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The Image of Trauma in The Novel 'Breath, Eyes, Memory'

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The aim of this paper is to study the concept of the trauma of black Haitian womanhood in Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory. The novel tells the story of a young Haitian-American woman Sophie Caco, who tries to reconstruct her identity and to find a way to recover from her past experiences. The main female characters in the novel suffer from a diverse range of different traumas, which together construct the trauma of black Haitian womanhood, which may, therefore, be understood as a collective accumulation of the traumas, their sources and effects. The women in the novel are influenced by the individually and directly experienced traumas of female sexuality, sexual violence and surrogate motherhood. The thesis is based on a diverse set of theories on memory, identity and trauma. Memory is a key theme in Breath, Eyes, Memory and also a significant factor in formation of trauma. 

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In the novel the women are being held prisoners by their own memories of the traumatic conflicts they have endured, and they seem to be unable to let go of these traumatic memories. Sophie has suffered immense trauma throughout the novel. She has had to suffer from feeling abandoned, and suddenly she has to readjust living with a strange authority figure, Martine, who expects Sophie to see her as the mother. This is when Sophie feels she has been abandoned twice in her life, first by her biological mother, and now by her othermother Atie. Sophie feels ashamed and might think that she is at fault. For Sophie, the trauma of motherhood lays in the abandonment. Sophie cannot form a maternal relationship with Atie, because she keeps rejecting Sophie trying to protect them both from heart break. When Sophie is finally reunited with her biological mother, Martine sets strict rules on Sophie on how to behave. Martine becomes the other and an enemy who oppresses Sophie’s individuality and sexuality to the colonial male values. Martine alienates Sophie from herself by testing her. She does not give Sophie the maternal love Sophie misses, which makes Sophie feel once again abandoned. Consequently, she experiences the trauma of motherhood as a daughter who lacks the maternal bond to both her biological mother and her other mother.

Although Atie tries to remind herself that she is not Sophie’s biological mother, she loves her deeply, and sees her as her own child, because she has been taking care of her since her birth. Atie even calls Sophie her child when she forgets to be more careful, for example when she tells a taxi driver that her child cleans her yard, referring to Sophie: “Before pulling away, the driver turned his head and complimented us on our very clean yard: ‘My child, she cleans it,’ Tante Atie said”. Although, it also might be that Atie is ashamed of the fact she is not Sophie biological, or “true” mother, and wants to hide the fact from the taxi driver. Atie’s trauma in motherhood is that she is not fully recognized as the mother to Sophie by the society. If we go back to Anzalduà’s categories of women in patriarchal societies, Atie would not belong to any of them. Atie does not know what her place is in the society, because she cannot anchor her identity in the existing conventional functions of women. Every time she remembers Sophie, the memory of rejection by society comes forward. Severely traumatized, Atie starts to gamble and drink excessively to cope with her trauma. Of course, this does not take away the trauma and the memories of Sophie, for Atie, like Martine when she moved to New York, is trying to escape her trauma, and they fail both consequently fail in their endeavors to recover.

As discussed before, the rape and the practice of testing traumatized Martine, but equally as traumatizing is her becoming pregnant and giving birth as a result of the rape. As memory is the creative force behind trauma, Martine cannot escape the memory of the rape, because Sophie is a direct link to that event. Martine reveals that she always sees her rapist in Sophie, because Sophie looks nothing like the other Caco women. She loves Sophie, but cannot stand the memory of the rape. Therefore, for Martine the trauma of motherhood is largely derived from the reoccurring memory of the rape.

Still, Sophie and Martine share a deep bond. Martine and Sophie often claim to be each other’s “marassas,” two spirits that are meant to be together and are “the same person, duplicated into two’. Even though the two have a difficult and turbulent relationship, they seem to be connected in a way Sophie and Atie are not. Sophie even has the same nightmares about the rape as her mother after leaving Martine’s house. This symbiosis fortifies the traumas of both of the women, and they seem unable to recover from their traumas when sharing this curious bond.

The women in the novel different ways of negotiating with their traumas. Motherhood is not only a source of trauma, but it can also help the women to cope with traumas. Atie decides to fulfill a long-term dream of hers, and learns how to read and write. The motivation behind this was her ambition to be able to write down the verse from the Mother’s Day card Sophie made her when they still lived together in Haiti. When Sophie returns to Haiti, Atie reads the text to her at the same time revealing her endless maternal love for Sophie. For the first time, Atie also reveals that she regards herself as Sophie’s mother: “Sometimes I wish I could go back in time with you, to when we were younger .”She closed her eyes, as though to drift off to sleep.

“The past is always the past,” she said. “Children are the rewards of life and you were my child”. Atie reclaims her trauma, and can maybe now start to cope with it. Atie is using narrativization as a way to negotiate, by putting her trauma into words. By doing this she can process the traumas in her life and the traumatic memories of her past. Sophie has started the process of creating a witness before she comes to Haiti. She is seeing a therapist and goes to a meeting for survivors of sexual violence. She has narrated her traumas, and is trying to let go of the memories. When she has told them about her maternal relationships and testing, she has created witnesses for her traumas, and they can carry the weight of trauma with her. When Atie claims Sophie as her daughter, she and Sophie can finally have chance for resolution for their questions of motherhood, and the coping with that trauma can start. Sophie also voices her thoughts about testing to Ifé, who apologizes to Sophie for the horrible tradition. Now Sophie has made Ifé listen her narrative of the trauma of sexual violence and has had Ifé’s support.

For Sophie, her traumas are concerned with her mothers. As stated, Martine and Sophie share a connection with each other, and this connection keeps feeding their traumas. In the novel, Sophie is told that a Haitian woman cannot become a woman before her mother has died. When Martine dies, Sophie takes her body back to Haiti. The connection of the marassas has been broken by death. After Martine has been buried, and Grandmè Ifé and Tante Atie state to Sophie “ou libéré”, proclaiming that she is free now. As a result of the eradication of this problematic connection, the traumatic memories can now start to fade. In the end, Martine is the only one to succumb to the traumas. The constant memories of the rape and testing keep recurring in her mind. She never talks about her traumas and experiences to anyone. When Martine becomes pregnant again, this time to her lover, the memories come back even stronger and she starts to see her rapist everywhere. She even thinks that the unborn baby is talking to her. Martine believes that the baby is going to kill her, and she is certain that she cannot bear to become a mother again. Finally, she takes her own and the unborn child’s life. To Martine, her children are the memories of the traumatizing event of rape, and therefore the trauma of motherhood, the remembering, becomes too much for her to take. Motherhood creates traumas to Caco women, but it can also contain a power of survival. The trauma of surrogate motherhood seems to be the most diverse trauma in the lives of the Caco women, because the maternal relationships they have are very divergent. Atie’s trauma is about her not being a fully recognized mother to Sophie, and because of this she cannot identify with any of the functions of women in her society. She tries to escape her trauma by drinking, but inevitably fails. Martine cannot forget the rape, and sees her rapist in Sophie, which makes it difficult for her to express maternal affection towards Sophie. Even her unborn child brings up the memories. Sophie has been balancing between Atie and Martine, who are both her mothers but have rejected her in different ways. Sophie voices her traumas to different people who thereby become witnesses to her trauma. Atie also now has an outlet to tell the world about her traumas by writing. By turning their traumas into a narrative, they can start to cope better.

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In conclusion, the trauma of black Haitian womanhood builds up from a number of different traumas in Breath, Eyes, Memory. The individual aspects of it result from the traumas of female sexuality, sexual violence and surrogate motherhood. These individually experienced traumas cause great pain for the Caco women in the novel, and to cope with them some of the women use narrativization as a method of negotiation.  

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The Image of Trauma in the Novel ‘Breath, Eyes, Memory’. (2022, August 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 5, 2023, from
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