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When we were twelve, our biggest worries were: a) not getting caught watching R-rated movies b) not getting caught eating entire boxes of Fruit By The Foot and c) not getting caught staying up until 2 a.m. on a school night because we just had to read the next chapter of Harry Potter.
Sophie? She has to do way more—in fact, she has to act as the mama bear when her mommy suffers from night terrors. That's right: she has to mother her mother.
From the first time she meets her mom, it becomes clear that there will be some serious role-reversal in the relationship. Sophie's need to become the savior if both of them are going make it out of her childhood:
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. (10.81)
The reason for these Elm Street-caliber nightmares are mixed: Mama Martine is emotionally scarred from being raped at the age of sixteen. That's bad. But then, when her daughter comes to stay with her in the Big Apple, Sophie's face reminds Martine of her rapist (in her imagination, anyway). That's makes things even worse.
But even though Martine is weirded out by the fact that she can't see a family resemblance between her and Sophie, she praises her daughter for helping her to hang on to sanity just a bit longer.
And Sophie's a serious rock. Her strength extends to other areas of her young life, including adjusting from moving from Haiti to NYC—a move which is daunting enough at any age, but insanely daunting for a twelve-year-old.
But Sophie's can-do attitude has a darker side.
When confronted by her mother's invasive virginity tests, she takes matters into her own hands. She decides to put a stop to the humiliation by harming herself with a kitchen utensil, destroying her hymen but also injuring her sexual organs in the process. It becomes clear that Sophie will do anything to secure her liberty… even if it comes at great physical cost.
Yeah. Like we said, Sophie isn't just fierce; she's ferocious. She not only takes care of other people, but she also takes care of #1.
But it's not as though Sophie's made of stone. That incredibly resilient, headstrong and responsible exterior conceals her own pain.
After witnessing her mother's night terrors for years, and enduring the isolation placed on her by Martine's expectations, it's no wonder that Sophie inherits her mother's fears and anxieties… plus a few of her very own. Their relationship is strained for a number of years, until Sophie's struggles with anxiety and bulimia send her back to visit Haiti with her infant daughter.
After she reconnects with her mom, Sophie begins to attribute her fear of her own sexuality and a hatred of her body not to the creepy virginity testing, but to her mom's own traumatic experiences. She's adopted her mom's trauma as her own:
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)
This should be read in two ways. For one: this is a pretty next-level act of empathy—Sophie is actually learning how to feel her mother's own pain. That shows that she's got a massive heart, and that her loyalty definitely lies with her mama.
But it's not all sunshine and roses and empathy: this mind-meld with her mom's past is also an example of some pretty iffy parenting on Martine's part. Sophie's inability to separate her life and experiences from her mother's is nurtured at an early age, when Martine, afraid to lose her only child to a man, does her best to bind her daughter to her in a divine, spiritual way. While Martine is inflicting virginity tests on Sophie, she lectures her about the Marassas from her mother during the virginity tests—divine twins/lovers who shadow each other through life, each becoming a second self for the other.
The idea here is that Martine and Sophie are joined psychologically… which is kind of sweet, but also pretty creepy (especially because this "we are one" speech is being delivered during an act of molestation). The Marassas relationship is way more intimate than a typical mother/daughter relationship, and the weight of this intimacy causes psychological damage to Sophie as she tries to move on with her life.
But at the time the concept of the Marassas is attractive for Sophie, who feels like she needs to save her mother from the traumas of the past.
While she's comforted by the possibility of abandoning her problematic marriage to "twin" with her psychologically devastated mother, Sophie understands that she has to do something to free herself from this unhealthy version of their relationship—and that moms and daughters aren't supposed to be twins.
Her mother once called the mother/daughter relationship "deeper than the sea" (11.85)—which seems like an apt metaphor, because Sophie now finds herself in over her head and drowning. Instead of moving forward in her relationship with Joseph, she wants to crawl back into the past to make things right for her mother:
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)
But what Sophie doesn't acknowledge is that her mother's battles aren't hers to fight… at least not until the end of the book.
As she confronts her own anxieties about the past, Sophie begins to understand that she's an unwilling participating in a cycle of abuse and pain that extends back through the family for at least three generations… and most likely dozens.
She makes the conscious decision to end it with her daughter, throwing away the part of her family culture that cultivated feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness—which: awesome. It's a moment of healing for her, returning control over her life and giving her a flash of insight into her mother's behavior:
I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain and if she hurt me, it was because she was hurt, too. It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire. It was up to me to make sure that my daughter never slept with ghosts, never lived with nightmares, and never had her name burnt in the flames. (31.203)
But Sophie isn't 100% free at this time. It takes her seeing her mother buried, running to the cane field where her mother was raped, and ripping up sugar cane with her bare hands. There are a couple of levels of important healing symbolism here—she gets the closure of seeing her mom laid to rest, and she gets to perform a makeshift "harvest" of her mother's trauma (while doing some much-needed venting) by tearing up the cane.
So although Sophie tries a few different ways of coping in this book—from acting like the responsible mother figure, to running away, to trying to "twin" with her mom and absorb some of her pain—what she needed to do was confront the nightmare of her mother's past head on. Only after that can Sophie truly begin to say that she's free to move on.
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