daughter story, an anguished love story. I heard the author read it, as she also tells us that this book took a long time for her to write, accomplished in painful chunks, as long as she could endure it, but of it, finally, she says:
“In the narrative of my life, which is the look backward rather than forward into the unknown and unstoried future, I emerged from the pool as from a baptismal font—changed, reborn—as if I had been shown what would be my calling even then. This is how the past fits into the narrative of our lives, gives meaning and purpose. Even my mother’s death is redeemed in the story of my calling, made meaningful rather than merely senseless. It is the story I tell myself to survive.”
This was a wonderful memoir, and I'm sure quite difficult to write. I was left with a lot of unanswered questions, so it feels unfinished to me. I hope the author was able to exercise some demons, and she owes no one any further explanations, but I hope there's another memoir inside her about her life since the writing of the events in this book.
(2.5 stars). I’m unfortunately left very disappointed after reading this memoir. The story itself is heartbreaking, and I felt myself getting so angry and emotional as I had grown up around men just like “Big Joe”. With that being said, the author told her story of her and her mother’s life with “Big Joe”(her stepfather), and even some history of their life beforehand. What the author did not provide in this book was what happened after the tragedy? What happened to her stepfather, her brother, other family members? I felt this was a short story with no closure.
Edit to add: I wrote this at a time when my reviews were just plain awful (okay, they’re still not the best-but that’s besides the point). I was super invested in this story and the author’s life. We learn about the terrible tragedy that occurred, how and when it happened. Because this is a true story, I thought the author would provide us with details as to what charges her stepfather faced. I was also curious as to what happened to her brother (although I suppose his life isn’t her story to tell).
After reading this, I had to look up the author and other detailed information online, just because I felt I was left hanging. It’s obviously public information on the internet, so it would have been nice to have been included in the book. Just like when watching a true crime documentary and the perpetrator is caught, in closing they let us know what type of punishment they received. That’s all I was looking for, and that’s what I meant for not receiving closure in this book. I know the author will never have her closure, and that’s totally understandable.
Content warning: Intimate Partner Violence, Maternal Death This harrowing & beautiful memoir is also painful to read, particularly if you have experienced the loss of a parent, of a mother, in a way that is fundamentally avoidable. Trethewey recounts mostly her memories of her mother Gwen while she still physically lived, with an abusive husband, Joel, whose abuse was recorded and noted by police, documented by Gwen and still, Joel waited for the right moment to slip past police who were supposed to be guarding her and fatally shoot her as he promised he would. There is a feeling, in the book, that this grief is not fresh; it is a wound that has been carried over thirty years and it will remain for the rest of Trethewey's life. That she allows the reader to watch the marriage unravel, her mother fight to protect herself and her family; the way that, by happenstance, she encounters someone who happens to help her save the remnants of the court case before they will be expunged because 20 years had passed by that point -- it is all deftly composed. I believe we can turn whatever tragedy happens to us into something beautiful to behold. In Trethewey's case, here, in this book, that something beautiful is an important part of her life's work.
I feel bad for Natasha Trethewey and her family for the terrible murder that stole away her mother much too early in her life, but I never fully connected with this book. I knew I was in trouble when the first sentence kicked off a dream sequence. It's one of several throughout the book, and I just could not overcome my knee-jerk negative reaction against that literary device, my biggest pet peeve as a reader.
The book is about half the author describing the circumstances of her mother's murder (including extended transcripts of phone conversations between the mother and the murderer) and half processing her emotions regarding that loss (including an extended sequence of a visit to a psychic). Either the balance was off or the book was too short, because I found myself wanting to know more about her mother and how the events effected her mother's other child, Joey Grimmette. It seems weird that he disappears from the book when the murder occurs. I know the book is about the author's journey, but this omission points to the focus as perhaps being too narrow.
I don't regret reading the book, but I don't think I'd recommend it to others.
This was brutal and it was beautiful. It made me think of No Visible Scars (which if you have not read, you should immediately) about that utter banality and commonness of domestic partner murder. The fact that so many men kill their wives or girlfriends does nothing to diminish the fact that each murder is a tragedy. Toward the end of this book, Trethewey publishes the recordings of the last conversations her mom had with her ex and killer and those conversations should be required reading for any women who needs to be warned what manipulation and control looks like. Just a haunting story, beautifully told
Bardzo osobiste, ale jednocześnie napisane w niezwykle angażujący sposób wspomnienia kobiety, której matka została zamordowana przez swojego byłego partnera. Historia dorastania autorki oraz drogi prowadzącej do tragedii, która okazała się być spodziewana i której być może udałoby się zapobiec, gdyby system nie okazał się zawodny. To też historia o traumie i o relacjach rodzinnych, które rzutują na nasze dorosłe życie. Świetna książka, którą czyta się jednym tchem. 4,5
During lockdown, I looked for virtual activities to keep me grounded. I made a habit of signing up for Zoom readings and events with authors. You know that feeling, to be whisked away to imaginary worlds, to be one with the discussion of literary technique, to virtually share love for the written word. One such event featured Natasha Trethewey. I bought this book after that event and I'm so glad I did.
I am glad Trethewey was able to do what she always dreamed of doing: become a writer and professor. She is now a Board of Trustees Professor of English (what an honor) and a former US poet laureate. This memoir is somber and contemplative, as Trethewey takes the reader back to Memorial Drive, where it all started. Trethewey managed to distill the pain a daughter faces when she loses her mother in such a tragic way. She is a college student when her world crashes and to remain stalwart, she compartmentalizes her trauma. This is about loss and trauma, and yet it is about so much more, as it tells a story of how it feels to embody America's crossroads of blackness and whiteness. Trethewey, born to a white father and Black mother, is in such a unique position to do so.
There are a couple of sections where she describes family portraits and during those sections, I took Native Guard off my shelf and opened it to a couple of poems where she elucidates art in lines. Every sentence in this memoir feels neatly placed. The descriptions, the details, yes, Trethewey describes, sees, remembers with a poet's eyes.
I was not familiar with this author before picking up her memoir. I have since learned that she is an award winning poet laureate. I came into her story blind only knowing that her mother was murdered by her step father over 30 years ago. She was brought up in Mississippi in the late 60's and 70's as a biracial daughter whose father was white. She remembers instances during her childhood of racism during this volatile period in history. Her parents seemed very happy together wanting to ensure their daughter was brought up without stigmas. Both college educated, it seemed this couple had lots going their way despite the political and social unrest in the south. When they decide to divorce, I was left not completely understanding the reasons and wanted to know more. Her mother and father continued to correspond once they moved to Atlanta to start afresh.
This was a struggling time for Natasha as a young elementary aged girl who no longer has her extended family nearby to love and support her. Her mother remarries and her life is completely upended by a man who psychologically torments Natasha and never accepts her. In the 5th grade, Natasha becomes fully aware of physical abuse of her mother by her stepfather. She lives in constant fear.
Natasha's memoir is a remembrance. She is looking back to try to piece together the period she has forgotten and to try to deal with the guilt of her mother's horrific death after 30 years. She writes with a poet's pen and maybe this is where my desire for more comes from. While it is a tragic story and not to be lessened in any way, I wanted a bit more of the gaps to be filled in.
Not being a great memoir reader, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this particular book. Many times, I feel that the writers of memoirs often embellish their memories and do try for the ultimate shock value in their stories. They often seem to miss the point that readers know these are memories and oftentimes are not as reliable as authors think they are.
However, in Memorial Drive, Ms Trethewey has created a believably understandable journey that she took down a road that was filled with anguish, the memory of a beloved mother, and the trials of growing up a child of a mixed race couple in the deep South.
Natasha's struggles with her birth father who, for lack of a better term, abandoned them to a stepfather who was abusive in his approach to her. He caused sorrow, fear, and anguish, and was constantly a figure plagued by mental illness. The unhappiness and hardship she endured was offset by her mother's love. When, at age nineteen, her stepfather murdered her mother, Natasha's world fell apart knowing instinctively that this tragedy was almost destined to happen.
Natasha was able to climb out of the depths of her heartbreak and become a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. She recognizes that her ability to create poetry is shaped by the twists and turns her life took. Wonderfully written, this book is recommended to those who love an authentic memoir that moves the reader so well into the life of its author.
Trethewey grew up in 1960s Mississippi with a Black mother and a white Canadian father, at a time when interracial marriage remained illegal in parts of the South. After her parents’ divorce, she and her mother, Gwen, moved to Georgia to start a new life, but her stepfather Joel was physically and psychologically abusive. Gwen’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to that Atlanta apartment on Memorial Drive after 30 years had passed. The blend of the objective (official testimonies and transcripts) and the subjective (interpreting photographs, and rendering dream sequences in poetic language) makes this a striking memoir, as delicate as it is painful. I recommend it highly to readers of Elizabeth Alexander and Dani Shapiro.
Short memoir about the author's relationship with her mother, who was tragically murdered by her second husband when the author was 19. Some of the writing was lovely but I wasn't in the right mood for the book. I would have liked to read more about the author's relationship with other family members and her life after her mother's murder.
Transparency, heartbreak, strength, resilience are words that come to mind after finishing this memoir. Audio version read by author was very well done and really the only person who could read this account as it should be.
"To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it." (208)
Natasha Tretheway shows us the journey of her mother's life before Gwen was gunned down by her ex-husband in 1985. Natasha was wrapped in the family love of her grandmother and her other black maternal relatives as a young child in Mississippi. She was a child of a biracial marriage, and remembers the KKK burning a cross on their lawn since interracial unions were still illegal in their state. Natasha's white father eventually left the relationship.
Her mother and Natasha moved to Atlanta where Gwen married Joel Grimmette. She was in fifth grade when she heard her mother's voice: "Please Joel. Please don't hit me again." (102) Her stepfather was also emotionally abusive to Natasha. They walked on eggshells around him, never knowing when he might turn on them. The man haunted their lives even after Gwen left and divorced him. Gwen's own narratives and telephone conversation transcriptions with Joel form part of the book. This gives a voice to the beautiful woman whose life was cut short by domestic violence.
The memories of her mother are always with the author, and she has been working through the emotional trauma with her poetry and her prose writing. "Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir" is a beautiful literary work which pays homage to her beloved mother.
Natasha Trethewey gives an extraordinary look into domestic violence in this memoir. She gives the view point of herself as a child and teenager trying to navigate the mine field her abusive stepfather laid out. She also gives the view point of the victim of her mother and the abuser through court proceedings and evidence.
Trethewey’s poetic style shines though in phrasing and descriptions of places, people and events. In one chapter, she skillfully shifts the narration to second person and gives a powerful explanation of why at the end of the chapter, displaying her writing genius.
Those who are admirers of memoirs will appreciate this raw and emotional memoir.
I was given the opportunity to review an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley.
This harrowing, haunting account of spousal abuse and murder moves quickly. The transcripts of the recorded phone conversations between the author's mother and her violent, unstable, and jealous ex are chilling. The legal system couldn't protect her adequately. I liked the author's grit and candor. It was a painful book to write.
I've tried to start this review 3 times and each time come up empty-handed.
So. This is a book by Natasha Trethewey, a former US poet laureate. It is centered on her mother's murder. One strand is talking about family history and about who Gwendolyn Turnbough was. One strand is about domestic abuse and how Trethewey's stepfather went from faintly creepy to abuser to murderer. And one strand is about Trethewey, as an adult, trying to come to grips with a chunk of her life she has tried strenuously to forget but which she cannot shed. And, I think, trying to figure out how her mother ended up there, on that day, how she came to be murdered.
Trethewey's stepfather is a perfect example of why asking why don't women leave abusive partners? is asking the wrong question. Because it's not that she didn't leave. She did. It's that he wouldn't let her go, that to him killing her was (a) a reasonable option and (b) preferable to acknowledging in any way that she did not belong to him. The most harrowing part of the book is the seemingly endless transcription of a telephone call in which he shows himself incapable of recognizing, never mind respecting, that his ex-wife has a subject position of her own, that she exists outside his desires. Their conversation is a death spiral, going over and over the same ground, and ending finally in murder.
This book is full of regret and grief. It is beautifully and lucidly written. It is unsparing.