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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat Chapter 31 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

The next chapter begins with Sophie’s sexual phobia group- a group of herself and two other women who shared similar painful memories and trauma surrounding the sexual act, and were introduced to each other by a therapist, Rena. The most apparent aspect of this phobia group’s coping will be seen in the symbolic meanings behind their actions in the meeting.

The meeting begins with them dressing in long white dresses (sewn by Buki, an Ethiopian college students) and wrapping their hair in white scarves (purchased by Sophie). Dressing in white corresponds to the idea of purity; an untainted state of virtue or morality. It is this purity, in its sexual connotation, which motivates many of the oppressive practices to which both Sophie and Buki had been subjected and triggered long-lasting trauma.

Davina, the third member, has set aside a whole room in her house for their meetings. The three of them sit on “green heart-shaped pillows,” the green colour representing life and growth (as it has throughout the rest of the novel). In this way, we can think of the colours in a therapeutic sense, where wearing white helps them to understand their capacity for the purity society seems to idealize in women, and supporting themselves with green pillows helps them to acclimate to their own growth and healing. Their “serenity prayer” is also an interesting statement of supplication which expresses their hopes to work through their own traumas throughout the meeting:

God grant us the courage to change those things we can, the serenity to accept the things we can’t and the wisdom to know the difference.”

What becomes apparent here is the need for acceptance of the things that cannot be changed. This concept is one of the basic tenets of coping with trauma: accepting the things of the past that can no longer be affected, and only making attempts to change the things of the present that will allow them to move forward with their lives.

They follow this serenity prayer with a series of affirmations, a set of phrases which, through repetition, they hope to influence and change their own beliefs. Buki reads a letter she had intended to send to her dead grandmother, the one who had carried out the painful female rite of passage that is the source of so much pain in her life. Then, each woman writes the name of her abuser on a piece of paper and raises it over a candle and allows it to burn. Doing this seems to be an acknowledgement of the existence of those abusers in the past and accepting the fact that that abuse has occurred, but choosing to overcome them and extirpate the effects they have on them now.

Sophie muses after the meeting that she feels “broken, but a little closer to being free.” She is better able to cope with the torment of testing and the associated traumatic body memory due to the meetings, where she confronts Martine as her abuser within her mind and asserts her own authority over herself by burning her name. Sophie, after having confronted Ifé and learnt more about the long ‘chain’ of hurt into which she and her mother fall, is better equipped to free herself from her own trauma and break this painful chain. She has contextualized the practice, and created a narrative for her own trauma. It is now her responsibility, as she says, to ‘avoid her turn in the fire.’ She has the opportunity, as a mother, to protect her daughter from experiencing the same pain to which so many Haitian women before her had been subjected:

“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.”

Working through her sex phobia is her attempt to ensure that she does not pass on the violent heirloom of testing. As D. Francis (2004) writes: “Sophie sees her mother’s failures as a part of a larger dominant cultural narrative that she must willingly rewrite in order to be a better mother to her own daughter.” Her personal healing has collective implications. Sophie knows that Martine hurt her because she herself was hurt as well. As a result, mending her own pain, freeing herself of the shackles of trauma, will allow her to give her daughter a life free from the same pain- and allow her to have a healthy view of her body and her sexuality.

Sophie returns home from the meeting and is told that Martine had called in her absence and said that she urgently needed to see her. She returns the call, and Martine relates that she had an ‘urgent feeling’ to hear Sophie’s voice. Martine seems very reluctant to the idea of dependence, as she is somewhat convinced that Sophie finds her sudden dependence on her ‘unhealthy.’ Of course, the reader understands that it is the opposite- although Sophie acknowledges the unhealthy state of Martine’s mind, she is actually very eager to have this opportunity to console her mother, as she revealed in an earlier chapter.

Martine relays what Ifé told her about Atie, that Louise’s departure ‘left a big hole in her,’ and she fears Atie will die of chagrin. Atie had truly loved Louise, and losing her so suddenly had truly left her feeling bereft. However, Martine’s response is interesting, as she says “Atie will live. She always has.” This alludes to the fact that Atie has had to bear lots of loss throughout her life, but she has continued to live rather than succumb to chagrin. Sophie decides to write Atie a letter. This letter is like a personal conversation between them, as Atie is now able to read and no longer has to listen to a cassette in the presence of others.

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