Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Memory and the Past

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Memory and the Past

I tried to stuff myself and keep quiet, pretending that I couldn't even see them. My mother now had two lives: Marc belonged to her present life, I was a living memory from the past. (8.56)

This understanding—that Sophie not only belongs to the past, but has a face that reminds Martine of the most terrifying time in her life—leads to a lot of suffering on Sophie's part. We get a hint here of the eating disorder that will become a much larger issue in her adult life.

"People who have been away from Haiti fewer years than you, they return and pretend they speak no Creole." "Perhaps they can't." "Is it so easy to forget?" "Some people need to forget," he said. "I need to remember." (13.94)

Sophie tells her driver in Haiti why she's really there: she needs to go back to her roots and remember who she was before immigrating to New York. But the exchange with the cabbie reveals the diverse experiences of immigrants who inevitably have to deal with their pasts/origins: sometimes, forgetting is the preferred way.

The story goes that there was once an extremely rich man who married a poor black girl. He had chosen her out of hundreds of prettier girls because she was untouched. For the wedding night, he bought her the whitest sheets and nightgowns he could possibly find. For himself, he bought a can of thick goat milk in which he planned to sprinkle a drop of her hymen blood to drink. (23.154)

The stories told by Ifé and Atie create core memories for Sophie—sometimes to her disadvantage. This particular gem emphasizes the obsession with female purity in Haitian culture. For Sophie, it means that a woman's life is worth little in its own right. Her value really depends solely on sexual "cleanness." She can't forget these lessons even as she moves into her life with her husband.

There was magic in the images that she had made out of the night. She would rock my body on her lap as she told me of fishermen and mermaids bravely falling in love. The mermaids would leave stars for the fishermen to pick out of the sand. For the most beloved fishermen, the mermaids would leave their combs, which would turn to gold when the fishermen kissed them. (15.110)

Sophie has overwhelmingly positive memories of the storytelling in her family. Both Tante Atie and her grandmother are master tale-weavers, transporting Sophie from her troubled life into these kingdoms of imagination. Of course, some of the tales are menacing and graphic, but every now and then there are mermaids. Interestingly, Sophie has the urge to tell Brigitte stories as well, but she never does. Perhaps she hasn't sorted through her own feelings about these remembered tales.

"If a woman is worth remembering," said my grandmother, "there's no need to have her name carved in letters." (19.128)

Atie and Louise want to have their names recorded in the governmental archives for their province, especially since Louise is about to make a run for the U.S. But Ifé doesn't see the necessity of being remembered in such a cold way. Once again, reputation, especially for a woman, is paramount. But the question is, who decides when a woman is worth remembering?

We can see the power of an inscribed name when Sophie visits the graves of her ancestors with Atie. Sometimes, human memory just fails, especially when family links are broken. Both Atie and Louise are unmarried, with no prospects of having families of their own. The steps they take to ensure some kind of posterity, then, make a lot of sense.

"When I first saw you in New York, I must admit, it frightened me the way you looked. But it is not something that I can help. It is not something that you can help. It is just part of our lives." (26.169)

Martine is referring to the fact that Sophie does not look like any of the Caco women. Ergo, she must look like Martine's attacker. The unfamiliarity of Sophie's face causes conflict for Martine: she is grateful for Sophie's presence, since she stops the nightmares from the past from destroying her, but she's also tormented by the face before her. Sophie grows up with the guilt that her very being is a living reminder of the worst moment in Martine's life.

"Sometimes I wish I could go back in time with you, to when we were younger." She closed her eyes, as though to drift off to sleep.

"The past is always the past," she said. "Children are the rewards of life and you were my child." (27.173)

Sophie confides in Atie when she returns to Haiti with her own daughter, Brigitte. It's clear from Atie's response that she always thought of Sophie as hers—which explains her coldness to Martine when she finally appears. While Atie tries to play it off, we can see that there's pain in her declaration that "the past is always the past." In reality, she was a mother then. Now, she is an older woman with only her mother for company.

"Whenever I'm there, I feel like I sleep with ghosts. The first night I was there, I woke up pounding at my stomach." (29.189)

Martine explains why it is so difficult for her to be in Haiti with her family. She is never able to be free from the violent experiences of her past, no matter how much she loves her mother and sister. Martine is especially vulnerable in Haiti it seems because of the physicality of the place: those ghosts live there and might revisit her at any time.

Her nightmares had somehow become my own, so much so that I would wake up some mornings wondering if we hadn't both spent the night dreaming about the same thing: a man with no face, pounding a life into a helpless young girl. (29.193)

An interesting and terrifying thing happens to Sophie in this book: she inherits her mother's memories. Since her mother has horrific things in her past, this is not a good thing. The intensity of her experience of these memories shows that Sophie has a strong, empathic connection with her mother, despite Martine's absence in her early life. But Sophie is going to have to take her grandmother's advice and let go of the suffering that really isn't properly hers to begin with.

"I want to forget the hidden things, the conflicts you always want me to deal with. I want to look at her as someone I am meeting again for the first time. An acquaintance who I am hoping will become a friend." (32.208)

Sophie tells her therapist that she has no interest in the confrontational method of therapy that she's been suggesting to her. Sophie would rather put the past behind her and just forget the bad times. But Rena warns her that the past has a way of rearing its ugly head in the present—at least until it is faced and permanently put to bed. Sophie feels that her relationship with her mother might be too fraught to untangle from the very beginning. A fresh start might be the right thing.

"You and your mother should both go there again and see that you can walk away from it. Even if you can never face the man who is your father, there are things that you can say to the spot where it happened. I think you'll be free once you have your confrontation. There will be no more ghosts." (32.211)

Rena, Sophie's therapist, suggests that as part of "confrontation therapy," both Sophie and her mother should return to the place where Martine was raped. This will help them regain control of the situation in the present and put the past in its place. At least, theoretically.

There is always a place where women live near trees that, blowing in the wind, sound like music. These women tell stories to their children both to frighten and delight them. These women, they are fluttering lanterns on the hills, the fireflies in the night, the faces that loom over you and recreate the same unspeakable acts that they themselves lived through. There is always a place where nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms. (35.234)

Danticat ends her work by reminding us that there's something uniquely Haitian to the story she just told. Not only is the strength of the women characteristic, but so is the depth and breadth of their suffering—and the ability to pass on an emotional legacy over the course of generations. This is not always a good thing, but there is also something beautiful in the extreme psychological landscape of this land.

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