The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Book Giveaway:
    Memorial Drive
    by Natasha Trethewey
Memorial Drive
Memorial Drive
by Natasha Trethewey

Hardcover (28 Jul 2020), 224 pages.
Publisher: Ecco
ISBN-13: 9780062248572
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A chillingly personal and exquisitely wrought memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of her former stepfather, and the moving, intimate story of a poet coming into her own in the wake of a tragedy.

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.

With penetrating insight and a searing voice that moves from the wrenching to the elegiac, 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.

Memorial Drive is a compelling and searching look at a shared human experience of sudden loss and absence but also a piercing glimpse at the enduring ripple effects of white racism and domestic abuse. Animated by unforgettable prose and inflected by a poet's attention to language, this is a luminous, urgent, and visceral memoir from one of our most important contemporary writers and thinkers.

I.

Three weeks after my mother is dead I dream of her: We walk a rutted path, an oval track around which we are making our slow revolution: side by side, so close our shoulders nearly touch, neither of us speaking, both of us in our traces. Though I know she is dead I have a sense of contentment, as if she's only gone someplace else to which I've journeyed to meet her. The world around us is dim, a backdrop of shadows out of which, now, a man comes. Even in the dream I know what he has done, and yet I smile, lifting my hand and speaking a greeting as he passes. It's then that my mother turns to me, then that I see it: a hole, the size of a quarter, in the center of her forehead. From it comes a light so bright, so piercing, that I suffer the kind of momentary blindness brought on by staring at the sun—her face nothing but light ringed in darkness when she speaks: "Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?" I know I am not meant to answer and so we walk on as before, rounding the path until we meet him again. This time he's come to finish what he started: holding a gun, he is aiming at her head. This time I think I can save her. Is it enough to throw myself in the bullet's path? Shout "No!"? I wake to that single word, my own voice wrenching me from sleep. But it's my mother's voice that remains, her last question to me—"Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?"—a refrain.

Prologue

THE LAST IMAGE OF MY MOTHER, BUT FOR THE photographs taken of her body at the crime scene, is the formal portrait made only a few months before her death. She sat for it in a mass-market studio known for its competent but unremarkable pictures: babies coaxed to laughter by hand puppets, children in stair-step formation wearing matching Christmas sweaters—all against a common backdrop. Sometimes it's a sky-blue scrim that looks as if it's been brushed with a feather, or an autumn scene of red and yellow leaves framing a post-and-rail fence. For moodier portraits, as if to convey a sense of seriousness or formal elegance, there's the plain black scrim.

She was forty years old. For the sitting she'd chosen a long-sleeved black sheath, the high collar open at the throat. She does not look at the camera, her eyes fixed at a point in the distance that seems to be just above my head, making her face as inscrutable as it always was—her high, elegant forehead, smooth and unlined, a billboard upon which nothing is written. Nor does she smile, which makes the cleft in her chin more pronounced, her jawline softly squared above her slender neck. She sits perfectly erect without looking forced or uncomfortable. Perhaps she intended to look back on it years later and say, "That's where it began, my new life." I am struck with the thought that this is what she must have meant to do: document herself as a woman come this far, the rest of her life ahead of her.

The thought of that has always filled me with despair, and so for years I chose other stories to tell myself. In one version, she knew she would soon be killed. I know she had gone to see a psychic for entertainment with some friends from work; she'd told me as much, though she never said what she'd learned. Around that time she had also taken out several life insurance policies, and so for years I told myself she must have been preparing for the inevitable, making sure—in her last few weeks—that her children would be taken care of after she was gone.

In reality, if the psychic told her anything it was most likely something promising about her future—romance, perhaps, or hopeful predictions about the new job she'd just taken as personnel director for human resources at the county mental health agency. I know that most likely the life insurance policies were simply one of the benefits of that job: she'd have signed up for them during the open enrollment period for new employees. Still, the narrative of her making plans, stoically aware of what was to come, comforts me. I can't bear to think of the alternative, can't bear to think of her in that horrible moment, the sudden realization of her imminent death after allowing herself to believe she had escaped. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between her hope and her pragmatism.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2020 by Natasha Trethewey. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey navigates grief and residual trauma 30 years after her mother's murder in this devastating and lyrical memoir.

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On June 5, 1985, Natasha Trethewey's mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough, was murdered by her ex-husband, Joel Grimmette. It took Trethewey 30 years to feel ready to truly reckon with the trauma of this event and the years of abuse that preceded it. In a piercing, extraordinary memoir, she excavates the chasm of the loss and holds its terrible artifacts up to the light of day.

Memorial Drive begins with the author's childhood in Mississippi in the late 1960s and early '70s, where she grew up surrounded by doting family who could not entirely shield her from the racism of the time and place. Trethewey is the biracial child of a Black mother and a white father, and the family was often subjected to threats and intimidation. (She notes that her mother gave birth to her in a hospital that was still segregated on April 26, 1966, the 100-year anniversary of Mississippi's celebration of Confederate Memorial Day.) Her parents divorced when she was six years old and Trethewey and her mother moved to Atlanta; Gwendolyn met Joel soon after and the two got married. Joel was often left to babysit Trethewey while Gwendolyn was at work. When she upset him, he forced her to pack a bag and get in the car, then drove her in a loop around the city, claiming he was going to leave her somewhere alone. She was in the fifth grade the first time she heard Joel hitting her mother in the next room.

Amid the horrors recounted in the memoir is Trethewey's coming-of-age story, as the person she is today — the writer she is today — was forged in the fire of this trauma. She recalls receiving a diary from her mother at age 12, only to discover a short time later that Joel had picked the lock and read her private thoughts. Her response was to turn her diary entries into a virulent direct address to her abuser, telling him exactly what she thought of him. "In my first act of resistance," she writes, "I had inadvertently made him my first audience...I had begun to compose myself."

In 1983, when Trethewey was a senior in high school, Gwendolyn left Joel, taking the author and her little brother Joey with her. Shortly thereafter, Joel showed up at a high school football game looking for Trethewey. Uncertain how to react, she greeted him as she always did, "Hey, Big Joe." She later learned that Joel told a psychologist while he was hospitalized that he'd brought a gun and planned to shoot her but couldn't go through with it after she said hello to him. On the one hand, this was certainly a blessing. On the other, she notes that had he killed her that night, he would have been arrested and almost definitely imprisoned, perhaps never finding the opportunity to murder her mother. It is a chilling realization and the author's struggle with survivor's guilt is rendered with forthright clarity.

In the two years that followed, Joel tried to kill Gwendolyn, served a year in prison, and then immediately began threatening her life again when he got out. Trethewey includes evidence from her mother's case, such as police reports and transcripts of phone conversations between Joel and Gwendolyn in the days leading up to the murder that are hard to read but essential to understanding how difficult it is for a victim of abuse to get help. Even in this case, when the police took the situation seriously (it is not at all uncommon for victims to be ignored or disbelieved by the authorities), they did not adequately protect Gwendolyn.

The memoir is bookended by the author's recounting of a recurring dream. She and Gwendolyn walk around a circular path. Joel steps out of the shadows, Trethewey greets him as she always did, "Hey, Big Joe," and they continue walking. Shortly thereafter, he appears again, this time holding a gun. She shouts "No!" and tries to shield her mother, waking herself up in the process. It is a representation of her guilt, and one repeated symbol among many in the memoir. Of this dream and a particularly vivid and traumatic memory from childhood, she writes, "What matters is the transformative power of metaphor and the stories we tell ourselves about the arc and meaning of our lives." For a writer especially, metaphor is a powerful tool. But Memorial Drive offers insight and instruction for anyone who has experienced trauma. The memories, dreams and other ephemera that haunt us may ultimately prove key to finding meaning and hope (or perhaps just the ability to put one foot in front of the other) in our darkest hours. It's a powerful record of grief, abuse and the cleaving of the self that often occurs in conjunction with a life-altering tragedy, an acute and far-reaching manual for making sense of the senseless.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

Time
Fixating on her mother’s past as well as her own, Trethewey constructs a moving reflection on racism, abuse and trauma.

Boston Herald
Trethewey, a former U.S. poet laureate, sketches a portrait of her mother’s life in the South as she considers the enduring influence of her love as well as the vicious effects of domestic violence, racism and sudden loss.

New York Times
This is a book with a slow, steady build. This is restraint in service to release....Even though you intuit what is coming, the moment you learn of Gwendolyn’s death is as stunning as the moment when Anna Magnani is shot in the street in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

Washington Post
Trethewey excavates her mother’s life, transforming her from tragic victim to luminous human being...This is a political book. It is the story of a woman cut down in her prime, about a sick man who imposed his control and had his way, about the larger story of power in America.

Esquire
Stunning . . . The work confronts the brutal murder of her mother, committed at the hands of her second husband, as well as the searing, unique pain of growing up, as Trethewey writes, a 'child of miscegenation.'

Los Angeles Review of Books
A breakthrough book that artfully balances prose and lyricism as it guides us through unspeakable trauma. . . . A deep examination of memory, race, and racism, subjects that fuel her renowned poetry collections

Publishers Weekly
[B]eautifully composed, [and] achingly sad...This profound story of the horrors of domestic abuse and a daughter's eternal love for her mother will linger long after the book's last page is turned.

Kirkus Reviews
[A] graceful, moving memoir...Delicate prose distinguishes a narrative of tragedy and grief.

Library Journal (starred review)
Through spare prose and vivid imagery, the author presents a narrative of a trauma survivor's need to remember a past that, for 30 years, lapsed into the mind's shadows. A moving, heartbreaking memoir about a traumatic event and the path to healing.

Author Blurb Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club, Cherry, and Lit
Natasha Trethewey has composed a riveting memoir that reads like a detective story about her mother's murder by a malevolent ex-husband. It reads with all the poise and clarity of Trethewey's unforgettable poetry—heartrending without a trace of pathos, wise and smart at once, unforgettable. The short section her mother penned as she was trying to escape the marriage moved me to tears. I read the book in one gulp and expect to reread it more than once. A must-read classic.

Author Blurb Mitchell S. Jackson, author of Survival Math
In Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey has transformed unimaginable tragedy into a work of sublimity. There's sorrow and heartbreak, yes, but also a beautiful portrait of a mother and her daughter's enduring love. Trethewey writes elegantly, trenchantly, intimately as well about the fraught history of the south and what it means live at the intersection of America's struggle between blackness and whiteness. And what, in our troubled republic, is a subject more evergreen?

Author Blurb Ada Limón, author of Bright Dead Things and NBCC award-winner The Carrying
Haunting, powerful, and painfully stunning, Memorial Drive is one of the best memoirs I've read in a long time. A brilliant storyteller, Trethewey writes the unimaginable truth with a clear-eyed courage that proves, once again, that she's one of the nation's best writers.

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Mary Hayes
Living in Fear
Domestic abuse remains a topic of discussion so horrendous and difficult to comprehend that the why or what of circumstances never explains the outcome. It is a tribute to Natasha's mother that she expressed her love and support for her daughter while living in fear daily.

Although together they sought and received help in shelters, the mental health status of their pursuer never was questioned or restraint exhibited. Because this man was 'troubled' the whole family suffered and paid the price. The mother and daughter, loving, intelligent, trying to lead a comfortable happy life were always in the shadow of an unfathomable tragedy. What a loss for Natasha. What a brilliant recovery to achieve harmony in your life.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Victoria
Beautifully lyrical memoir.
Thanks to Harper Collins/Ecco and Edelweiss for sharing the ARC of this memoir. Memoir is not usually my favorite genre, but something about the description of this one spoke to me. It’s a beautifully written, haunting and poignant story of the author’s (Natasha Trethewey, former US Poet Laureate) coming to terms with her mother’s murder and what she believed (wrongly) was her own complicity in it. Recommended.

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Stone Mountain Confederate Monument

Stone Mountain Confederate Monument In Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey explores how racism was a common and formative experience as she grew up in the South in the late 1960s and early '70s. This theme is established as she recalls driving to her mother's former apartment, located in Stone Mountain, Georgia, 20 miles northeast of Atlanta. The city is home to a national park that contains the largest Confederate monument in the country, which Trethewey describes as "A lasting metaphor for the white mind" and "the nostalgic dream of Southern heroism and gallantry."

Indeed, the monument, which is carved into the monadnock (isolated rock formation) known as Stone Mountain, began as the dream of a Confederate widow and charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), C. Helen Plane. In 1914, Plane began organizing support among her UDC sisters for the project, and the group chose sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who later carved Mount Rushmore, to create it. Stone Mountain's land was owned by a man named Sam Venable, who was a friend of William Simmons, the founder of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. (The KKK had been dormant as an organization for nearly 50 years before this revival.) Simmons announced the rebirth of the Klan atop Stone Mountain on November 25, 1915 and marked the occasion with a cross-burning. Borglum was unable to complete the monument in the 12 years allotted to UDC by Venable, and the project was abandoned.

Work resumed in 1964 amid (perhaps as a result of) the Civil Rights movement, with Walter Kirkland Hancock chosen to lead the project, and the monument was completed in 1972. It features representations of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. Stone Mountain Park — which opened to the public in 1965 on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination — is Georgia's most popular tourist destination, attracting four million visitors each year. But it has also attracted a considerable amount of controversy and outrage, especially in recent years.

In 2015, after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof, the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for the monument to be removed. In the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 (during which protesters clashed with white supremacists, one of whom drove a car into a crowd, killing a woman and wounding 19 others), then-Georgia House of Representatives member Stacey Abrams called for the removal of the monument on Twitter, declaring, "[T]he visible image of Stone Mountain's edifice remains a blight on our state." Then-Lieutenant Governor of Georgia Casey Cagle responded by declaring Abrams' statement "inflammatory rhetoric" made "for political gain," demonstrating firm opposition to the calls for removal.

On July 4, 2020, amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism and police brutality, demonstrators gathered at Stone Mountain to denounce the monument. Vice President of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP Gerald Griggs remarked on this occasion, "I think that there's a groundswell of support throughout the state to revisit this conversation." Another demonstration in August 2020 attracted defenders and protesters of the monument — some of whom were armed — and featured a brief physical altercation.

The monument has been protected since 2001 by a state law declaring "the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion." Thus a legislative reversal or amendment would be required for the monument to be removed or changed.

Stone Mountain Confederate Monument

Filed under Society and Politics

By Lisa Butts

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