Breath, Eyes, Memory
Section Three: Chapters 30–31
Joseph rushes out of the house to greet the car as Sophie and Brigitte arrive. He retrieves Brigitte from the car and runs up the steps with her, leaving Sophie to carry her own bag. Though he loves Sophie very much, Joseph was angry and frightened by her sudden departure, and worried about its effect on their daughter. Still, he is committed to making their marriage work. Telling Joseph about her trip, Sophie unthinkingly calls Haiti home for the first time.
In her absence, the house has become a mess. As she rummages for a clean drinking glass, it suddenly occurs to Sophie that she is the maitresse de la maison, at home with her husband and child, in her own house. Joseph comes up to her, asking her to reassure him that they will get through this together. He promises to do all he can to understand about her problems with sex. The evening settles into a comfortable domesticity.
The next day, Brigitte's paediatrician gives her a clean bill of health. To celebrate, Joseph cooks a large frozen dinner. Sophie forces herself to refuse the urge to purge.
After dinner, Sophie telephones her mother. Martine is worried because she feels that the baby is becoming more of a fighter every day. Meanwhile, Martine has begun to see the rapist everywhere, in every man she sees. While Marc loves her, he does not really understand her pain. Marc thinks that her body is simply in shock because the pregnancy has so closely followed chemotherapy. Martine tells Sophie that she tried to go for an abortion, but the clinic made her think about it for twenty-four hours. Now, the thought of abortion is horrifying, and is triggering Martine's visions of the rapist. Sophie promises to come with Joseph to visit Martine and Marc the next weekend.
Joseph and Sophie make love. She closes her eyes and begins doubling, imagining herself lying in bed with her mother, consoling her, freeing her from the nightmares, convincing her that it is a child in her stomach, not a demon. Sophie feels that she has found her mother's approval, that she is safe, that the past is gone, and that she is her mother's twin, her Marassa.
When Joseph falls asleep, Sophie goes into the kitchen, eats all the leftovers, and then goes into the bathroom and makes herself throw up.
Sophie's sexual phobia group meets at the house of Davina, a middle-aged Chicana who was raped by her grandfather for ten years. The group consists of Sophie, Davina and Buki, an Ethiopian college student who was genitally mutilated by her grandmother at puberty. The women hold their meetings in a special room of Davina's house, donning white gowns and burning candles and incense. This time, Sophie brings the statue of Erzulie which Grandmè Ifé has given her to add to the keepsakes.
The group runs through a series of affirmations, and then goes outside. Each woman writes the name of her abuser on a piece of paper and burns it over a candle, as Buki lets a green balloon free. Sophie can now, without guilt, write and burn her mother's name. She knows that her mother has only hurt her because she herself was hurt, and that it is up to her to stop the pain from extending to her own daughter.
Sophie returns home to find Joseph thrilled because Brigitte has ostensibly said "Dada." Meanwhile, Martine has left an urgent message for Sophie. When Sophie returns her call, Martine explains she simply wanted to hear Sophie's voice. Martine had received a telegram from Grandmè Ifé, saying that all preparations were in place for her funeral, and worried that Atie will die from chagrin at the loss of Louise. Martine tells Sophie that Atie will live, as she always has. When she hangs up, Sophie writes Atie a letter. Now that Atie is literate, Sophie can send a message for her eyes only.
Martine's struggles with the baby come as Sophie is finally settling down into her role as wife, mother and daughter. In this section, Sophie's childhood role of mothering Martine through her nightmares is taken further as she tries to help her mother make sense of pregnancy. As Martine's memories of her first child come flooding back, Sophie must take part in an odd replaying of her own conception and birth. Thus, the similarities and differences between Martine's two pregnancies lie in emotionally difficult territory. Where Martine's first pregnancy was marked by a violent and then absent father, her second is attended by a man who does not deeply understand her, nor can he tell the toll which the child is taking on her body. Though the objectification of Martine by Marc and by the rapist is very different, there is a troubling commonality that threatens once again to destroy Martine. Furthermore, Sophie's bulimic urge to purge is a troubling echo of Martine's wish to abort her pregnancy. Just as Sophie despises her body's fatness, Martine recoils from her own fecundity. Both women double, using their minds to escape the prison of their bodies. Yet they do so in order to find each other. When Sophie doubles to deal with the pain of sex, she imagines herself comforting Martine, whose nightmares and phobias have become her own.
Sophie's meeting with her sexual phobia group represents the novel's first attempt to incorporate canonical support groups and psychotherapy. The group's vocabulary and rituals firmly locate its members as 'modern' women, using a range of modern tools to confront the pain and humiliation of their past. The result of grouping Buki, Davina, and Sophie's experience under the heading of 'sexual phobia' is to impose a somewhat artificial solidarity on the quite diverse experiences of childhood sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, and testing. However, it is ultimately the common effects, and not the common facts, of the women's experiences which justify their meetings. Though all three women identify themselves as ethnic Americans, caught between family tradition and an oddly ahistorical American mainstream, their different contexts serves to highlight their common oppression. Sophie, like Buki and Davina, has chosen to explicitly address her fears outside the circle of her immediate family. Aware that the women in her family have been the source of her pain as well as of her strength, she has sought out a context in which she can see her situation objectively. Though an intimacy based on pain may seem difficult, it is precisely the acknowledgement of this common pain which frees the women to address their demons.
Finally, Sophie's intention to write a letter to Atie recalls the book's first pages, when twelve-year-old Sophie made her aunt a Mother's Day card. Knowing Atie could not read the card, Sophie read it aloud. Though a literate Atie, years later, will record these words in her notebook, they are never entirely her own words. Instead, they belong to the realm of borrowed treasures, like the temporary presence of Louise, or the love of Monsieur Augustin that Atie was allowed to keep only until Lotus arrived. Indeed, private words are surprisingly rare. Much of the novel's wisdom is dispensed in the form of parables, themselves highly public information. Rather than giving tailored advice, the teller of tales invites her listener to take her own message from the general principles of the story. While these parables suggest a striving for universal principles, they also reflect the crudeness of language, as a tool that is not delicate enough to convey the truth of individual experience. Now that Atie is literate, however, Sophie can give Atie the gift of something entirely hers, words sent from one heart to another without attrition or intermediaries. Fittingly, the contents of the letter are not discussed in the book. Not even the reader is allowed to intrude on Sophie's wish and Atie's private satisfaction.
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