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In hopes of helping others, poet details life and eventual murder of her mother by her stepfather in Georgia

Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough was shot to death in metro Atlanta in front of her 11-year-old son.

ATLANTA — The year was 1985.

Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a metro Atlanta social worker, left her abusive second husband.

“My mother thought that she had escaped a difficult marriage. A marriage of domestic violence,” said Turnbough’s daughter, Natasha Tretheway. “She got a divorce, a new place to live, a new lease of life, but he continued to stalk her.”

Turnbough worked with the DeKalb County District Attorney, trying to stay safe. But, as she left for work in June of that same year, her ex-husband, newly released from jail, tracked her down.

She was shot to death in front of her 11-year-old son. Tretheway was 19.

“It changed everything,” Tretheway said. “And it was the beginning of the stage of bereavement that I’ve lived my entire adult life.”

Her mother’s murder also gave Tretheway a purpose to put pain to paper, becoming a poet, appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2013, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for her collection of poems partly inspired by her mother.

Tretheway’s latest work, "Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir," details what lead up to her mother’s attempt to escape domestic violence and as well as her murder.  

“I include in the book her own statements to the police, a document she was writing that was found in her briefcase the morning she was murdered, transcripts of the phone calls that she had with her killer in her attempts to get an arrest warrant in the days leading up to her death. What was hard for me was going back over the documentary evidence,” Tretheway explained, taking a pause to dab her teary eyes with a napkin. “Reading the police file;  realizing that they could have saved her.”

Turnbough’s life wasn’t saved-- but out of her death came a birth. 

Not long after Turnbough’s murder, Commissioner Sherry Schulman established the DeKalb County Domestic Violence Task Force to investigate violence in the County. Based on the task force’s recommendations, the county granted $10,000 to create a victim service agency in 1986, now known as the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence.

For the last 36 years, WRCDV helped domestic violence survivors find a safe place to stay, legal advocacy, and countless other services.

Thursday evening, Tretheway was honored at a fundraising event for the center.

Tretheway described her mother as well-educated, self-sufficient, and in a good place to leave her ex-husband. But even so, her mother couldn’t completely escape. She hopes others realize how difficult it can be for people with little resources to leave their abuser.

“I think my mother’s story helps us to understand just how urgent the situation is for so many people and how difficult it is -- and yet, there is a way we can all be a part of what changes and makes it such that women like that can survive," she said.

Turnbough’s story is one of tragedy and one that showed Tretheway the importance of being an open book herself.

“She made me," the poet said. "She gave me the kind of resilience that could allow me not only to survive but also to thrive.”

And through her mother’s journey, she hopes others can find the strength they need to escape a dangerous situation.

“There are people out there that care. There are people out there that will help you. You need only ask.”

To learn more about the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, visit their website.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7. Get resources online or call at 1-800-799-7233.

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