July 27, 2020Updated 3:13 p.m. ET
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The poet Natasha Trethewey was born in Mississippi and grew up there and in Atlanta. She became accustomed, she writes in her new memoir, “Memorial Drive,” to the “hair rising on the back of my neck when I’d hear a certain kind of Southern accent, a tensing in my spine when I’d see the Confederate flag or the gun rack on a truck following us too closely down the road.”
Trethewey won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her collection “Native Guard,” and she served two terms as poet laureate. Some of her dexterous poetry touches on the autobiographical details of her life, and she is the author of a previous memoir, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Nothing she has written drills down into her past, and her family’s, as powerfully as “Memorial Drive.” It is a controlled burn of chaos and intellection; it is a memoir that will really lay you out.
“Memorial Drive” is about the murder of her mother, Gwendolyn, who was 40, by Gwendolyn’s second husband, a troubled Vietnam veteran named Joel. The author was 19. She was led from a dorm room to the crime scene, where she was filmed entering by a local news crew.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of July. See the full list. ]
The murder of Trethewey’s mother followed months of beatings and threats by Joel. Gwendolyn and Natasha escaped to hotels and shelters. It is among this book’s ironies that Gwendolyn had a master’s in social work, and made more money than the shelter employees. “Maybe you can help me get a job,” one of the workers said to her.
This is a book with a slow, steady build. This is restraint in service to release. Among its first scenes is that of the author’s birth in Gulfport, Miss., in 1966. Her father was a white man, a future academic born in Nova Scotia. The author was thus, she writes, “a child of miscegenation, an interracial marriage still illegal in Mississippi and in as many as 20 other states.”
Trethewey was born on the hundredth anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day, which paid homage to the Lost Cause. As her mother made the trip to Gulfport Memorial Hospital, the author writes, she could not help but witness “the barrage of rebel flags lining the streets: private citizens, lawmakers, Klansmen (often one and the same) raising them in Gulfport and small towns all across Mississippi.”
When Trethewey was young and out with her parents, she grew used to hostility. This often crossed the line into intimidation. Men followed them out of shops. There was the “stream of headlights searching the front windows of the house at night” and “sexually charged calls from white men driving by in broad daylight.” The Klan burned a cross in the family’s driveway.
After her divorce from the author’s father, who had grown distant while finishing his studies in New Orleans, Gwendolyn moved with Natasha to Atlanta, hoping for a better life.
This memoir has eddies of joy and celebration. Trethewey writes memorably about the music Gwendolyn loved. She describes a photograph of her mother and Joel in which they “look like performers in a 1970s soul band, bell-bottoms and Afros, both of them posed with one hand on the stair railing and one foot trailing behind on the step as if they are walking in unison down the stairs.”
They’re both dressed in white, she adds, “like Al Green on the album cover propped up against the wall.”
By its midpoint, “Memorial Drive” is merely a quite good memoir. The book’s second half, like the wall of a hurricane after the eye calmly passes over, is the destructor.
The second half, unexpectedly, dumps a bag of harrowing receipts on the table. Thanks to a police officer who had been the first on the scene, Trethewey has access to transcripts of her mother’s police statements before her murder; transcripts of telephone calls with Joel that Gwendolyn taped, in hopes of getting an arrest warrant; and a short journal her mother kept.
Trethewey dispenses this material to powerful effect. Some readers will be put in mind of Norman Mailer’s epic “The Executioner’s Song,” about the surreal events surrounding the execution of the convicted killer Gary Gilmore in Utah in the 1970s.
On the telephone recordings, Gwendolyn hangs on as Joel says things like: “You created this monster inside of me. It’s your baby, it’s yours”; “I have embedded these things in my head that only you can take out”; “Gwen, you forgot I spent two years in Vietnam. I can explode anything”; “I’m gonna come out there and I’m gonna shoot a round through the window, OK. All right?”
Gwendolyn did get an arrest warrant. Joel killed her after a cop left his post before his shift was up. One of the bullets went through her raised right hand and into her head. “Memorial Drive” closes like a door sucked shut by the wind.
Among this memoir’s themes is the development of the author’s sensibility, her solitude of spirit. She is honest about what she remembers and what she does not.
“If you had told me early on how much of my life I would lose to forgetting — most of those years when my mother was still alive — maybe I’d have begun then trying to save as much as I could.” She had to jettison a lot, she writes, “out of a kind of necessity.”
Even though you intuit what is coming, the moment you learn of Gwendolyn’s death is as stunning as the moment when Anna Magnani is shot in the street in Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City.”
Rita Dove said this about memory in a poem called “Primer for the Nuclear Age”:
got a heart at all, someday
it will kill you.