Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Madness

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I was feeling alone and lost, like there was no longer any reason for me to live. I went down to the kitchen and searched my mother's cabinet for the mortar and pestle we used to crush spices. I took the pestle to bed with me and held it against my chest. (12.87)

Sophie has what she thinks is a moment of clarity here: in order to make the virginity tests stop, she is going to take some pretty violent steps against her own body. She gets the idea from her mother's story of how the tests stopped for her (i.e. when she was raped). Sophie wants to take control of her own body and preserve her dignity, but she manages to damage herself pretty seriously. The wounding of her own body is symbolic of her feelings toward her own sexuality: that it is something to be feared and sickened about.

For months, she was afraid that he would creep out of the night and kill her in her sleep. She was terrified that he would come and tear out the child growing inside her. At night, she tore her sheets and bit off pieces of her own flesh when she had nightmares. (21.139)

Sophie learns the whole story of what happened to her mother after she was raped—and it isn't pretty. Martine can't contain the fear and anxiety caused by such extreme violence and it nearly destroys her while she's still pregnant with Sophie. This violation sparks a hatred of her own body and a lifetime of self-mutilation and torment. Martine will never be whole again, because her fear and self-hatred do not diminish over the years, despite Sophie's best efforts to comfort her.

"Now you have a child of your own. You must know that everything a mother does, she does for her child's own good. You cannot always carry the pain. You must liberate yourself." (23.157)

Ifé is trying to put a stop to Sophie's suffering in the way that mother's often do. She basically tells Sophie that whatever she suffered at her mother's hands was meant in her best interests—and she should just get over it. Ifé will later tell her that she doesn't need to take on pain that isn't hers. She understands that Sophie's upbringing has sensitized her to her mother's trauma, and that Sophie is very apt to suffer deeply on her mother's behalf—and to unite her own trauma about the virginity tests to her mother's rape. Ifé suggests that she doesn't take that path, for the sake of herself and her child.

"Jesus Marie Joseph. Every time I even think of that, the nightmares get worse. It bites at the inside of my stomach like a leech. Last night after I talked to Marc about letting it go, I felt the skin getting tight on my belly and for a whole minute I couldn't breathe. I had to lie down and say I had changed my mind before I could breathe normally." (29.191)

Martine is truly suffering—both mentally and physically—from her new pregnancy. She can't help connecting her rape/rapist with the child she is now carrying, even though the circumstances of its conception are completely different. The fact that she feels out of control, that the baby is taking over her body, sparks a new and intense fear that this little intruder is trying to kill her.

"I am trying to keep one step ahead of a mental hospital. They would probably put me away, thinking that I might hurt both myself and this child." (29.191)

It's hard to know if Martine is saying the first bit of this in jest, but we think she's probably pretty serious. She understands that her mental stability is questionable and she knows that the pregnancy is making things worse. Sadly, she hits the nail right on the head: she is capable of hurting herself and the baby, and she does need intervention to keep that from happening. And yet, she doesn't want that kind of intervention, because it will mean once again that her body isn't fully under her own control.

I knew the intensity of her nightmares. I had seen her curled up in a ball in the middle of the night, sweating and shaking as she hollered for the images of the past to leave her alone. Sometimes the fright woke her up, but most of the time, I had to shake her awake before she bit her finger off, ripped her nightgown, or threw herself out of a window. (29.193)

Sophie recalls the intensity of Martine's nightmares, which are far worse than we really understood before this point. These nightly "hauntings" cause suffering from which Martine can never free herself and over which she has very little control. Sophie feels both sympathy for her mother and guilt that she isn't still around to comfort her mother, even though she knows that the situation wasn't a healthy one for her, either.

After Joseph and I got married, all through the first year I had suicidal thoughts. Some nights I woke up in a cold sweat wondering if my mother's anxiety was somehow hereditary or if it was something that I had "caught" from living with her. (29.193)

Sophie feels great empathy for her mother and is extremely sensitive to the trauma that she suffered as a young girl. She feels this so deeply that she has taken on the trauma herself, absorbing Martine's memories like they are her own. It's no wonder that she feels this anxiety is inherited or "catching." She begins to understand that they really aren't when she observes her peaceful daughter, who is able to sleep on a dime and shows no signs of such anxiety. Ultimately, Sophie knows that it is up to her to break the cycle of stress and trauma for her daughter.

I was holding her and fighting off that man, keeping those images out of her head. I was telling her that it was all right. That it was not a demon in her stomach, that it was a child, like I was once a child in her body. I was telling her that I would never let anyone put her away in a mental hospital, that I would take care of her. (30.200)

Sophie wants the impossible here: she wants to separate from her body (which is in bed with her husband) and reach out to her mother who is suffering, several states away. She wants magically to make everything all right for Martine, and to promise that she will keep all bad things away from her mother. It's a lot of wish fulfillment all at once, and is sparked by her desire to escape from a sexual relationship with her husband. But Sophie learns that she can't help her mother with things that Martine will not face—and that she might be walking the same path, if she doesn't face up and tackle her problems head on.

"Everywhere I go, I hear it. I hear him saying things to me. You tintin, malpròp. He calls me a filthy whore. I never want to see this child's face. Your child looks like Manman. This child, I will never look into its face." (33.217)

Martine has descended completely into paranoid fantasy here. She tells Sophie that the child she is carrying is a boy (she knows because she hears him speaking to her in a man's voice). Clearly, the voice that Martine hears is more likely to be her own self-condemnation, or perhaps what she thinks others might say of her. This is a serious and tragic development, but one that Sophie doesn't know how to deal with. She assumes that her mother will be better once she has the abortion, but doesn't understand how severely Martine's judgment has been affected.

I lay in my mother's bed all night fighting evil thoughts: It is your fault that she killed herself in the first place. Your face took her back again. You should have stayed with her. If you were here, she would not have gotten pregnant. (35.227)

Sophie cannot stop from blaming herself about her mother's violent suicide. Her identification with her mother's suffering has not ended just because Martine is now gone. In fact, she feels as though she should have been the barrier between her mother and the demons that plagued her from the time before Sophie was even born. These are irrational thoughts, but they are understandable—especially since Martine had told Sophie that she had saved her life throughout the years.

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