Morrison’s Pain and Obsessions

Gold Help the Child—Toni Morrison’s disappointing new novel in a string of lesser works ever since she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993—takes us back to two of the writer’s major concerns: child abuse and discrimination within the African American community by those who are lighter in skin color, i.e., a vile pecking order. Both of these issues are important (very important, I dare say) but brutally over-worked in the current novel. Both were also present in Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970. Child abuse has not gone away and it probably never will, but color gradation is much less an issue since the days when Morrison first broached it. Fused together in God Help the Child, they result in a confusing and sometimes unconvincing narrative.

The lives of three of the novel’s characters have all been shaken, possibly ruined, by early incidents of child abuse. When she was about six, Lula Ann (who calls herself Bride as an adult) testified in a trial that she saw her grade school teacher sexually abusing other children. The teacher was incarcerated for many years. Booker, at a similar age, learned that his older brother was sexually abused and then murdered by a man who lived in their community. Then there’s Rain, about the same age, who lived on the streets after fleeing her mother’s pimping of her to older men. In all three cases these are horrifying acts of child abuse; the man who killed Booker’s brother had a collection of shriveled up penises of all the boys he killed. Not exactly garden-variety incidents of sexual assault.

The background details concerning these three characters are revealed incrementally. The novel opens with Sweetness (Lula Ann’s mother) describing her horror when she realized that her child had jet-black skin. Both Sweetness and her husband, Louis, were so light-skinned that they could probably pass for white. Louis walked out on them, and Sweetness tried to raise her child without ever touching her, not showing her one iota of affection. This is what Sweetness says about Lula Ann’s time as a baby, “All I know is that for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat. I went to bottle-feeding soon as I got home.” Her husband, “Looked at her like she was from the planet godhelpchildJupiter… That’s what it did—what caused the fights between me and him. I knew we were in trouble. It broke our marriage to pieces. We had three good years together but when she was born he blamed me and treated Lula Ann like she was a stranger, more than that, an enemy.”

When she is older, Lula Ann craves physical contact with her mother so badly that if her mother slaps her she doesn’t complain, because she has at least been touched. No surprise that Lula Ann (a.k.a. Bride) leaves home as soon as possible. Moreover, people regard here as a
stunning young woman; she’s so beautiful that she begins working for a cosmetics company with her own line of products. This is also where issues of credibility begin. How does Bride move so quickly—apparently without any significant education—to become filthy rich by the time she’s in her early twenties? Booker was attracted to her because of her dark beauty, but then he abruptly walked out on her, without revealing anything to her about his own past or his educational achievements. The pain of his abandonment obviously reminds her of her father’s earlier departure. Apparently, Bride and Booker never talked about anything.

Later, when she goes in search of him in her Jaguar, she has an automobile accident in a remote area of the country that injures her and bangs up her car. She stays with a hippy couple (who have adopted the abused child they call Rain) for several weeks during her recovery. But although no one knows where she is or what has happened to her, apparently no one searches for her, including her co-workers at the cosmetics company. Is that likely to happen? Would no one be concerned enough about her disappearance to put out an alert? Even her best friend, a woman called Brooklyn—still another victim of sexual abuse—seems not to be much concerned about the lengthy hiatus when Bride is away.

The narration shifts around to the perspectives of all of these characters, including the teacher who spent so much time in prison. Booker was clearly in love with Bride, though it takes him the longest time before he realizes it. Even Sweetness comes around eventually and understands what her coldness did to her daughter when she was a child. But that realization and other events that provide the novel with a happy ending is not very convincing. Worse, the well-endowed Bride undergoes extreme bodily changes, including becoming flat-chested after Booker leaves her, only to have her breasts pumped up to their previous size as soon as the two of them work out a kind of reconciliation. The magical realism sticks out like a red herring in a story that wants us to realize the tragedy of child abuse and its terrible psychological consequences. Can such pain be “repaired” so quickly?

We all want to enjoy Toni Morrison’s novels and often we do. She is one of our greatest living writers. But I can’t help remembering what one of my African-American students said about her work some years ago: “I don’t know any black people like Morrison’s characters.” That remark has haunted me for years, always asking me of and for whom Morrison writes.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.