More than three decades ago Tobias Wolff wrote the classic memoir, “This Boy’s Life,” about his traumatic childhood with an abusive, erratically violent stepfather. Natasha Trethewey’s new book, “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir,” belongs in the same acclaimed company. Written with courage, and beautifully told, it is an accounting of her mother’s murder at the hands of Natasha’s stepfather in 1985 when she was 19 years old.
Natasha is a famous poet, although it’s hard to imagine anyone can be such a thing in 21st-century America. Her award-winning books are insightful explorations into African American history and her own remarkable life. In 2007, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her third poetry collection, “Native Guard,” about a Black Union Army regiment, and five years later she became the nation’s 19th poet laureate, serving two terms.
Natasha was born in Gulfport, Miss., on Confederate Memorial Day in 1966. Her father was a white Canadian and her mother, Gwendolyn, was black. The couple had met in school and eloped to Ohio because their marriage wasn’t legally recognized in Mississippi. Until she was six, Natasha lived next to her maternal grandmother’s house within sight of relatives like Aunt Sugar, who chewed tobacco and taught Natasha to fish; Uncle Son, the handsome, industrious nightclub owner; and grandmother Leretta Dixon Turnbough, a seamstress who retired to help take care of her granddaughter. Natasha remembers “the latest issue of Jet lay on the coffee table beside a photograph of the civil rights movement,” and she lived a double reality “skipping between those houses” showered with affection by her extended family and then, out on the streets, feeling the tension of being mixed race. With her father, she was given respect; with her mother, sneers. A cross was burned on their lawn.
By 1972, Natasha’s parents divorced, and she moved to Georgia with her mother, who was seeking a fresh start in Atlanta. They arrived as the town was transitioning into what Natasha laughingly calls “a chocolate city.” She kept in touch with her father, also a poet, and enjoyed the school she entered, a place where Black intellectuals and heroes were studied year round. Everything changed when Gwendolyn introduced Natasha to her new black boyfriend, Joel Grimmette, a deeply disturbed Vietnam vet. From the very beginning it’s clear something is wrong. While Gwendolyn strives to improve herself, studying for an MA in social work and eventually becoming an administrator, Joel gets by in temporary lowly jobs. It’s is obvious that he resents Natasha’s presence, partly because she is another man’s child, and probably because she has white blood.
Joel is a brute and ignorant. He begins to torment Natasha when her mother isn’t around. Often, in his self-induced rage, he makes her pack her bags and then takes her on long oppressively silent car journeys to nowhere before returning home. As she grows older, Natasha discovers that Joel has broken the lock on her diary and begun using her hairbrush: small, creepy intrusions into her privacy. She can’t bring herself to talk to anyone about his behavior. She knows too, from the sounds that come through the walls at night, that he is beating her mother. Natasha details the path leading to disaster. When Gwendolyn can’t handle the abuse any longer, she announces that she is leaving. Joel, enraged, stalks her and escalates his threats of violence. He attempts to kill Gwendolyn and is sent to prison, but is soon released. In 1985, Gwendolyn, who has by this time divorced him, is shot in the head and neck, killed outside her Atlanta apartment.
The book essentially consists of three parts. The first part deals with Natasha’s pre-Atlanta childhood, the second with those 12 years she’d suppressed. The third ventures into new territory, with the closing chapters almost entirely in Gwendolyn’s words. In the files turned over to Natasha, she found a 12-page letter police had discovered in her mother’s briefcase. In it, Gwendolyn explains, in a clear, calm style, exactly how she left her husband after, knife in hand, he told her “he would be nice and let me choose the way I wanted to die.” This is followed by a 27-page transcript of the two phone calls Gwendolyn recorded with Joel – evidence of his threats for the district attorney – in the two days before he killed her. In their last phone conversation, Joel’s incoherent, self-pitying ramblings are interrupted when Natasha, away at the University of Georgia, calls to let her mother know when she can be picked up at the end of the semester. This verbatim section adds to the sense of dread closing in. Had the police been more aggressive, and the officer assigned to her case not left work early, Gwendolyn might have lived.
The role of metaphor is large in this book, beginning with its title. The apartment complex where Natasha’s mother was murdered still stands on Memorial Drive not far from Stone Mountain, a place Natasha calls “the symbol of the Confederacy and a monument to white supremacy that joins in my psyche the geography and history … of my deepest wounds.” Natasha went back there just a few years ago for an essential but fearful visit. That journey fortunately resulted in this powerful memoir that begins by Natasha describing a dream she had three weeks after her mother’s death. They are walking together when her mother turns to her, with a bullet hole in her forehead, and says, “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?” “Memorial Drive” is Natasha Trethewey’s dazzling exploration of all the wounds that never heal: her mother’s, her own, and the wounds of slavery and racism on the soul of a troubled nation.