Poet Natasha Trethewey Reckons With Her Mother's Murder and Growing Up Biracial in the South

"In trying to forget the violence, I lost more of her than I would have liked," the poet says about her mother Gwen, who was murdered by her second husband 35 years ago

Natasha Trethewey
Natasha Trethewey. Photo: Nancy Crampton

After Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, articles about her life often credited her artistry to her father Eric Trethewey, the late poet and college professor. Her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, was only mentioned as an "afterthought."

She was "this victim, this murdered woman," Natasha explains of Gwen, who was shot to death by her second husband 35 years ago.

"I began to feel that my mother was being erased in many ways, that her importance, her role in my life and making me a writer and the person that I am, was being overlooked or ignored," Natasha, 54, tells PEOPLE. "It was a lot easier for people to imagine that I'm a poet because my father was a poet, as opposed to this wound that I bear because of losing her and her influence on my life."

In her lyrical memoir, Memorial Drive, which was released last week, the former two-term Poet Laureate paints a haunting tableau of the years leading up to Gwen's death. While the poet dispels the shadow of trauma enough to remember precious moments — Gwen dancing to her favorite song, Morris Day and the Time’s "The Bird" — she also reveals how quickly the darkness returns.

Natasha Trethewey
Natasha with her parents. Courtesy Natasha Trethewey

The facts are horrific: For years, Gwen's second husband, Joel, a struggling Vietnam vet, tormented Natasha and was controlling and physically abusive to her mother. Gwen filed for divorce, went to the police, and even sought safety in a woman's shelter. But Joel continued to terrorize her, at one point, kidnapping and raping her.

In the summer of 1983, Joel came to the football stadium to find Natasha, who was a cheerleader for her high school team. (Gwen and Natasha left their apartment to hide from him. Since he couldn't find his wife, Joel sought out her daughter.)

Seeing Joel, Natasha waved and smiled at him, mouthing a hello. Years later, she learned that Joel had told a psychologist at the VA hospital that he planned to shoot Natasha right on the field "to punish my mother," Natasha writes in Memorial Drive. But he didn't go through with his plan because Natasha acknowledged him. (The poet has been haunted for years that she was spared, when her mother was not. Natasha says it's "impossible" not to feel survivor's guilt.)

Almost two years later, in June 5, 1985, Joel shot Gwen in the head in her apartment complex. She was 40 years old. (Joel was sentenced to life in prison.)

Natasha Trethewey
Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough. Courtesy Natasha Trethewey

But Memorial Drive does more than lay bare this violent truth.

In her book, Natasha builds interior and exterior spaces, interconnected by the fluid and ever present issues of race, violence, gender and inheritance. She was born in Mississippi to a white academic father and Black social worker mother at a time when interracial marriage was illegal. After her parents divorced, Gwen moved with Natasha to an apartment on Memorial Drive in Atlanta, where Confederate monuments loomed on the horizon.

"When you look at [the Confederate monument] as an image, as metaphor, and you see that great big thing looming over the landscape imposing its singular message about the Confederacy and white supremacy and Black subjugation," Natasha says. "And then nothing about this small individual trauma that was mine and my mother's, it made me feel yet again, that sense of psychological exile that I had growing up in Mississippi and Georgia."

The day Gwen died, the police officer who was supposed to be monitoring her apartment left his shift early. ("They could have saved her," Natasha writes in her memoir.)

Natasha Trethewey

But not all of the cops were indifferent. One police officer on the case cared deeply. Years after Gwen's death, he gave Natasha transcripts of Gwen's last phone calls in which she pleaded with Joel to spare her life. Her daughter includes the transcripts in her memoir, as well as pages from Gwen's diary that were found in her suitcase. The inclusion of Gwen's own voice is heartrending — revealing both her strength and the terror she endured.

In their last recorded conversation, Joel threatened Gwen's life multiple times ("Gwen, you forgot I spent two years in Vietnam. I can explode anything," he said. Later, he threatened to "shoot a round through the window.").

"Who's giving you courage now?" Joel asked Gwen, according to the call transcripts.

"Nobody particularly," she said. "I've just decided that there's just some, some times in your life that you just have to make a stand."

The conversation provided evidence enough for an arrest warrant, but it wasn't enough to save Gwen.

Mom Is 'The Apparition of My Dreams': Author

After her death, Natasha tried to forget that dark period, but forgetting came at a cost, she says.

"In trying to forget or bury the violence, the difficult part, I lost more of her than I would have liked," Natasha says. "Which is why I think she is the apparition of my dreams."

The author wants readers to know how "resilient" her mother was — and how difficult it is to escape when one person is intent on hurting another.

Natasha Trethewey
Young Natasha.

"People are struggling to free themselves from situations like this and it's very hard," she says, explaining that Gwen was educated and had friends and resources, but she still couldn't escape. "Poor women or women who are dependent upon their abusers for survival, for shelter, for the care of their children, how can we tell them, 'All you have to do is walk away. You can get away.' It's not that easy."

Natasha explains that there's also not a simple solution to healing from trauma. Following Gwen's death, the young writer tried her hand at poetry. Natasha says these first poems were "bad." (She later connected with the words of Lisel Mueller, whose poem "When I Am Asked" about her mother's death, resonated deeply. "I sat on a gray stone bench / ringed with the ingenue faces / of pink and white impatiens / and placed my grief / in the mouth of language, / the only thing that would grieve with me," the poem ends.)

Her father, Eric Trethewey, was just as broken up over Gwen's death.

"[My father] was so deeply wounded about her death and he would always say, 'Oh, if Gwen were alive today, we'd get back together. If I'd been a better husband, Gwen would still be alive,'" Natasha explains. "I think he felt so responsible."

They both wrote about Gwen, later giving poetry readings together.

Natasha Trethewey
Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Brack Lewis

"We'd stand at a podium together and read back and forth, a kind of call and response," she says. "Poems that were about each other, poems that were about my mother, our shared and separate experiences with her."

Writing About Mom as 'Palliative Care'

When Natasha decided to share her mother's story through prose instead of poetry, she also had to determine how to write about her stepfather. For Natasha, it isn't about forgiveness. Instead, it's about "restorative justice," she says.

"I wanted to bring every bit of empathy that I would give to any other human being, to him," Natasha says. "What I reminded myself again and again, was that he had been a child once, that he had been an innocent. Whatever happened to him as a child or in Vietnam to disfigure his soul such that he would be capable of doing the thing that he did, was not who he was born to be."

Just as there is no forgiveness for her as other people define it, Natasha says there is also no healing.

"I want people to understand that [my mother's murder] is a wound that never heals, but that isn't the point for me," the author says. "The point, for me, is to think about how to live with a wound. The way you live with the wound is through palliative care."

"You can keep it clean, you can expose it to the light, you can do things that lessen the pain sometimes so that you can go on living with it," she continues. "This is a lessening of the pain, as pained as I might sound sometimes when I'm weeping. I am so happy to get to talk to the world about who she was. That's palliative care for me."

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