Guilt is the feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, or wrongdoing whether real or imagined. Guilt itself has the power to alter the way you live your life and how you make each and every decision that comes your way. The feeling of constant guilt has the ability to cause immense amounts of emotional and psychological stress that can hinder the abilities of an individual. Have you ever felt guilty? Has guilt ever weighed so heavily on your conscious that you couldn’t function properly? This feeling effects majority of people at least once in their lives and has the potential to ruin their thinking processes.
This feeling is extremely prevalent in the The Book of Unknown Americans, by author Cristina Henriquez, when a tragic accident occurs hindering the advancement of the main character, Maribel, due to a decision made by her mother. Alma and Arturo, Maribel’s parents, had been attempting to have a child for three years prior to the birth of their daughter Maribel. With this being said, Maribel was a huge blessing to her parents and they held their one and only child very close to their hearts, only ever wanting the best for her. Little did they know, they would face a terrible accident involving their daughter in the future. When Maribel was fourteen years old, she fell off of a ladder that was two stories high while carrying a bucket of cement to her father. Maribel admired her father Arturo and loved to follow in his footsteps, so one day she decided to help him while he was at work. Arturo was on a rooftop that was two stories high and refused to let Maribel carry up a bucket of cement that he needed. She begged her mother to let her carry up the bucket of cement to her father, and after continuously begging to climb the ladder, her mother Alma finally agreed and allowed her to do so. As Maribel was climbing up the ladder Alma was holding the ladder at the bottom, however on the way down things changed. While Maribel was climbing down the ladder, Alma turned away while holding onto the ladder which may have let the ladder slip through the mud, and caused Maribel to fall back off of the ladder. Unfortunately, the way that Maribel fell and landed on her neck caused major trauma to her brain and head region. She ended up needing to have an invasive operation which included getting part of her brain cut off to stop the swelling and bleeding. When Arturo was questioning his wife about how she let go of the ladder and what caused her to let this whole incident happen in the first place, Alma felt an overwhelming feeling of guilt. At a loss for words Alma stated,”I stared at the curve of his back and tried to remember: I’d had my hands around the ladder, and I had turned. Had I really let it slip? Was is my fault? My fault, I thought. My fault. Repeating it in my head again and again” (Henriquez p. 102). Ever since that exact moment, Alma believed that she was one hundred percent responsible for the tragedy that occurred to her daughter and would let the guilt weigh her down permanently.
This accident essentially leaves Alma to feel like a terrible mother and the guilt begins eating her alive. “It wasn’t an earthquake or a gust of wind that knocked her to the ground. It was me,” stated Maribel’s mother Alma (Henriquez 102). She believes that the accident is her fault and only her fault and refuses to think that there is a possibility she did not cause her daughter to fall off of the ladder. This feeling of guilt is also shown when Alma is in church praying. She attends her church, St. Thomas More Oratory, and pours her heart out saying, “I know I’m not very important, I told him. I know you have other things to worry about. But please forgive me for all that I’ve done. Please give me the strength to fix it. Please let her get better. And please let Arturo forgive me, too. In Jesus’ name, Amen” to ask for forgiveness from God ( Henriquez 54). This scene in the book demonstrates how alone Alma feels in this time and how unforgivable she feels. She can’t believe what she allowed to happen to her daughter and despite her looking to God for forgiveness, she cannot even forgive her own self. She feels completely at fault for ruining her daughter’s life, and she also feels responsible for her husband’s grieving as he initially did not allow Maribel up the ladder.
With tons of guilt weighing down on Alma, all she can seem to remind herself of, is how she ruined her daughter’s life by allowing this accident to happen. However her goal as a mother is still to protect her child, especially now that Maribel depends on her parents. Her emotions are extremely monotone and she doesn’t react to certain situations the same way other people typically would, so she needs her parents during this time in her life. Little did Alma know, her feeling of guilt would soon deepen further into her core when a boy named Garrett is introduced into Maribel’s life. One day Alma witnessed something unspeakable happening to her daughter. She saw her daughter being sexually assaulted by Garrett. Describing what she saw, Alma said, “Her back was against the cinder-block wall, and her hands were. A boy-the boy from the gas station, I recognized him instantly- was holding her wrists in place, staring at her. Her shirt was bunched under her armpits, exposing her white cotton bra, and her head was turned to the side, her eyes squeezed shut” (Henriquez 121). That night, Arturo notices that something seems to be bothering Alma, but Alma doesn’t explain what she had seen prior in the day. Even when she decides to report the incident to the police, she leaves out important details of what had actually occurred, which fails to help her. All she tells the officer is, “I came home one day and a boy was with my daughter” (Henriquez 149). She holds back and doesn’t explain to Officer Mora what exactly Garrett was doing to Maribel. Garrett disgustingly took advantage of Maribel. He assaulted her, and although Alma witnessed it, she didn’t explain to whole story. Her guilt takes over, and she starts to over-analyze everything. She didn’t want to be blamed for what had happened regarding Maribel this time. She feels that she is failing to be an adequate mother to Maribel time after time and incident after incident.
In The Book of Unknown Americans, Alma is portrayed to be a great mother who will do anything for her family. However, her guilty conscious stands in the way of this. She begins overthinking everything, which causes her to make poor decisions regarding the safety of her daughter. This is shown when Alma begins lying to her husband as well as police officers when her daughter is sexually assaulted. This particular scene demonstrates how easily guilt can weigh down on an individual so heavily that their thought process is altered. Although Alma repeatedly makes questionable decisions throughout the book, she loves her daughter and will do anything she can for Maribel and her family.
Henríquez Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. Alfered A.Knopf Publishing, June 2 2014.