Mommie Dearest Darkly: Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child

Mommie Dearest tells the story of perhaps the most iconic inversion of what an ideal mother should be like: beautiful and successful on the surface, rotten on the inside. Yet perhaps other mothers damage more subtly, more terribly, even. At its essence, God Help the Child is about a woman’s reckoning with her childhood scars, and these scars ultimately stem from her mother’s rejection of her due to her dark black skin. Bride, the novel’s protagonist, is the beautiful, successful, materialistic executive of YOU, GIRL cosmetics. She only wears shades of white- creams, milks, and snows- to compliment her unforgettable blue-black skin. For someone who was never supposed to be gorgeous by her mother’s standards, Bride is stunning. And though her looks are admired by many, perhaps they’re most admired by herself.

Like Joan Crawford, Bride’s mother, whom she is never allowed to call mother (instead she calls her Sweetness, or simply, “S”) is obsessed with image: when her child “bears the cross” of the darkest shade of skin from her birth, Sweetness admits having the urge to smother the baby with a pillow. Though God Help the Child is seemingly Bride’s story, Sweetness has monopolized both the opening and ending narratives. She eschews maternal affection for what she believes to be good child-rearing, something she finds highly necessary; she wants Bride to develop survival skills because of the way people will judge her and treat her due to her dark black skin. Her fears are not unwarranted.

Colorism and racism leave their thorns throughout the text, as this is a story about color.  Booker, Bride’s enigmatic boyfriend, mediates on racism the most academically, becoming interested in studying it during college.  When Bride is confessing to him the reason why Sweetness hated her, for her black skin, Booker says “‘It’s just a color.  A genetic trait- not a flaw, not a curse, nor a blessing nor a sin.”  He continues, “‘Scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choose.  Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice.  Folks who practice it would be nothing without it.’” And yet these folks do so much harm.

As a girl, Bride dreams of winning over her mother’s love and affection. Something as simple as holding her mother’s hand in public becomes a fantasy for Bride, and this dream infects her psyche as a child, acting as the catalyst for the event that will come to haunt Bride in her adulthood. Yet in the safe bubble of her successful life, Bride rarely thinks of her mother and her childhood. Her hidden scars only begin to surface when her lacquer-covered world dulls and cracks. After Booker leaves her without reason, Bride finds herself in the midst of frightening changes to her body. First, she notices her ears, pierced since she was a girl, return to hole-less lobes. Then, her clothes begin to swallow her; she’s shrinking at an alarming rate. And it’s not just her weight that’s vanishing, it’s her bones. They’re becoming smaller, shorter, tighter things, bones that belong to a little girl. Bewildered, Bride is convinced that Booker’s leaving her has triggered these changes in her body. She sets out to find him, leaving behind her life in Hollywood to a place anathema to luxury, Booker’s hometown called Whiskey, all the while the woman in the mirror is quickly becoming a stranger.

It is in Whiskey that Bride begins to heal herself of her scars, but this cannot happen until she is completely broken. After a serious car crash on her way to find Booker, Bride becomes completely dependent on a family of kind strangers. She spends a dreary recovery in their home, a recovery that embarrasses her and leaves her frustrated and helpless, not unlike a child. But now she finally begins to think, something she doesn’t seem to do much of in Hollywood. On the first day she is able to wash herself, Bride realizes her perfect grapefruit breasts have vanished. She is not a woman any longer. Her exotic looks have all gone away, and now the transformation is complete. Bride is left as she once was, when her scars were newly pressed on her skin: a little girl, insecure and scared.

During her prolonged stay at the strangers’ home, Bride makes friends with their adopted girl, a motherless little white girl named Rain. Rain awakens an aptitude for maternal love in Bride, and for once, Bride’s concern for another exceeds concern for herself. She protects Rain not like her mother would nor like Rain’s mother would, but perhaps as herself as a mother would, and she saves this little white girl from being shot at: “‘My black lady saw him,’” says Rain, “‘and threw her arm in front of my face.  The birdshot messed up her hand and arm. We fell, both of us, her on top of me. I mean Steve and Evelyn took me in and all but nobody put their own self in danger to save me. Save my life.  But that’s what my black lady did without even thinking about it.’” Bride becomes what her mother always feared when she protects Rain: vulnerable because of her skin. Yet unlike Sweetness, who wanted her daughter to shrink and fade away into the background, Bride immerses herself in this conflict, using her body, her childhood signifier of weakness, as a shield to combat this violence- and she wins.

After she has mostly recovered from her injuries and her car is fixed, Bride visits the address she found on Booker’s mail. Though Booker isn’t present, she meets Booker’s aunt, a woman named Queen. There are endless mirrors in God Help the Child; as Rain is a mirror for Bride, so Bride is a mirror for Queen: “I was pretty once, [Queen] thought, real pretty, and I believed it was enough. Well, actually, it was until it wasn’t, until I had to be a real person, meaning a thinking one.” It is when Bride confesses her childhood crime to Booker that she finally becomes a real person. As a reward, she begins to regain her womanhood, first with her breasts reappearing, then with the baby that appears in her belly.

God Help the Child reads hypnotic.  It is soul-crushing and soul-nourishing.  It is gorgeous and starkly flippant.  It is manipulative and honest, filled with multiple perspectives and forays into borderline fantasy/magical realism as Bride transforms from a confident, stunning executive to an unsure, prepubescent girl, and back again.

Are we bound to be like our mothers? Can we break the cycle of nourishment or damage? God Help the Child seems to ask these questions, at its very end. A child is a malleable being, and mothers and their counterparts have the power of leaving whatever sort of scar or impression they wish. We try to cover-up or hide these scar-memories as best we can as we grow, but sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we, too, grow into the same beautiful monster they once were. Sometimes we are bound to repeat their mistakes, to carry their prejudices, to engrain their habits into the generation after us, whether that’s a generation of relationships or children or writing or work. Or perhaps we break free.

2 thoughts

  1. I read several reviews before I saw yours. Most readers didn’t seem to understand Morrison’s latest book. (I suspect, just like in real life, many people don’t want to hear about the under layers of abuse.) Since I had a good idea of what the book is about, I kept searching. Looking forward to reading it this novel next month for my book club. Thank you for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

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