Book Review: Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
In her book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is a daughter who returns to her mother's crime scene to reclaim herself
Reviewed by Barbara Purcell, Fri., Nov. 6, 2020
"To survive trauma one must be able to tell a story about it," writes Natasha Trethewey in her memoir Memorial Drive. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet uses metaphor to investigate the forensics of unfathomable loss: her mother's death at the hands of her stepfather.
Trethewey's grief, we learn, is snared by survivor's guilt. When her stepfather Joel unexpectedly shows up to a high school game, she smiles and waves hello – a friendly gesture which alters her fate. The author later discovers: "He'd brought a gun with him, planning to kill me right then and there, on the track around the football field, to punish my mother."
Trethewey was born in Mississippi in 1966 to an African American mother and white Canadian father. As a little girl, Tasha was surrounded by her tight-knit extended family, but the Deep South closed in on their home. "Separation of the races was still the way of things, maintained by custom if not upheld by law," she reflects. When the marriage eventually breaks down, Tasha and her mother, Gwendolyn, move to Atlanta for a fresh start.
From the first time she meets her mother's new boyfriend "Big Joe," Tasha has an uneasy feeling. The year is 1973, she is 7 years old, and, until her mother's death in 1985, she's in a period of life that is difficult to process, even decades later. The abuse, subtle at first, impels a house full of secrets. When Tasha hears Joel hit her mother one night, the secret breaks open.
He becomes more emboldened, more controlling. Threatened by his wife's career and success (Gwen is a social worker with a master's degree), Joel's jealousy and rage intensifies. The family, which now includes Tasha's younger half brother Joey, must leave out of fear for their safety. Joel continues to terrorize Gwen. In time, he kills her.
Trethewey sifts through the fragments of her story with the rigor of an investigative journalist and the resilience of a survivor. Imagery is presented alongside evidence in the analysis of her trauma and grief. Returning to the crime scene years later, she wonders if the bullet hole in her mother's bedroom wall – long patched over – has ever reopened like a wound. "That's what's drawn me back: the hidden, the covered over, the nearly erased," she writes.
There is poetry everywhere in Trethewey's prose, including the title, thickly layered with literal and figurative meaning. Memorial Drive is where her mother lived when she was shot and killed at close range by her ex-husband, in an apartment complex not far from Stone Mountain, the largest Confederate monument in the South.
Gwendolyn's violent death, near the site which is a "symbol of the Confederacy and a monument to white supremacy," Trethewey writes, "joins in my psyche the geography and history – both public and private, national and personal – of my deepest wounds."
Memorial Drive is a searching investigation of those wounds – and a return to the crime scene to reclaim herself.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoirby Natasha Trethewey
Ecco. 224 pp., $27.99
Natasha Trethewey will appear at the 2020 Texas Book Festival in the event “Memorial Drive: Pulitzer Prize Winner Natasha Trethewey in Conversation” Wed., Nov. 11, at noon. For more information, visit www.texasbookfestival.org.