Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Suffering

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She told me about a group of people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads. They are the people of Creation. Strong, tall, and mighty people who can bear anything. Their Maker, she said, gives them the sky to carry because they are strong. These people don't know who they are, but if you see a lot of trouble in your life, it's because you were chosen to carry part of the sky on your head. (3.25)

Sophie remembers Tante Atie's mythological explanation for a turbulent life. She is just about to leave for New York and has to separate herself from the only family she has ever known (Atie and Ifé). The Caco family stories often center around suffering and endurance, perhaps helping to build that strength of character that Sophie feels such pride in later on in the story.

One girl rushed down the hill and grabbed one of the soldiers by the arm. He raised his pistol and pounded it on the top of her head. She fell to the ground, her face covered with her own blood. (5.34)

Danticat makes us aware of the suffering that happens at the personal and political level (which becomes very personal for those directly involved, like this young girl). While the Caco women manage to stay on the fringes of the political upheaval for most of this narrative, we know that Martine's tragic story begins with the state-sanctioned violence of the Tonton Macoutes, the renegade paramilitary force that terrorized Haiti with impunity.

As soon as his seatbelt was on, the boy sat still. Both the man and the woman stood over him and watched him carefully, as though they were expecting him to reach up and grab one of their eyeballs. He did nothing. He sat back in his seat, bent his head, and wept silently. (5.37)

It's important to keep in mind that suffering surrounds the Caco family—it's not just in their heads or part of their family drama. Haiti's political instability causes instant and lasting heartache for its citizens, as we see in the example of Martine's rape and the violent death of this boy's father. Atie points out to a grieving Sophie that she is leaving all this behind. But of course, Sophie knows that this kind of trauma isn't simply geographical—it becomes part of her memory and soul.

"The details are too much," she said. "But it happened like this. A man grabbed me from the side of the road, pulled me into a cane field, and put you in my body. I was still a young girl then, just barely older than you." (8.61)

Martine tells Sophie that she was not, in fact, born from rose petals as her Tante Atie had claimed. This revelation comes at the tail end of her explanation of virginity testing, which Martine says her mother stopped doing because of the rape. In this moment, Sophie learns more than she ever wanted to know about her mother and the life of the women in her family—and these memories will become part of her own psychological pain as she grows.

Whenever my mother was home, I would stay up all night just waiting for her to have a nightmare. Shortly after she fell asleep, I would hear her screaming for someone to leave her alone. I would run over and shake her as she thrashed about. Her reaction was always the same. When she saw my face, she looked even more frightened. (10.81)

Sophie takes on the responsibility of controlling her mother's night terrors. In the process of doing this, she also takes on part of Martine's suffering. By the time she's grown, Sophie feels that the rape is as much a part of her past as it is her mother's. In some ways, she feels complicit in her mother's suffering, since she assumes that she looks like the assailant who fathered her.

She took my hand with surprised gentleness, and led me upstairs to my bedroom. There, she made me lie on my bed and she tested me. I mouthed the words to the Virgin Mother's prayer: Hail Mary... so full of grace. The Lord is with You... You are blessed among women... Holy Mary. Mother of God. Pray for us poor sinners. (11.84)

Martine continues the pattern of personal violation that was practiced on her and Atie when they were girls. Although Martine understands firsthand the humiliation of virginity testing, she also feels that she needs to be vigilant in this way in order to be a good mother: it's up to her to preserve her daughter's purity. For Sophie, testing not only causes her physical and psychological discomfort, it destroys any positive ideas she could have about sex and her own sexuality.

My flesh ripped apart as I pressed the pestle into it. I could see the blood slowly dripping onto the bed sheet. I took the pestle and the blood sheet and stuffed them into a bag. It was gone, the veil that always held my mother's finger back every time she tested me. (12.88)

Sophie doesn't understand why her mother feels she has to perform regular virginity tests on her, but she does know how to make it stop. If she breaks her hymen, Martine will think she's lost her virginity. But what Sophie does is closer to self-mutilation, a reflection of self-hatred that's been brewing since she learned that she was a product of rape and the stuff of her mother's nightmares. Her actions here also show a terrible strength: Sophie is willing to do whatever it takes to preserve herself from more humiliation.

I turned back for one last look. The coal vendor was curled in a fetal position on the ground. He was spitting blood. The other Macoutes joined in, pounding their boots on the coal seller's head. Everyone watched in shocked silence, but no one said anything. (17.118)

Suffering is not limited to personal or familial grief in this work. All around the Caco family in Haiti is a violent and corrupt governmental system, along with an out-of-control paramilitary force wreaking havoc on the citizenry. Even though Sophie had escaped the initial bouts of violence when she left Haiti as a child, she returns to find that not much has changed for the better.

But the Macoutes, they did not hide. When they entered a house, they asked to be fed, demanded the woman of the house, and forced her into her own bedroom. Then all you heard was screams until it was her daughter's turn. If a mother refused, they would make her sleep with her son and brother or even her own father. (21.139)

The brutality of the Tonton Macoutes isn't confined to those who experience it first-hand—stories of their evil deeds sow seeds of terror in the Haitian people and keep them paralyzed in the face of violence. The level of their depravity clearly affects Sophie and the women in her family, who have already been torn apart by the sexual assault of Martine.

He dragged her into the cane fields, pinned her down on the ground. He had a black bandanna over his face so she never saw anything but his hair, which was the color of eggplants. He kept pounding her until she was too stunned to make a sound. When he was done, he made her keep her face in the dirt, threatening to shoot her if she looked up. (21.139)

Sophie eventually learns the whole story about Martine's rape, and it haunts her especially when she returns to Haiti and witnesses the attack on Dessalines by the Macoutes. Her mother's suffering never seems to end; in fact, it seems to be catching, as Sophie inherits Martine's anxiety through these secondary memories.

I looked back at my daughter, who was sleeping peacefully. It was a good sign that at least she slept a lot, perhaps a bit more than other children. The fact that she could sleep meant that she had no nightmares, and maybe, would never become a frightened insomniac like my mother and me. (29.193)

Brigitte's ability to snooze helps ease Sophie's fears that her mother's trauma and subsequent mental illness might be somehow genetic. Sophie's not immediately able to free herself from the cycle of suffering endured by the women in her family, which ups her anxiety about her own little girl.

I waited for him to fall asleep, then went to the kitchen. I ate every scrap of the dinner leftovers, then went to the bathroom, locked the door, and purged all the food out of my body. (30.200)

Sophie suffers from bulimia, a condition that she tells her mother is "not so simple" to cure. Her behavior seems at once to be an attempt to overcome her emotions and to purge her anxieties from her mind. This moment is triggered by intimacy with her husband, which causes Sophie both physical and psychological distress despite his best efforts at tenderness.

I felt broken at the end of the meeting, but a little closer to being free. I didn't feel guilty about burning my mother's name anymore. I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain and if she hurt me, it was because she was hurt, too. (31.203)

Sophie knows that she has to break the cycle of abuse and humiliation in her family if she's ever to heal and be free of her burdens. Her sexual abuse therapy group devises a ritual in which each member writes the name of her abuser on a slip of paper and then burns it. Sophie's clear that she doesn't wish more pain to her mother; rather, she wants to be rid of the pain caused by the humiliating virginity tests. She also wants to be free of her mother's nightmares and continuous suffering, which has affected her so deeply.

My grandmother did not look directly at my mother's face, but at the red gloves on her hands and the matching shoes on her feet. My grandmother looked as though she was going to fall down, in shock. (35.231)

Ifé can't comprehend what has happened to her daughter. Her inability to look into Martine's dead face is definitely a defense mechanism meant to shield her somehow from the full emotional impact of losing her daughter. Atie doesn't do so well; she falls into convulsions when she sees her dead sister.

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