Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Erzulie

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Women Can Have It All…If They're Goddesses

You've probably heard the debates raging about whether women can "have it all"—can you be a CEO and really earn that Mother of the Year mug? Can you be the take-no-prisoners captain of the debate team and be the nurturing President of the Homeless Kittens Club? Can you be sweet, innocent, worldly, and wise?

The good news? Yes. The bad news? Only if you're the Vodou goddess Erzulie.

When Sophie visits her grandmother in Dame Marie just before leaving for New York, she finds a statue of the Vodou loa (spirit/goddess) Erzulie. She's fascinated by this figure because Erzulie embodies feminine contraries: virgin and mother, life-force and destroyer, powerful and seductive. To Sophie, Erzulie is the perfect woman.

But Erzulie's qualities represent an impossible standard for regular mortals like herself and her mother. When she first meets her mother in New York, Sophie has to answer a tough question: is Martine everything she'd hoped her mother would be? Her truthful answer is a big, fat "no,"

[...] the mother I had imagined for myself was like Erzulie, the lavish Virgin Mother...the healer of all women and the desire of all men. She had gorgeous dresses in satin, silk, and lace, necklaces, pendants, earrings, bracelets, anklets, and lots and lots of French perfume. She never had to work for anything because the rainbow and the stars did her work for her. (8.59)

Even twelve-year-old Sophie realizes that this is an unrealistic standard and tells her mother that she's doing a pretty awesome job.

The Cult of Mom

Sophie's therapist keys in on this unrealistic mother-expectation and tells Sophie that she has a "Madonna-image" of her mother. The problem with this? Sophie also has the same expectations for herself. And when she loses her mother, she finds herself literally transforming Martine's body to conform to this ideal by choosing the brightest red burial clothes:

She would look like a Jezebel, hot-blooded Erzulie who feared no men, but rather made them her slaves, raped them, and killed them. She was the only woman with that power. (35.227)

Martine is no Erzulie in life—after all, no one is. But now that she's paid the ultimate price for her suffering, Sophie feels that she should be enshrined with the goddess. It's her one chance to claim justice for the years of pain and fear… and to have a mother who can take care of things on her own terms.

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