I was born in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, in 1950. I was the first-born daughter of Joseph Karl Jean an entrepreneur, and Marie Anne Lamercie Murat a midwife, herbalist, and seamstress. My mother’s father, Mirabeau Murat, whom I affectionately called Grand-Pere, was one of the best known Voodoo priests, herbalist and indigenous healers in Bizoton. Bizoton is a small town outside of Port-au-Prince and my grandfather lived in a compound called Lakou Déréal, where he had his temple. My mother and father came from very different familial backgrounds. No one in my mother’s family had ever even graduated from primary school, while my father came from a family where being a lawyer, a judge, or a teacher was the norm. My paternal grandfather was a pharmacist, and an alcoholic. Due to his abusive behavior, Father, as I called him, left home as a teenager to fend for himself.
Father always lamented that he did not receive the same higher education that many of his other family member had access to, but the trade-off between higher learning and his tumultuous home life was to great. He comforted himself by making a commitment that his future children would not suffer the same loss. Even though we were girls, growing up during a time when education was reserved for boys, Father had not forgotten the promise he had made to himself. When I was four years old and my sister Marise had just turned two, my parents separated. Soon after, Mother, as I called her, realized that she was pregnant with twins. She found refuge in Lakou Déréal near her own father. Father wanted us to come and live with his mother; I called her Grandma, in Port-au-Prince and have the opportunity to go to the best schools. But Mother refused; she lost her mother when she was nine years old and knew the pain of being raised by others. We lived in a country where there were no social recourses for women with small children. Because of her inability to fend for us due to her discomfort with the pregnancy, our basic needs would not have been met if it weren’t for Grand-Père.
Everyone was telling Mother to give us to Father. Grandma, who really loved her, also assured her that she would take good care of us. As she continued to be plagued with severe nausea and vomiting, and a dire financial situation, she finally gave up. She never forgave herself for that.
Unfortunately, the twin girls became very ill with whooping cough when they were 18 months old and died one day apart of each other. Mother was never the same. She reconciled for a while with Father but it did not last. From that short union my beautiful baby sister Fifi was born and lived with Mother.
Grandma lived with her only daughter, I called her Tatante, who never married, despised Mother and was emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive to us; especially when Grandma wasn’t around. Tatante was adamant about Marise and I being raised without any ties to Mother’s family. Her treatment of us had an extreme impact on the person I ultimately became.
I was fortunate that my paternal grandfather’s station in life established us in Port-au-Prince. The people of Lakou Déréal, Mother’s people, were “low class and evil people” according to my parochial school and the caste society I lived in and Tatante. And so, I was challenged by being raised to deny the merits of Mother and her family. But whenever I could see them, they would shower me with love. I loved spending time with Grand-Père; his gray hair and skin were so beautiful, his voice so strong and sweet, that I couldn’t help smiling when he spoke. He was old, but he didn’t act like other old people I knew in Port au Prince. In Lakou Déréal, people listened to his words so carefully that I felt he must know many things others did not, things they needed to know.
The societal class system was so strong that the prestigious Catholic school that I was attending, when they learned about my maternal origins, kicked me out, following a year of being ostracized by the teachers. The impact of this discrimination caused me to become very ill. Grandma took me to the established doctors who were unsuccessful in improving my health. Mother, upon learning I was ill, insisted on taking me to my grandfather. His healing ability restored my health, which made a very great impression on me, so much so that I began to have a strong desire to follow in his footsteps and become a healer.
“Grand-père,” I said when it was time to go back to Port-au-Prince, “I wanted to be a nun, you know. But, maybe I should learn to be a healer like you.” He laughed. “You, a mambo, a Voodoo priestess, no way. Tatante would rather see you dead. No more of this foolishness. Your father has many plans for you. He wants his children to be well educated. That’s the reason he took you and your sister away from your mother. It has been very hard on her, you know. If you became a mambo, her sacrifices would be worthless. Your mother would never agree for you to have anything to do with that anyway.”
He paused. “If you want to take care of people and make everyone happy, what about becoming a medical doctor? Why don’t you study hard and become a doctor? No one in the Murat family has ever passed primary school. Think about it. You would be our first medical doctor. I would be so proud of you.”
I thought this sounded pretty good. I remembered how important the doctors I visited looked, even though they were all men. “You are right, Grand-père. Father and Grandma tell me that I can be anything I choose. I think you are right about becoming a medical doctor.”
Just then, his wife entered the room. “Clarisse,” he said. “Guess what? There will be a medical doctor in the Murat family. And here she is.”
“Yes, I should take advantage of all the opportunity that was given to me in Port-au-Prince.” I said to myself. “I will never let anyone know about the people of Lakou Déréal. I will study hard to become a doctor, and take care of Mother so she would never have to cry again.” When I made the decision never to be caught in the same educational, economical, and socially dependent position as Mother, I was 10 years old.
Soon afterwards, I was brutally raped by a neighbor; I never told anyone. Just one more shameful secret I felt I had to keep.
I grew up in one of the most oppressed political milieu, in a country with very little resources, where political strife was common. I was six years old when Papa Doc Duvalier came into power, and his son Baby Doc and I are the same age. I lived through the political repression of a dictatorship. People were being killed at will in the name of “eradicating communism.” Family members, neighbors, and friends just “disappeared.”
Schools would close at the first sign of political unrest. However, Tatante made sure that I studied at home and she helped me with my homework. She also hired a private tutor for me so that I could pass the National Exam to enter secondary school. I did not have any girlfriends because I was mostly interested in being a tomboy, and in reading. I would stay up reading even though there was a blackout every night for several hours. Grandma always worried that I was going to lose my sight, reading so many hours by candlelight.
Books were a rarity during that time. They were considered communist propaganda by the Duvalier regime and most had been banned or burned. Fortunately, a friend of the family, Clovis, had a large, secret library at his home. One day when I was a teenager, I asked him to lend me one of his books to help with my homework. He did, reluctantly. The cover of the book was somewhat torn, so with great care I repaired it. It looked like new when I returned it. Clovis was so impressed that he said I could borrow as many books as I wanted. I was elated!
Thanks to Clovis, I learned so much from so many wonderful books. I was most influenced by a quote from Montaigne: “Women are not in the wrong when they decline to accept the rules laid down for them, since the men made these rules without consulting them. No wonder intrigue and strife abound.” I also liked reading about George Sand, a woman writer who dressed like a man and smoked a cigar! When I read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, I was very impressed that she dared to be different. She asked why women did not dispute male sovereignty, why a category of people dominated another. But she noted it was not always the case, giving the Negroes of Haiti as an example. I grew proud of my Haitian heritage. The Haitian slaves, against all odds, had defeated “invincible” Napoleon’s army. I was going to be different, too, I promised myself. I was not going to be like the many girls I knew who only wanted to be married, have kids, and be subordinate to their men. I was going to be smart and go as far as any man could ever go.
I was going to be a doctor and a champion of hope!!
Next: On the Road to becoming a doctor
Join me in my new forum Better Sex for Life where I answer questions about women health and sex. Every woman is welcome!