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How “Memorial Drive” Tries to Make Sense of a Mother’s Murder

OtherHow “Memorial Drive” Tries to Make Sense of a Mother’s Murder

Three weeks after her stepfather murdered her mother by shooting her at close range, the nineteen-year-old Natasha Trethewey, who would go on, more than two decades later, to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, met her mother in a dream. “We walk a rutted path,” Trethewey writes, in her new memoir, “Memorial Drive,” “so close our shoulders nearly touch, neither of us speaking, both of us in our traces.” In the dream, a man comes out of the dimness. “I know what he has done, and yet I smile, lifting my hand and speaking a greeting as he passes.” Trethewey’s mother turns to her, revealing “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?’ ”

Most dreams consist of random associations and mundane reënactments, the brain’s nightly janitorial work. This dream, though, is a history and a prophecy. There is the bullet hole that never closes; there is also the loss that Trethewey, invoking Federico García Lorca’s idea of duende—“a demon that drives an artist, causing trouble or pain”—sees as the wellspring of her work. “Memorial Drive” recounts Trethewey’s childhood in the Deep South. She was born in 1966 to a white father and a Black mother in a state, Mississippi, that had not yet repealed its ban on miscegenation. The date of Trethewey’s birth coincided with the hundredth anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day, “a holiday glorifying . . . the Lost Cause, and white supremacy”; at one point, the Klan burned a cross in her parents’ driveway. Growing up, Trethewey noticed that strangers treated her father with respect and her mother with curtness or condescension. But she also flowered in the embrace of her mother’s extended family—a grandmother, great aunts and uncles, all less than a block away—in a home that raised her to be proud of her mixed heritage. Hybridity helped define Trethewey’s literary canon. Her father, also a writer, filled his daughter’s ears with Greek myths. Her Aunt Sugar conferred an appreciation for the Psalms, their cadences, and for the exactitude of scientific language. (Years back, Sugar had worked in a research lab in Chicago.) The neighborhood kids honed Trethewey’s verbal dexterity during endless rounds of the dozens. These details are carefully chosen: sparse but vivid. Trethewey’s souvenirs from the past, inflected with the knowledge of the poet she’d become, have the intentionality of memorials, not just memories.

Trethewey was born in 1966 to a white father and a Black mother in a state, Mississippi, that had not yet repealed its ban on miscegenation.Photograph courtesy Natasha Trethewey

Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, remains the cloudiest part of the story. As in the dream, Gwen is hard to glimpse through her brilliance, the outsized effect that she has on her daughter—and through the defenses that she has cultivated as a Black woman: “my mother had witnessed the necessity of dissembling, the art of making of one’s face an inscrutable mask.” But Gwen’s marriage ends, and she moves, with Tasha, age six, to Atlanta, where they end up in an apartment on Memorial Drive, which “winds east from downtown ending at Stone Mountain, the nation’s largest monument to the Confederacy.” (Years later, when Trethewey returns to the scene of her mother’s murder, the swell of Stone Mountain in the distance reminds her “what is remembered here and what is not.”) The street is a kind of literalization of Trethewey’s driving artistic force—her demon. It marks where the public, social wound of racism and the private, personal wound of Gwen’s death overlap.

In Atlanta, Trethewey’s mother dates and eventually marries a man named Joel Grimmette, who lets slip first his peculiarity and then his malice: he borrows Tasha’s hairbrush, leaving it tangled with greasy hairs, and devises secret punishments for the girl, waiting until her mother is at work to threaten committing her to a hospital. One night, when Tasha is in the fifth grade, she hears Joel punch Gwen in their bedroom. She confronts her mother, who gives her a diary as consolation. This experience of mutual helplessness, of two people failing to rescue the person they love most, has its own role to play in Trethewey’s artistic development. When she realizes that Joel is reading her diary, Tasha tastes for the first time the power of “compos[ing] herself” for an audience. “You stupid motherfucker!” she writes, in the diary. “Do you think I don’t know what you’re doing?” Joel is too embarrassed to acknowledge the question.

Lorca claimed, of duende’s relationship to poetry, that “in trying to heal the wound that never heals lies the strangeness.” He was talking about an effect on the reader—about the alluring strangeness that art bestows on life—but Trethewey makes clear the extent to which she, too, is disoriented by her task. Much of the book’s memorializing occurs at a remove. The narrator pays unusual attention to photographs, as if only documentary evidence were trustworthy. She hunts for clues in professional portraits of her mother—Gwen doesn’t smile; a corner of light hovers behind her head—and in a snapshot of herself and Gwen leaning toward each other in the living room, like two plants. She dissects an image of her blended family: Tasha watches the others from a short distance, on “the periphery of my mother’s new life.” The narrator-detective seems to fear missing something, or that she has already missed something, and that that is why reality feels so surreal. (“Memorial Drive” has been marketed, in part, as “true crime,” a bizarre designation that only makes sense if it refers to Trethewey’s patient investigation of what grief means.) And the book swarms with fantasy. Tasha catches a fever and dreams that she is lying in a white room; a trapdoor opens in the ceiling and filth rains down from above. Characters tumble through various myths, as if dropped into Trethewey’s father’s bedtime stories. Gwen is Persephone: “She picks a bright flower and the earth splits open beneath her, taking her into its dark throat.” Gwen is Eurydice. Tasha is Orpheus, Odysseus, Narcissus.

“It’s a kind of magical thinking,” Trethewey writes, of the child’s urge to stave off disaster through play. But fantasy doesn’t only provide distraction or distance. Some dreams know more than waking life is willing to admit. After Gwen leaves Joel for the first time, he shows up at a high-school football game where Tasha is cheerleading. Tasha smiles and mouths the words “Hey, Big Joe.” Trethewey later learns that Joel “told his psychologist . . . 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.” Joel didn’t carry out the plan, he later said, because Tasha had greeted him kindly. In the vision that Trethewey had when she was nineteen, she sees herself waving to Joel, on the track, moments before Gwen turns to her with a bullet wound—as if the girl had traded her life for her mother’s. This is dream logic. Or, put a different way, it takes a dream to expose the illogic that has penetrated Trethewey’s days, so strong is her survivor’s guilt.

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