“I kept thinking of my mother, who now wanted to be my friend. Finally I had her approval. I was okay. I was safe. We were both safe. The past was gone. Even though she had forced it on me, of her sudden will, we were now even more than friends. We were twins, in spirit. Marassas” (Danticat 200).
The veve or ‘beacon’ symbol of the voodoo spirit La Marassa (or Marassa Jumeaux, “Divine Twins”). The three figures represent love, truth, and justice, and are associated with the virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
In Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, the protagonist Sophie mentions how she “doubles” (otherwise known as psychological dissociation) during her experiences of trauma or during moments of traumatic recollection. At one point, Sophie relates her “doubling” to that of figures in the Haitian Vodou tradition known as La Marassa or Marassa Jumeaux, the “Divine Twins”. The Marassa are also known as “twins of three”– truly triplets–and appear as such, as double or triple figures, to represent double or triple blessings, or could represent a binary (gluttony/starvation) or double or triple virtues (such as faith, hope, and charity).
In the novel, Sophie’s “doubling” occurs during situations that remind her of the ‘testing’ done by Sophie’s mother during Sophie’s youth; even having intercourse with her husband after she is married reminds her of how she was hurt both physically and spiritually. The “doubling” or dissociation causes Sophie’s mind to ‘slip away’ from her body, even if her body is still active. One clear instance of this is described by Sophie after she returns home to New York from her spontaneous trip to Haiti. Sophie begins to “double” again, as she and her husband become intimate:
“He reached over and pulled my body towards his. 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” (Danticat 200).
Sophie’s ‘spells’ of unreality are called moments of dissociation in Western psychological literature and medicine. In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5), the official handbook to known psychological disorders, it is considered a professional ‘Bible’ for psychological disorders and is used by psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors. The DSM-5 defines dissociation and dissociative disorders as, “…frequently found in the aftermath of trauma, and many of the symptoms, including embarrassment and confusion about the symptoms or a desire to hide them, are influenced by the proximity to trauma” (page 291).
When Sophie “doubles,” she practices a learned behavior that many victims and survivors of trauma use, which is to “float away” from one’s body, when reality becomes too overwhelming or painful. Sophie’s “doubling” was learned during her youth, when she first started being ‘tested’ by her mother, and continues on through adulthood, primarily because dissociation is a survival mechanism and is an exhaustive, “poor habit” for a victim’s mind to relearn not to use.
Further defining dissociation is a mental health website run by Australia’s Victorian Government. This mental health public service announcement briefly describes dissociation as, “…a mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. Dissociative disorders include dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalisation disorder and dissociative identity disorder” (“Dissociation and dissociative disorders” Link to article: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders).
Just as Sophie defines her mind leaving her body during times of distress, the “doubling” that is present in Haitian and Louisiana voodoo comes in the form of the Marassa. The Marassa are very child-like in behavior and are frequently described as being voracious eaters; they are so adamant about the rite of eating that they will not help those who call on them until they are full. In relation to this, Sophie–after she “doubles” during the coupling with her husband–goes and eats until she makes herself sick: “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” (Danticat 200). In this way, Sophie is trying to fight the “doubling” or becoming a Marassa, as she has already joined with her mother in the book, in order to understand and take on her mother’s pain.
As one character in Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory described her trauma, she comments on how she cannot hate her grandmother, although it was her grandmother who carried out the ritual of genital mutilation on her young body. That character states that, “It would be easy to hate you, but I can’t because you are part of me. You are me” (Danticat 203).
Just as the woman victim of assault by her own grandmother cannot hate her “own flesh and blood,” neither can Sophie hate her mother, as her mother is her own “flesh and blood.” This flesh and blood becomes even more intertwined as Sophie become Marassa or a twin, to her mother, as she finally experiences and recognizes the pain she must have gone through.
The Roman Catholic Saints that came to represent/replace the La Marassa Jumeaux, the Sacred Twins. The Catholic saints are Saint Cosmas and Damian.
The Catholic equivalent of the La Marassa are Saint Cosmas and St. Damian. The Saints were brothers, who were born in Arabia (modern day Syria) around 270 A.D. They became well-known because both were Christian doctors who refused money for their services, and thus were labelled “the money-less ones”.
The symbols of Saint Cosmas and Damian are those commonly associated with the field of medicine: Phials, jars, vases, arrows, red vestments (clothing) and surgical instruments such as a lancet (a scalpel), a box of ointment; the rod of Asclepius (rod with a serpent wrapped around, a common symbol of medicine, frequently confused with the Caduceus — a rod with double snakes). Other symbols include a cylinder, a cross, and millstones.
The miracle that helped lead the saints to canonization and made them popular (and syncretized) in French-Haiti and Voodoo culture–the brothers graphed a black man’s leg onto a living white man’s.
The brothers became well-known and canonized in the Catholic literature because of the miracle they performed on wealthy white (most likely, Roman) citizen; this miracle involved grafting the leg of an Ethiopian man onto the leg of the white male. While it is unknown if the Ethiopian was alive or dead during this procedure, this “doubling” aspect of St. Cosmas and Damian expands more than just their similarities as twins to the La Marassa; the brothers, in blurring the lines between life and death, black and white, and the boundaries of the body, have come to embody what the La Marassa mean–“the doubling”.
One theme that is shared between the Marassa, St. Cosmas and Damian, and the “doubling” of body and soul of Sophie in Breath, Eyes, Memory is how trauma transforms both the communal self and the transfigured self.
For the La Marassa, the transfiguration is for both them and their practitioners; after receiving food and toys, the Marassa are finally ready to do their ‘duty’ to those who have prayed to them, and carry out their favors, boons, and wishes.
St. Cosmas and St. Damian were transformed by trauma in two ways: they ‘double’ the binary line between white and black (and, also, subconsciously, Catholicism and Voodoo) when they graft the leg of the black man onto the white. The charitable, communal self of the brothers has become transformed/transfigured by the miracle of the grafted leg, as life/death and racial lines have become blurred because of ‘healing trauma’, such as surgery.
Sophie’s Grandma, mother, and aunt are the La Marassa (representative of truth, love, justice) to her when she is younger; as she grows older, and shifts roles as a woman, the Marassa change from that dynamic, to her and her mother doubling–as the “Sacred Twins” but also, inadvertently, become the “twins of three” as her mother is pregnant with her sibling, when Sophie “doubles” with her mother, in spirit.