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After Years Of 'Willed Amnesia,' Trethewey Opens Up About Her Murdered Mother

Natasha Trethewey served as U.S. poet laureate in 2012 and 2013. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her 2006 collection <em>Native Guard.</em>
Nancy Crampton
Natasha Trethewey served as U.S. poet laureate in 2012 and 2013. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her 2006 collection Native Guard.

Thirty-five years ago, Natasha Trethewey's stepfather shot and killed her mother outside of her home in a suburb of Atlanta.

Trethewey's stepfather was sentenced to life in prison, and Trethewey, who was 19 at the time, spent years trying to forget what had happened.

"It was just a life I wanted to leave behind," she says. "I wanted to forge a new life for myself that didn't include that past, but, of course, that was impossible."

In 2005, Trethewey and her husband were walking in Decatur, Ga., when a policeman approached them. The officer recognized Trethewey; years earlier, he had been first on the scene the morning of her mother's murder.

"He struck up a conversation with us and told me that the police departments usually expunge the records ... after 20 years," Trethewey says. "And so they would be getting rid of this file of my mother's case, and he offered to get it and give it to me."

The police files gave Trethewey a new window into her mother's life. Without them, Trethewey says, "I would not have ever had the opportunity to read my mother's last words, in which she is describing her life and getting away [from my stepfather] and how she understood the effect of being with [him] on me."

Trethewey writes about her mother's murder in the new memoir, Memorial Drive. She says revisiting painful memories and talking about her mother has been a "mixed blessing" after so many years of trying to forget.

"When I talk about her now, as painful as it is to go back to that place of willed amnesia, to try to recover it, I do find some happiness in bringing back what few parts of her that I can," she says.

Interview highlights

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On learning her stepfather was following her and planning to kill her, too

If I had to leave home to go to school for practice of some kind — gymnastics practice or cheerleading practice or even to meet a friend to go to the movies together — he would often follow me, and I would see him frequently like that. And I just learned to ignore it, so that the friends I was with wouldn't realize that this strange person was actually following me. So it wasn't completely surprising to know that he, in the aftermath of us getting away, was following me also.

I mean, in fact, the week we left [him], the first thing he did was find me, because [my mother] was at a shelter and he couldn't find the location of the shelter, but he knew I'd be at the high school football game on a Friday night with the other cheerleaders. ... I was down there on the track with the rest of the cheerleaders and he came in and walked all the way down to the front of the bleachers and sat there right in front of me.

And when it was impossible for me to ignore him anymore, I looked at him and smiled and waved and spoke a little greeting. And he stayed there for a while. And then finally he left. But he told a psychiatrist or psychologist at the V.A. hospital later that he had shown up at the football stadium to kill me, to punish my mother, but hadn't done so because I had waved and spoken a greeting to him. ...

I've lived with the survivor's guilt of that moment ever since. Because I think that had he killed me, then he would have been arrested for that, and she'd be the one alive today.

On seeing footage of herself on TV walking into her home with the caption, "daughter of the murdered woman"

There I was in a hotel room that the police put us up in to hide because they hadn't captured Joel yet. And we turn on the TV and I can see the moment that my grandmother, father and I arrived at the apartment to take some of her things to get the clothes she'd be buried in. We got there and there was a news van and police tape over the door. ... We did not talk to [the reporters], but they captured that scene of me going into the apartment and shutting the door behind me. Looking at it felt like I was watching somebody else. And I think that that's probably the moment that I had decided somehow, consciously or unconsciously, to separate myself from the person to whom this horrible thing had just happened, as if I could move forward in my life without that part coming with me, too.

On writing a poem about her stepfather's release from prison, and carrying it in her pocket when she accepts awards

I have a poem called "Letter to Inmate" and it's his inmate number that I wrote when I first found out he was going to get out [on parole], and I ask the question at the end of the poem, "What does it mean to be safe in the world? Everywhere I go, she is with me — my long dead mother. Is there nowhere I might go and not find you there too?" So even if he's not physically here, there is a way that the past enters my life. All of it. Then I carry it with me.

On her mother's death being the most formative experience of her life as a person and artist

To know such grief means that when you experience joy, you know the depths of its opposite, and that makes it that much sweeter.

I think it is what made me. I think about [Federico García] Lorca's idea of "duende," the wound that never heals. "And in trying to heal the wound that never heals," he wrote, "lies the strangeness in an artist's work." This is a wound I carry that never heals. But it is the very thing, that kind of awareness of death, of that possibility, that undergirds everything I do. ... I think it makes me experience joy at a much more intense level. To know such grief means that when you experience joy, you know the depths of its opposite, and that makes it that much sweeter.

On being biracial and being born in Mississippi on April 26, a day that several Southern states consider Confederate memorial day

I would see every year: the juxtaposition of all those little Confederate flags in the graveyard along the street at the courthouse on a day that was my birthday.

And I knew that there had been anti-miscegenation laws in Mississippi. I knew that I was sort of rendered illegitimate in the eyes of the law because my parents' [interracial] marriage was illegal. I knew that my grandmother was on a list of people being watched among the citizens' council, because she had tried to place my parents' ... marriage announcement in the newspaper. I knew that those two things side by side were supposedly incongruous — that here's this holiday glorifying the lost cause and white supremacy, and there I was, a Black and biracial child born on that day.

On watching Confederate monuments be taken down in recent months

It means that as a nation, we have a chance at a historical reckoning that will allow us to tell a fuller version of our shared history, and not a skewed version or a version that erases a very important part of what we share. I mean, imagine if instead of all those Confederate monuments that were erected to send a message to African Americans about their place in society, we had hundreds of monuments dedicated to the Black Union soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War ... to save the Union, to free themselves and to help this country advance a little bit closer to its own ideals. Imagine what we would know as a people if those were the monuments that inscribed the landscape.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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