A Memoir, a Mother and a Mission

by Lynne Anderson

Book Review: Memorial Drive

The trajectory of tragedy: How 100,000 local women have been helped

NATASHA TRETHEWEY knows more than she would like to about finding meaning from tragedy. And she does it with such honesty and thoroughness woven with lyricism and light in her new book, “Memorial Drive,” that the brightness is almost blinding.

The nation’s former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Trethewey turns tragic details about her mother’s life and death into a journey of discovery, meaning and understanding. A pivotal point of the story provides the origins for the Women’s Resource Center, founded in response to the events 35 years ago.

memorial Trethewey recounts how her mother, Gwendolyn Grimmette, who had a master’s degree in social work, tried for years to gain legal and personal protection from ex-husband, Joel. He even went to prison for a year after assaulting her in 1984. Upon his release, Joel continued those threats until finally delivering on them in June of 1985. Gwendolyn had called the police, but they came and left before Joel arrived at her Memorial Drive apartment. He shot Gwendolyn in the presence of her 11-year-old son. She died instantly.

At the time, Trethewey was in shock and fear. She managed to continue as a student at the University of Georgia, finding solace in poetry and literature.

In DeKalb County, the tragic story was impossible to ignore. Gwendolyn Grimmette had followed all of the professional advice, authorities reported she taken all of the legal precautions available at the time.

Domestic violence advocates came together to start a place where women like Grimmette could find safety, legal help and court protection. The Women’s Resource Center was started with a $10,000 grant and a few volunteers.

Now, the center has a budget of $2.6 million and a full-time staff of 15. It operates a safe house and helps domestic violence victims navigate the legal system.

“This organization was started because my mother’s case was so extraordinary,” said Trethewey. Domestic violence advocates in fact called Gwendolyn Grimmette the “perfect victim” because her case showed how a woman can still be killed even when she has done everything she can do to find safety for herself and her family.

Jean Douglas, the head of the Women’s Resource Center, said Grimmette’s story brought together judges, lawyers and social workers in 1986 to improve the avenues that victims of domestic violence can take.

The center at first held support groups in a building on Memorial Drive, the very street where Grimmette lived and died. Later came a shelter, then another shelter, followed by legal advocates who help compile restraining orders and others who oversee supervised visitations of children.

Today, the center is in downtown Decatur, but its legal advocates actually operate out of the DeKalb County Courthouse so that the process can be as stressless as possible for women who are often terrified for their lives and those of their children.

“We try to be like a one-stop shop at the courthouse providing assistance for the filing of criminal warrants, temporary protective orders and making sure that victims get the proper legal counsel they need,” Douglas said.

The resource center is also about providing care and nurturing for the victims as well as their children. “They are a part of us, and we are a part of them,” explained Douglas.

Douglas adds that the center has assisted more than 100,000 women since it began. They receive nearly 6,000 calls for help every year.

At the time of Grimmette’s murder, domestic violence was not yet at the forefront of the collective political or personal dialogue. The legal system did little to help women, with many police departments believing that these were family issues to be settled between a husband and wife. Domestic violence has been historically condoned for “correction purposes” in many parts of colonial America.

One of the hardest parts for Trethewey was knowing that not only had her mother left and divorced her husband, but also that she had called the police for help the night before she was murdered.

“They could have saved her,” Trethewey wrote in her memoir.

This heart-felt book resulted from a chance encounter Trethewey and her husband, Brett, had at a downtown Decatur restaurant one evening. When another couple sent over drink, Trethewey went over to thank them.

The man, who had recognized her from all those years earlier, asked Trethewey, “Was Gwen Grimmette your mother, and Joey your brother?”

She describes tears welling in his eyes, His wife then told Trethewey, “He was the first police officer on the scene.”

Bob, the former officer, told Trethewey that he had recently seen the case files from her mother’s case. It happened to be the year that the courthouse was set to purge the records. He asked Trethewey if she wanted the files. They arranged to meet, and he gave them to her.

Thus began a new phase of Trethewey’s effort to find meaning from her mother’s murder by facing the transcripts of conversations, the descriptions of encounters.

Trethewey said that “language and lyricism became the scaffolding” of making sense of the horrible details. She said she also wanted in many ways to linger in places where the happy memories of her mother that she had suppressed over the years lived on. In Trethewey’s own memories, she tells us with stunning, almost musical language about the everyday and sometimes extraordinary moments in their lives.

She recalls picking daffodils for her mother on a late winter day, her mother rescuing her from drowning in a pool in Mexico even though she could not swim, her mother joyfully dancing to “The Bird,” and her mother, dressed in white with a large Afro hairdo celebrating the day she received her master’s degree.

Trethewey only found out recently her mother’s murder was the impetus for the Women’s Resource Center. She visits now whenever she is in town. She has been impressed with how “light-filled they [the safe houses] were, that the children were being taken care of so well.”

And while her book and her writing are important ways in which she has found meaning and purpose from her mother’s murder, Trethewey said she hopes that efforts of people like Douglas and other advocates for domestic violence will continue.

“It makes me very frightened for women during COVID-19 having to live with their abusers,” she said. Though laws have been tightened and processes improved for victims, “people need to be educated, to know how women are affected.”

Trethewey concludes her story, “Even my mother’s death is redeemed in the story of my calling, made meaningful rather than merely senseless. It is the story I tell myself to survive.”

photos of mom


Getting and Giving Help

Gwendolyn Grimmette Women’s Resource Center is a local nonprofit dedicated to end domestic violence. The organization emerged in part as a result of the tragic loss of Gwendolyn Grimmette.

MISSION: Create a society in which violence no longer exists.

WRC meets immediate and long-term needs of battered women and their children through several programs. The organization is LGBTQ+ affirming who serves all people inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

PROGRAMS 24-Hour Hotline: Advocates are available for questions or to provide peercounseling support, safety planning or referrals at [ai_phone href=”+1.404.68.9436″]404.68.9436[/ai_phone].

Safe House for Survivors: Provides secure and confidential temporary housing helping guests transition into a safe and stable living situation.

Legal Advocacy: Helps survivors assess and explore legal options on a case-by-case basis. There are programs for Elder Abuse and support for supervised visitation.

Family and Child Advocacy: Supports through activities and education that build community and teach peace including individual and group sessions and Camp PEACE.

Getting involved can include donations sourced by shopping the wish list or financial contributions. Volunteers have direct or indirect opportunities to assist with needs such as transportation, donation organization or child care and advocacy.

Find details at wrcdv.org.