Harper Collins/2020/224 pp/27.99
Reviewed by Laura Johnsrude
Near the end of her memoir, Natasha Trethewey remarks, “To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.”
In Memorial Drive, former U. S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey unearths the past to understand her wounds, especially the June 1985 shooting murder of her mother, Gwen Grimmette, by her former stepfather, Joel, when the author was only nineteen years old, a college student. Gwen died on the sidewalk outside the Atlanta Memorial Drive apartment where she had lived with her two children, Natasha and Joey, since divorcing Joel in December of 1983.
The book begins with a description of Trethewey’s dream from three weeks after her mother’s death, a vision she circles back to at the story’s end. In the dream, the author walks on an oval path beside her mother, twice encountering a man. The dream-Trethewey greets the man, on the first pass, then her dream-mother—already bearing a gaping hole in her forehead, a tunnel of blinding sunlight—turns to Trethewey and asks, “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?” On the second pass with the dream-man, he raises a gun.
Almost three decades after her “willed forgetting,” the author chooses to look squarely at the whole thing, to see whatever was there, uncover whatever was true. She confronts the weight she’s given to myths, thoughts, and objects, facing her own feelings about culpability and causation.
The Memorial Drive narrative is delivered in two parts, section one beginning with the author’s family history and personal recollections, continuing up to the tragic day. The second section describes what Trethewey unveils, years later, when she turns around and looks backwards at the available factual evidence and at her flashbulb memories and metaphorical threads.
In her prologue, Trethewey takes us back to that sidewalk, that apartment, almost thirty years later, remembering the last time she’d been there to clean the rooms after the tragedy.
Then, the author unwinds her life story from her childhood in Mississippi where she was born to a biracial couple on Confederate Memorial Day in 1966, through her move with Gwen to Atlanta after her parents’ divorce, and the subsequent years with Joel—the years she “wanted to banish.” Images of a young childhood surrounded by a loving extended Mississippi family are sharply contrasted with the years of foreboding and wariness, then the fear and anxiety of living in a house with an unstable, menacing man.
During this unspooling in the first part of the book, anything, and everything, is ripe for significance. Behaviors and events and objects carry weight, in retrospect—even flowers do. Gladiolas signify field cotton. Sap from her mother’s dieffenbachia plant (which Trethewey takes home from her mother’s apartment after the murder) is toxic and can cause temporary muteness, like “dumb grief, when the grief is not expressed in uttered words.” Then, there are the daffodils the author gathered for her mother, who met Joel at the club where she worked in Underground Atlanta:
I know that I have picked them for her, a handful of yellow narcissi—the flowers
planted, in the myth of mother and daughter, to lure Persephone to her doom:
kidnapping by the lord of the underworld. She picks a bright flower and the earth
splits open beneath her, taking her into its dark throat.
Trethewey exposes layers and motifs gradually, shedding light and reflection as she slowly lets out the line. She describes the heart-shape of highway 285 around Atlanta; her own self-identification with Cassandra, a prophet from Greek mythology; her mother’s decorative belt of bullets:
I see it so clearly now, my young mother bending to kiss me, the bullets’ cold metal
brushing my hand, her body ringed in the objects of her undoing.
One motif cycles through the book, beginning with the ghost mother in the opening page dream who has a hole in her forehead through which a blinding light shines. The wound, of course, was left by the bullet which ended Gwen’s life. The author, longing for meaning, sees signs when she looks for them—a sliver of light just behind her mother’s head in a formal portrait taken a few weeks before her murder; a white spot defect over her mother’s face in an old photograph; a memory of her mother’s face eclipsing the sun in a saint-like halo as Gwen reached into a pool to save the author, a child, from a near-drowning.
The second section of the book reveals primary sources uncovered by Trethewey, evidence of Gwen’s efforts to get out of harm’s way: a police report of an earlier abduction and assault by Joel; phone conversations with Joel recorded in concert with law enforcement; the twelve pages of handwritten notes found in the victim’s briefcase after her murder.
Along with the discovered documents, the second half of the book shows the author trying to make sense of things—visiting a psychic, as her mother did a few weeks before her death; pondering the insights of numerology; listening to a snippet of her mother’s voice on a cassette; lamenting having discarded particular music albums, beloved by Gwen. Looking, always, for enlightenment.
Trethewey’s language mirrors the way thoughts wander or turn towards a thread, or the way our perspectives change from a more distant retrospective view to a more intimate examination of a specific moment in time. She shapes the unspooling, managing the literary presentation of the associations, so there’s a satisfying balance between the figurative and the tangible, as if Trethewey seeks both revelation and clarity.
My rational mind knows very well what my irrational mind is doing. So why not let
both exist simultaneously? This is, after all, how I make metaphor.
By the last pages of Memorial Drive, the reader knows Trethewey has finally examined the police records of her mother’s case, “the transcripts, witness accounts, the autopsy, and official reports, the ADA’s statement, indications of police indifference,” passed along to her, decades later, by the officer who first arrived on the scene that June day. The author knows “they could have saved her,” and Trethewey replays her dream of walking side-by-side with her mother on an oval path that never ends.
Natasha Trethewey survived her trauma, her wounds, and here lies Memorial Drive, her remarkable story about it all, the tender and the true.
Laura Johnsrude’s creative nonfiction pieces have been published in Hippocampus Magazine, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Bellevue Literary Review, Fourth Genre, and The Boom Project anthology. She is currently a graduate candidate for Spalding University’s Master of Arts in Writing, Professional Writing track.