Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey made lots of ‘best of 2020′ lists, and I find it hard to pass by a memoir that garners so much praise.

Natasha describes the events leading to her mother’s violent death, and how her experience of grief and trauma has shaped her work (Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet).

Three decades is a long time to get to know the contours of loss, to become intimate with one’s own bereavement. You get used to it. Most days it is a distant thing, always on the horizon, sailing toward me with it’s difficult cargo.

Natasha’s mother, Gwen, grew up in the deeply segregated South. She was surrounded by a loving and supportive extended family, and when she met Trethewey’s father, a white university student, their relationship was accepted. They had Natasha but within five years the marriage was over. Gwen moved them to Atlanta, where she met a troubled Vietnam veteran, Joel. Gwen and Joel’s relationship progressed quickly – they married and Gwen gave birth to a son over a summer when Natasha was staying with her grandparents. The physical and mental abuse started immediately, directed at both Gwen and Natasha.

Gwen eventually escaped the marriage but Joel continued to stalk her. In 1985, he shot her dead in her home on Memorial Drive. Natasha, nineteen years old, grappled to understand how her mother’s life had ended so tragically.

Natasha’s depiction of Joel is chilling – his menace and his tactics are frightening to read about, let alone experience. Descriptions of the drives Joel would take Natasha on, where he would force her to pack her things before they left and then threaten to throw her out of the car (and therefore home), were horrifying – Natasha’s sheer terror, palpable.

Natasha shows her mother as a strong woman, who was not afraid to stand up for what she believed (an interracial marriage in the sixties South would not have been without difficulties). Gwen, as remembered by Natasha, is not congruent with the Gwen who is abused by Joel. And Natasha, like many children growing up in violence, bear a particular burden, wondering about their role in what happened at home –

I can’t help asking myself whether her death was the price of my inexplicable silence.

The memoir also explores how we carry grief forever.

When I left Atlanta, vowing never to return, I took with me what I had cultivated all those years: mute avoidance of my past, silence and willed amnesia buried deep in me like a root.

The second half of the book includes lengthy transcripts of conversations had between Gwen and Joel – they make for harrowing reading, and the manipulative way in which perpetrators of domestic abuse operate is evident in every exchange. But while these sections provide a more detailed picture of the dynamic between Gwen and Joel, and the seemingly inescapable cycle that violent men create, I lost the rhythm of Natasha’s voice, and of her perspective of Gwen. Once lost, I couldn’t quite pick it up again, and felt detached for the remainder of the book.


My favourite snack was a hunk of crusty bread and some lovely cheese that my mother would leave for me. Placed in delicate symmetry on a bright white plate and drizzled with a bit of honey. the food seemed a beautiful manifestation of the quiet order she’d made for me after so many years of chaos.

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