Memorial Drive, by Natasha Trethewey, is a memoir where Trethewey tells the stories of her childhood homes, growing up as a child of a black mother and white father, the shift in her relationship to her mother, and, eventually, her mother’s murder while Trethewey was still a young woman. This is the core of the book, but it really is so much more than that.
A relatively short read, Memorial Drive is captivating and visceral. At its length, I would have expected to read the entire book in a day, even a busy day, but the stories and writing are so nuanced, and in many ways so painful, that reading it quickly felt impossible. Trethewey’s skill with language and her approach to writing contributes to the need for time. She tackles memory and captures its fade and shift with age and trauma so well that it feels like you’re trying to recall parts of your own life, or a past life, something you might have lived but is so distant and through a fog that you can’t quite remember it clearly. And that’s part of the mastery. Trethewey is parsing through her own trauma, and her mother’s through her eyes, so the haze is appropriate and real. Rather than a straightforward memoir, we are travelling with Trethewey as she confronts her lost memories and the multiple losses of her mother-the first emotionally and the second physically. When I finally finished reading, I felt like I was gasping for air and my whole body ached.
I see a lot of conversation about this book that focuses on Trethewey’s background as the child of an interracial couple, and of course, it’s undeniable that that specific experience colors her life, especially as a young girl. For me the most powerful and important part of the memoir is the slow telling, through the eyes of her childhood, of all the ways intimate partner violence inflicts damage on its victims and all those around them. It is so subtle in Trethewey’s memory that until the first moment of direct violence that she witnesses (hears), many readers may not fully comprehend what is happening. I second guessed it myself, unsure until that moment. But for me, it was not only clear but painful, telegraphed in a million minor moments that are the kinds of subtle realities that most people who have not experienced the broken power dynamics of domestic violence might be unaware of. For several years I worked as a domestic violence advocate in Atlanta, the same city the majority of Tretheway’s memoir takes place, and her stories, particularly the small moments, echo so many of the stories I came to be intimately and painfully familiar with.
It is this reason that I think this book is so important. So many people acknowledge the wrongness of intimate partner violence without understanding its reality. How it really looks and feels day in and day out. Direct violence is terrible, but it is easier to see and identify (though not any easier to escape), and if it is our only picture of this kind of violence then it is incomplete. There are two gut wrenching moments that clinch this idea:
- When Trethewey’s mother does finally leave, a task so difficult it takes most victims on average 7 tries before staying gone while also increasing their chances of being murdered significantly, the intake workers at the shelter she escapes to with her children make numerous comments about her education, job, and background, which is more elevated than theirs. This is a common attitude towards victims: surprise which can also be codified as disbelief and is totally damaging. Because unfortunately intimate partner violence ignores all barriers of race, class, education, wealth, or status but most of us like to assume only certain kinds of people in certain kinds of situations can be victims.
- In the final chapters there is one which is solely the transcripts of Trethewey’s mother trying to catch her abuser threaten her on tape so that the police will actually arrest him. I couldn’t read the whole chapter because it’s so hard. For an advocate or someone trained, hopefully the language is clear. But it is indirect. It’s not the kind of threatening we understand as a norm. Instead, it’s the kind of pushy, gaslighting, indirect manipulative language that speaks in circles, causes victims to doubt themselves, and enables abusers to GET AWAY WITH IT.
I hope everyone reads this book. The truth is I read it at the end of 2020 but I saw that no one has written about it yet on cannonball read and felt it was worth sharing.