Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Sexuality

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"When I was a girl, my mother used to test us to see if we were virgins. She would put her finger in our very private parts and see if it would go inside. Your Tante Atie hated it. She used to scream like a pig in a slaughterhouse. The way my mother was raised, a mother is supposed to do that to her daughter until the daughter is married. It is her responsibility to keep her pure." (8.60-61)

Martine explains a very traumatic tradition to her daughter Sophie. It's hard to tell how she feels about the experience from her tone here, but it's clear from Atie's response—and later, Sophie's—that it's truly humiliating and painful. While Sophie later tries to tell her grandmother how negatively this experience impacted her own sexuality, Ifé's defense of the practice is identical to Martine's: it's what a good mother does to protect her daughter.

I knew what my mother would think of my going over there during the day. A good girl would never be alone with a man, an older one at that. I wasn't thinking straight. It was nice waking up in the morning knowing I had someone to talk to. (9.72)

Sophie's conflicting feelings about sex and sexuality are a kind of culture clash that happens when the worlds of her Haitian mother and her own life in Brooklyn come together. While she understands that her home culture is unhealthily obsessed with virginity, Sophie can't let go of the nagging feeling that her natural attraction to Joseph is somehow wrong.

I heard him playing his keyboard as I lay awake in bed. The notes and scales were like raindrops, teardrops, torrents. I felt the music rise and surge, tightening every muscle in my body. Then I relaxed, letting it go, feeling a rush that I knew I wasn't supposed to feel. (9.76)

Just in case you're wondering: yes, Sophie is really feeling sexual pleasure at the sound of Joseph's music. A lot of it. Her attraction to Joseph happens exactly at the right time for a girl—she is an older teen, ready to take risks and have a life of her own—but it also causes her a lot of turmoil. She can't embrace her sexuality and live up to her mother's expectations. Hence, the guilt.

"I want to meet his parents. It's always proper for the parents to talk first. That way if there's been any indiscretion, we can have a family meeting and arrange things together. It's always good to know the parents." (10.79)

Martine is trying to play the role of the protective parent, yet the focus is always the same: Sophie's purity and reputation. Her desire to meet the fictional Henry's family is not based on her interest in learning more about them. She wants to establish a relationship in case her daughter gets pregnant—this way, she'll have recourse to a remedy that won't bring shame to the family.

"Secrets remain secret only if we keep our silence," she said. "Your husband? Is he a good man?"

"He is a very good man, but I have no desire. I feel like it is an evil thing to do." (18.123)

Sophie's "careful" upbringing, complete with emphasis on the preservation of her virginity, has an unintended result: she cannot accept herself as a sexual person. In her mind, even "lawful relations" with her husband are somehow sinful and to be avoided. It causes her psychological and physical pain and complicates the relationship with the man she loves.

I have heard it compared to a virginity cult, our mothers' obsession with keeping us pure and chaste. My mother always listened to the echo of my urine in the toilet, for if it was too loud it meant that I had been deflowered. I learned very early in life that virgins always took small steps when they walked. (23.154)

Sophie describes the near paranoia with which the women in her family monitor the purity of their young daughters. It doesn't just affect her sex life, either. The restrictions placed on girls in her culture meant that they could not enjoy everyday activities (bicycling, horse riding, gymnastics) for fear that their body might be exposed or altered in a way that would bring the family shame. This obsession with virginity also emphasizes for Sophie that women are really only good for one thing, and once that's taken, she is nothing.

He reached over and pulled my body towards his. I closed my eyes and thought of the Marassa, the doubling. I was lying there on that bed and my clothes were being peeled off my body, but really I was somewhere else. Finally, as an adult, I had a chance to console my mother again. I was lying in bed with my mother. I was holding her and fighting off that man, keeping those images out of her head. (30.200)

Sophie can't "keep her head in the game"--so to speak--when it comes to sex with her husband. Because sex and sexuality have been traumatic issues for her entire life, she feels she has to endure this time with her husband rather than enjoying it. We see Sophie engaging in a coping mechanism here, in which she separates her mind from her body and rejoins her mother in the suffering that has scarred both of them for life. The story of the Marassas (the divine twins) was told to Sophie by her mother when she would test her virginity.

Buki read us a letter she was going to send to the dead grandmother who had cut off all her sexual organs and sewn her up, in a female rite of passage. "Dear Taiwo. You sliced open my soul and then you told me I can't show it to anyone else. You took a great deal away from me. Because of you, I now carry an untouchable wound." (31.202)

Sexual trauma is a central issue in Danticat's work. Very often, this is violence/violation carried out by women and perpetuated from one generation to the next. In Sophie's support group, we meet this young Ethiopian woman who suffered genital mutilation at the hands of her grandmother. Sophie seems a little out of place in this group until we remember that she's not only recovering from the virginity tests, but also from the notion that a woman's sexuality is something to be feared and disabled.

I tried to imagine my mother, wincing and clenching her teeth as the large shadow of a man mounted her. She didn't like it. She even looked like she was crying, even though her lips were saying things that made him think otherwise. (32.210)

Sophie's therapist insists that Sophie understand her mother as a sexual being. But Sophie isn't having any of that. It's too hard to imagine her mother, who suffered from recurring nightmares about her own violent rape and denied Sophie's growing sexuality, actively and willfully engaging in sex. When she tries, Sophie can only imagine her mother "enduring it," as she does. In her view, sexuality is not a normal part of life; it is seen as something deviant and traumatic.

"I think you have a Madonna image of your mother. Part of you feels that this child is a testimonial of her true sexuality. It's a child she conceived willingly. Maybe even she is not able to face that." (33.220)

Once again, Sophie's therapist is telling it like it is. She is rightly concerned about what Sophie tells her about Martine and the new baby. Sophie knows that her mom is in trouble. But what she may not perceive is that she, too, has a problem with her view of her mother. The "Madonna image" that Sophie has of her mom may more rightly be called an "Erzulie image." If you recall, Sophie always thought of her absent mother as the goddess Erzulie, who is both virgin mother and a powerfully attractive, all-loving being.

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