Preferred Citation: Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. Mother Without Child: Contemporary Fiction and the Crisis of Motherhood. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

Three— Claiming the Monstrosity in Alice Walker's Meridian

Claiming the Monstrosity in Alice Walker's Meridian

"Bad" Black Mothers from Beloved to Meridian

Feminist analysis of mothering has been faulted for excluding, among other things, the work of black writers and scholars. African American literary texts in particular have richly explored the historical importance of black mothers, their indispensable if often unappreciated or misunderstood power, and the need to recover, revalue, and complicate our general understanding of this presence. Many of Alice Walker's well-known essays and stories celebrate the role of black mothers and grandmothers in sustaining the creativity of their daughters and granddaughters against the odds. As Walker puts it in her influential "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," "And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read."[1] Writing a decade and a half later, critic Joanne Braxton calls attention to another archetype in black women's fiction that grows out of historical maternal practice. This is an ancestor figure less peaceful, perhaps, than the grandmother in the garden but sharing in her resourcefulness and importance: the "outraged mother who embodies the value of sacrifice, nurturance, and personal courage—values necessary to an endangered and embattled minority group."[2] Barbara Christian identifies the historical figure of the slave mother represented in contemporary women's fiction as the key element in recent efforts to reclaim the subjectivity and memory of black slaves, and she points out that "motherhood is the context for the slave woman's most deeply felt conflicts."[3] The black mother in American culture is frequently observed in these and many


other studies as powerfully present but poorly understood by means of dominant models. Suzanne Carother, for instance, has noted that the conventional assumption in white culture that mothers remain in the private, domestic sphere is simply inappropriate to the circumstances of black mothers, who are traditionally both workers and mothers and who do not raise their children in isolation from other adults.[4]

Whereas many poets, novelists, and scholars have sought to celebrate the often forgotten black mother for her positive creativity, her power to endure, her willingness to protect and nurture despite psychological and material conflicts, other voices have recently called for more negative images of African American people. Mae Henderson urges that we must not avert the gaze of criticism from "non felicitous" images of women in particular. Worried by the "male scopophilia" made possible by Houston Baker's idealization of women and women writers (and I think by the prescriptiveness of this same idealization), Henderson points out that Walker's "mother in the garden," a symbol of birth and renewal, has to be set beside Sula's grandmother Eva, a symbol of death and destruction when she sets her son Plum on fire.[5] Reacting to the criticism of black women writers for their treatment of black men in particular, Deborah McDowell argues in an essay on Sula that "the overarching preoccupation with 'positive' racial representation has worked in tandem with a static view of the nature of identification in the act of reading."[6] Hortense Spillers, responding to McDowell's essay, agrees that "the novel and figure [of Sula ] also offer figures of ambiguity, of 'bad' passions that the heart, the recognition, can no longer afford to deny."[7] And in her own theoretical emphasis elsewhere on the absence rather than the presence of black mothers, Spillers similarly implies that it is necessary to confront "monstrous" things when we seek to theorize or historicize black mothers. Moreover, with due respect for critical differences, we might deduce from Spillers' subtle argument that the position of "black mother" is as much a terrifying oxymoron, in its own way, as that of "lesbian mother":

The dominant culture, in a fatal misunderstanding, assigns a matriarchalist value where it does not belong; actually misnames the power of the female regarding the enslaved community. Such naming is false because the female could not, in fact, claim her child, and false, once again, because "motherhood" is not perceived in the prevailing social climate as a legitimate procedure of cultural inheritance . . . motherhood as female blood-rite is outraged, is denied, at the very same time that it becomes the founding term of a human and social enactment . . ..


In this play of paradox, only the female stands in the flesh, both mother and mother-dispossessed. This problematizing of gender places her, in my view, out of the traditional symbolics of female gender, and it is our task to make a place for this different social subject. In doing so, we are less interested in joining the ranks of gendered femaleness than gaining the insurgent ground as female social subject. Actually claiming the monstrosity (of a female with the potential to "name"), which her culture imposes in blindness, "Sapphire" might rewrite after all a radically different text for a female empowerment.[8]

The distance between those who stress the ignored and devalued presence of heroic African American mothers and those who emphasize the "bad" or absent mother may be more apparent than real, but it reflects a common problem, at the center of so much thinking about motherhood: how best to give voice to the previously silenced, on what terms to bring the marginalized and dominated into historical recognition without downplaying historical reality. One novel, however, has recently seemed to accommodate the desire both to celebrate and to mourn the black mother: Toni Morrison's Beloved .

Sethe Suggs, like all slave mothers, cannot claim her children. During a brief period of heroic escape, illicit freedom, and fleshly maternal bliss, Sethe's maternal desire is narrativized in terms perfectly inside the dominant conventions of motherhood, establishing readers' confidence in her as mother and sympathy with her as female subject and victim. But the impossibility of her desire is quickly reaffirmed when the legal owner of both Sethe and her children comes to claim his property. The mother attempts to usurp the slave master's rights, stealing his property (as her historical prototype, Margaret Garner, was convicted of doing) by trying to murder her own children rather than surrender them back to slavery. For many readers and characters this act puts her, for good or bad, where she is historically determined to be, "out of the traditional symbolics of female gender."[9] She succeeds in killing only one child, the baby girl who is at least part of what returns to the story as the ghost, Beloved. The novel spirals around this series of monstrous events: a moment of murder, and then years later the ghostly reappearance "in the flesh" of the young girl who is the spirit of multiply deprived, dispossessed, and inadequately individuated identities, including Sethe's dead baby, Sethe herself, Sethe's mother, and the nameless sixty million who died in the Middle Passage. It closes with the exorcism of Beloved and a gesture toward the empowerment of Sethe as


female social subject rather than misnamed matriarch. Her final words at once instate and call into question this "radically different" and tentative subject: "'Me? Me?'"

The popular and critical success of Beloved verifies the need and effect of telling a story of black motherhood as one of infanticide, outrage, and conflict.[10] The novel is remarkable for its ability to bring the previously repressed or erased preoedipal mother and enslaved subject to the brink of consciousness and language. The publication of Beloved coincided with the very earliest stages of my interest in childless mothers in contemporary literature, and in fact the enormous acclaim of the novel in popular as well as more academic circles substantiated my growing sense that the mother without child is one of the key sites of moral and political debate today. However, as I continued to think about the particularities of black mothers in America and the insights and impasses of current scholarship, the questions Beloved raises prompted me to greater interest in an earlier novel: Alice Walker's Meridian . Given the recent calls for more "bad" African American fictional characters and more nontraditional women and mothers, it may be a good moment to reconsider its powerful and difficult heroine, Meridian Hill, who cheerfully gives her baby up for adoption. At one point, the novel makes it clear that she does so in order to avoid the very same route Sethe planned to take, infanticide followed by suicide: "She might not have given him away to the people who wanted him. She might have murdered him instead. Then killed herself. She might have done it that way except for one thing: One day she really looked at her child and loved him with as much love as she loved the moon or a tree, which was a considerable amount of impersonal love . . .. When she gave him away she did so with a light heart."[11]

What might we learn, after Beloved and in the context of a search for the postmodern, maybe postmaternal female subject, by comparing Meridian's and Sethe's "bad" behavior as mothers? By some criteria, Meridian might be judged more guilty and unnatural than Sethe. The twentieth-century black woman's circumstances are far less dire; no one is threatening to take her baby back into slavery. Indeed, Meridian explicitly says that she understands for the first time what slavery is like after her child is born, as against her conscious will her body serves his needs. Whereas Sethe is forced to kill what she loves, Meridian freely chooses to give up her son. In the present of the novel, this is a highly atypical act for a black teenaged mother; according to a recent study by Rickie Solinger, it is contrary to both public policy and


community opinion about the responsibility for black babies.[12] Although the novel speaks of her "impersonal love" for the child, the perverseness of this choice stands out if we compare it to nonfictional accounts of parents who give up children for adoption. In a study of members of a support group called Concerned United Birthparents, Judith Modell observes that the birth parents she interviewed in fact rejected the rationale that Meridian offers, the notion that a mother sometimes gives her child up because she loves it. Instead, in the central "relinquishment" scenes of their stories, they stressed the involuntarihess of their act, which they preferred to speak of as "surrender."[13] (Note that there is no noun in our lexicon for what Meridian does: besides loaded terms like "relinquishment" and "surrender" we have only the awkward gerundive phrases, "giving away" or "giving up for adoption," both of which imply at least some degree of ownership and selfsacrifice that does not seem appropriate.) Meridian's dreams are at first haunted by the child, but when she tries to remember him a few years later, she cannot do so. In contrast, the birth parents that Modell studied resist the mandate to forget their children in the very act of telling and retelling their stories. This comparison could suggest, among other things, that Meridian is more selfish, unloving, and unmaternal than Sethe and that Walker fails to see or articulate the outrage of maternal "surrender" fundamental to the historical experience of black subjectivity. Meridian chooses, arguably, what a real mother could only be forced to accept, and she does not even love her child the way most birth parents do.

This is not the way she is usually judged, however. In the second half of the twentieth century, although infanticide is still a crime, giving up a child for adoption is not, and to most readers Meridian's antimaternal behavior is excusable, if not likable, and not "bad" enough to raise the moral, psychological, or political questions that Sethe's does. A few critics have recapitulated the "core plot" of the story without even mentioning this episode.[14] Among the critics who focus at least some attention on Meridian's giving up of her child, the consensus is that Meridian must give up her son in order to pursue her life as a civil rights activist or to realize "self-affirmation."[15] Some readers have even seen the guilt that she feels for doing so as a central problem, the main cause of the illness from which she must gradually recover in the course of the novel's telling. No readers that I know of have suggested that Meridian ought to have kept Rundi with her while she struggled to come of


age and join the civil rights movement or waited until he was grown up to become a heroine, and no critics to my knowledge fault Walker for implicitly failing to understand that women's power is deeply rooted in the biological or social capacity to mother that Meridian so blithely seems to put behind her.

I by no means wish to argue that Meridian or Walker should be thus critiqued, but it is important to note that the apparent acceptance, bordering for some readers on approval, of the black civil rights heroine as mother without child rests on common assumptions about female selfhood, (black) motherhood, (white) feminism, and the socalled feminist novel. One assumption is that Meridian clearly belongs to and reflects its era, the early days of second-wave feminism, with its allegedly radical repudiation of women's role as mothers.[16] Hence the novel is often categorized as a feminist bildungsroman, the story of the heroine's quest for selfhood set against the forces, including motherhood, that threaten her. Notably selfhood and motherhood are locked in opposition in this typically white formulation, as they are in most thinking about either term (and in many readings of Beloved as well). It is further assumed that mothering necessarily entails a sacrifice or at least compromise of an autonomous, cohesive self that some if not all women, often for good reasons, are not prepared to make. The conflict is constructed as a simple one: the interests of the individual woman versus the interests of her child, female self-affirmation versus the institution of motherhood. Women have a right to "surrender" their maternal responsibilities to others (as long as they surrender them completely). Meridian is the case par excellence of the woman who chooses to repudiate motherhood, and having said that, the case is closed.

However, Meridian in fact complicates all these rarely challenged assumptions and may open up difficult, usually unasked questions about how and why a black mother would give up her children, what happens to her when she does, and what her story may signify. The claim that Meridian renounces motherhood for the civil rights movement suggests a slightly inaccurate reading of the plot. Meridian gives up Eddie Jr., whom she has already renamed Rundi, not when she volunteers with the voter registration project in her home town (during which time her mother-in-law seems happy to care for the baby all day), but when she receives a scholarship to Saxon College. It is true enough that Meridian has already failed to bond with her child well before the scholar-


ship offer arrives, and the style of activism she has begun to practice, soon to be followed by nights spent in jail, would interfere with primary caretaking of a young child. But Meridian herself never cites her desire to join the civil rights movement as a factor in her decision, and it is important to be precise about the fact that it is her admission to Saxon College, an elite institution of higher education for black women modeled after the elite white women's schools, that precipitates the act of giving Rundi away. Saxon observes the dominant tradition in female education that rigidly enforces the divide between women who are mothers and women who are not, and it dictates that only the latter are permitted to have a life of the mind. However, Meridian suggests that this influential white model of independent, educated female identity, which again puts self-development so starkly in opposition to motherhood, misrepresents and erases the experience of black women in America. Saxon turns southern African American daughters into ladies who will not be able to tell their mothers' stories; as Barbara Christian has noted, Meridian suggests in other ways too that some African American women themselves ignore their maternal heritage.[17]

It is also important not to put Meridian's choice in terms of activism versus mothering because this way of seeing the problem perpetuates a conception that Walker's novel—and this study as a whole—contravenes: that mothering and political action, like mothering and thinking or writing, are mutually exclusive practices. This is the kind of presupposition that has been used against women of many nationalities and races who do take political action, and it may serve to disarm those who might. It flies in the face of events such as the Latin American motherist movements or, closer to home, the role of women in the peace movement of the sixties.[18] In the context of Meridian, it falls into the trap of denying or policing the role of mothers and older African American women in enabling the civil rights movement—a forgetting explicitly deplored in stories like Toni Cade Bambara's "My Man Bovanne" or Walker's own "Everyday Use." And finally it fails to account for what is arguably the novel's most important point: Meridian's highly "maternalized" brand of activism, as we shall see, challenges those dominant notions of the opposition between self-affirmation (or group affirmation) and the work of caring for and about children.[19] I do not suggest that we should entirely set aside the assumption that Meridian gives her child away in order to "find herself" or experience what Lindsey Tucker describes as "mobility," for there is an undeniable validity


to such claims.[20] But we need to make them very carefully, because the selfhood Meridian seeks and finds in the course of this novel is not the western autonomous personhood, privileged and upwardly mobile, that we often think of when we speak of the self, and motherhood for black women is not merely the passive, domestic, private, and dependent experience that it is often said to be in dominant white models.

The distinction becomes clearer if we carefully reconsider the notion that Meridian is a feminist "novel of self-discovery." According to Rita Felski's persuasive description of this narrative structure, which she claims has emerged in the last twenty years of writing by women, such novels identify "autonomy" and "coherent selfhood" as "women's most pressing need"; gender is seen as "the primary marker" of subjectivity, and other determinants are ignored. Female community is vital in these novels, and concomitantly, "there is no sustained exploration of the interrelations . . . between feminism and the rest of society" and little interest in metafictional questions. Felski subdivides the "novel of self-discovery" into two subtypes: the "feminist bildungsroman," with a historical and linear plot marking progress outward, and the "novel of awakening," in which the discovery entails movement inward to "a given mythic identity" or authentic "innerself." Both presume "a process of separation as the essential precondition for any path to self-knowledge."[21]

Felski mentions Meridian twice, both times parenthetically: at the beginning of her discussion she lists it as one of the novels she has in mind, and later she cites Truman as an example of the kind of sexist male radical often found in the "self-discovery" novel. Yet Meridian seems to evoke the category of "self-discovery" novel only to subvert it, at least as it is defined by Felski's criteria. Gender is by no means the only determinant of Meridian's subjectivity; her racial, familial, and regional identities are influential too, although often in contradictory ways. Though the "female community" is beyond question important in Meridian in ways that I explore in this chapter, it is at best an ambiguous source of support. Meridian remains isolated from many women from whom help and encouragement might be expected, and her foregrounded personal relationships in the novel are to a black man and a white woman. This heroine's journey reverses the normal quest pattern, as it takes her neither outward nor inward but back toward an incomplete but resilient connection between inside and outside, self and community, and past and present. Meridian's quest begins rather


than ends in the separation that white feminist novels are often said to require. There is something special and unique about Meridian even as a child, and she detaches herself from the roles of wife, lover, and biological mother early on. But then she returns to the various communities she has always revered, despite her distance from them, to heal herself: the rural South, the Black Church, the principles and practices of the civil rights movement. Her gradual downward social mobility and poverty arrest the apparent progress outward she began when she joined the voter registration drive and entered Saxon College, and near the end of the novel she imagines herself walking behind the "real revolutionaries" (201).[22] Both parts of the old term "self-knowledge" are scrutinized in this heroine's story. Meridian's self is represented as neither cohesive nor autonomous in traditional ways. This character, the soul of integrity, lacks formal, psychological, and epistemic wholeness; the ways we know her and the ways she knows herself and the world around her are not conventional, coherent, or rational.

Reopening and centering the question of why this black mother gives up her son, I suggest that Meridian explores the roots of both (black feminist) politics and (black women's) selfhood in a revised understanding of motherhood as a historical and psychological experience of nothing less than trauma, much as Beloved does. Meridian is not a feminist bildungsroman but a formally innovative and metafictionally self-conscious novel best described by the spatial metaphor Walker herself has used: the crazy quilt. "You know, there's a lot of difference between a crazy quilt and a patchwork quilt," Walker has said. "A crazy quilt . . . only looks crazy. It is not patched; it is planned."[23] As Melissa Walker points out, "The impact of a crazy quilt depends on shapes, colors, and textures, but what usually gives such quilts significance and emotional validity is that each individual piece has a history."[24] Patterned in this way, the novel gives far less prominence than Beloved does to the individual psyche or subjectivity of a main protagonist. In the first section below, I consider how the history of "each individual piece" in the crazy quilt works to situate Meridian's giving up of her child in what we might call the "reproductive consciousness" of rural southern black females in the second half of the twentieth century. In the second and final part of the chapter, I argue that Meridian's selfhood is not only less separate but also less cohesive than certain conventional models imply, suggesting a psychological model of personality split along vertical rather than


horizontal lines—a model often associated only with a "crazy" personality, one who is dissociated and disconnected.[25]

Remapping Motherhood:
Female Reproductive Consciousness in an age of Choice

Questions of women's autonomy and individual female selfhood are in some sense secondary to and completely embedded in Meridian 's concern with the way diverse, sometimes conflicting, and sometimes overlapping ideas about motherhood, variously encountered and experienced in everyday life, construct a woman's expectations and understanding of her biological and social being. This concern might well be described by borrowing the term "reproductive consciousness" from Mary O'Brien, who uses it to express her understanding that social, mental, and emotional attitudes toward childbirth and child care have a material base in the biological reproductive process.[26] O'Brien bases the historical difference between male and female reproductive consciousness on the alienation of the male in the act of conception as opposed to the "creative and mediative powers" of female reproductive labor, and her argument has often been criticized for its essentialist and universalizing tendencies. I do not wish to endorse or critique her larger claim here.[27] Instead, I suggest that the concept of reproductive consciousness can be used to describe more culturally specific and locally variable ways in which common social and biological experiences and discourses of reproduction influence a woman's decision to enter into or reject mothering. Pointing to shared, conventional, and constructed aspects of material experience, the term helps to articulate the understanding that individual consciousness will normally be made up of alternative, sometimes contradictory possibilities, which will change over time. It usefully extends problematic notions of authenticity, identity, and intentionality out of the sphere of private, individual experience and into the sphere of ideology, signifying the belief that individual and embodied agents both shape and are shaped by commonly held beliefs about the meaning of experiences. To speak of reproductive consciousness in this way makes it possible to understand motherhood as neither essential nor irrelevant to women's lives, neither universal and invariable nor private, to be freely accepted or rejected. It suggests instead a theory of how women are socially and psychologically designated to do the reproductive work that is necessary


to the future of the species, and how that designation can and will be saturated with their varying histories.

Meridian comprises numerous fragments of stories about women, often mothers, other than Meridian herself; these are the pieces of the crazy quilt that I examine here. Each story may seem to function most obviously and conventionally to construct our understanding of the main character by suggesting both analogies and influences, and there is nothing unique about using minor characters in this way. But here the sheer quantity of other women's stories, together with the remarkably clear and signifying pattern of their deployment, urges us to consider that the way these women have collectively experienced the complicated material and cultural facts of motherhood is in and of itself the subject of representation. The diffusion of narrative attention and the accompanying play with point of view decenter the protagonist as conventional self and speaker, and this decentering serves two key purposes. First, it contextualizes Meridian's decision to give up her child in a reproductive consciousness inflected by nearly unspeakable historical atrocities, while at the same time suggesting that African American women's experience is not a seamless web of oppression and that maternal functions performed historically by black women can be extended out of the more limited sphere of biological procreation into the public sphere of political activism. Second, the representation of reproductive consciousness in fragments of women's stories demarcates a space and a language in which the historical traumas of (black) motherhood, at once forgotten or never recorded before yet always serving to control women, can begin to be voiced, heard, and reconsidered; and here Meridian is positioned as a certain kind of receptor and listener rather than as a speaker.

The complexity of the southern black woman's reproductive consciousness is reflected by the intricate arrangement of the fragmentary tales and images of mothers in the nonlinear structure of Meridian . Among other intricacies, this structure involves two different but interactive time sequences: what we might think of as "Meridian's time," the chronological order of the events as they happened in the character's life, which we can only partially reconstruct from flashbacks and fragments; and what we might call "readers' time," the order of the events as narrated. For the purposes of analysis, it is useful to divide the mothers' stories into clusters or subpatterns. The first cluster centers on the violent suffering and oppression of black women in America


where, as biological mothers, surrogate mothers, and potential mothers, they have been victims and hence victimizers, the latter chiefly in the sense that they cannot protect their children from suffering and death. All of these stories and images are of women who are dead, in the present time of both Meridian and readers. This first cluster is complemented by a second cluster of equally horrifying stories of living characters whom Meridian actually meets at various points in her time. The legendary figures are concentrated in the early chapters of the novel, whereas the living women are encountered mainly in the later chapters, so that in reader's time we move from formative cultural myths—Meridian's reproductive inheritance, as it were—to corroborating instances of ongoing reproductive reality in which Meridian personally participates and to some extent intervenes. Third and fourth clusters of women, one set mostly dead and the other mostly living, are interlaced in the middle of the book. The third group comprises Meridian's troublesome maternal genealogy. The fourth is a set of both near and far relations and friends whose lives, though seen only in fragments and from a distance, offer models of resistance to the weighty paradigm of Black Motherhood elsewhere available in legend and experience alike. I discuss each of these four clusters in some detail, for the most part in the order of their appearance in readers' time, because the details in each case as well as their sequence are important to the complexities of the reproductive consciousness that the novel represents.

Mummies and Mammies

The first legendary woman in the novel is Marilene O'Shay, whose story is given privileged status by its appearance in the opening chapter, before readers have encountered Meridian herself. For my reading, the chapter as a whole serves three key functions: it foregrounds widely accepted myths with which white as well as black female reproductive consciousness is imbued; it simultaneously suggests perspectives that debunk these myths; and it introduces readers to Meridian as "a woman in the process of changing her mind" who "volunteers to suffer" (25) for others and is, as on subsequent occasions, associated with the protection and education of children not her own against new and old forms of discrimination and deception.

Marilene O'Shay is the name given to a skeleton, a "mummy woman" (pun no doubt intended) on display in a circus wagon brought


to rural Georgia by her husband, who murdered her "'Cause this bitch was doing him wrong, and that ain't right!'" (22). According to the publicity the husband uses to attract a paying audience for his wife's alleged remains, eight words painted on the wagon sum up Marilene's emblematic fate, and retrospectively readers can see that each one of them ironically captions Meridian's story as well: "Obedient Daughter," "Devoted Wife," "Adoring Mother," "Gone Wrong." The relevance of this commodified white paradigm to the central black characters is underscored by the fact that Marilene's husband must reassure his public that his wife is white, since her corpse has supposedly been darkened by the salt of Great Salt Lake, where he threw her body after he murdered her. Leached of flesh, this female skeleton is offered as a cultural symbol of the universal woman, an essence underlying racial difference. At the same time, her darkness, the husband suggests, represents her sinfulness, so racial difference can still be confirmed in this display of transracial feminine nature. Marilene notably serves the interests of continuing segregation post-civil rights: a group of mostly black children, now excluded because they are "po" and smell of the guano plant where their parents work, has been told that they can only see the exhibit on Thursdays. This is the restriction that Meridian protests in the opening scene.[28]

The formulaic, marketable, ur-feminine essence imagined by the husband's presentation is undercut, however, from other points of view introduced in the first chapter. Truman, the black male friend of Meridian's through whose eyes we first meet the heroine, immediately observes, "'That's got to be a rip-off,'" and later he assesses Meridian's defiant march in front of an old army tank on the town square as "meaningless action" (26). But Meridian argues that the children, who were bored anyhow, needed to learn the truth for themselves: these least powerful voices in town know now that Marilene is a fake, made of plastic. The poor children represent a disenfranchised, disinterested, and largely uneducated view of the female skeleton and her meaning, and their discovery exposes the most common patriarchal assumptions about women and authenticity as caricature and fraud. Marilene's double status as dominant archetype and marginal joke introduces us to the major concern of this novel with challenging powerful, deadly, yet basically ludicrous assumptions about femininity, race, identity, and power. Furthermore, Meridian's position as a solitary figure volunteering to suffer on behalf of the rights of children to equality and


knowledge anticipates her fuller development as an Othermother, standing in for biological mothers, acting on behalf of them and their children, confronting the history of loss and death, and allowing women's stories to be heard from alternative perspectives.[29]

The next legendary figure readers meet, in the second chapter of the novel but several years earlier in Meridian's time, is the Wild Child, who bridges and hence links the two categories—legend and living mother—into which other female figures may be divided. An undomesticated black adolescent girl, she contrasts strikingly with the entombed white mummy who opens the novel, but both figures are punished for wildness: at the end of her chapter, the girl is dead too. The Wild Child is a nameless, homeless orphan roaming the poor neighborhood around Saxon College. She has lived off garbage for several years and on the evidence of advanced pregnancy is recently presumed to have been raped. She is well on her way to becoming a legend in the local community when Meridian, characteristically, tries to rescue and mother her. The girl escapes, however, and is killed by a car in her flight. This pregnant thirteen-year-old female conflates the figures of mother and daughter. The world's indifference to the plight of both is exposed in the refusal of Saxon College, or any other institution Meridian can locate, first to house and then to bury the Wild Child. As the housemother in Meridian's dorm says, on behalf of the repressive force of mothers bent on training their own daughters to survive, "'Think of the influence. This is a school for young ladies'" (37). Meridian, we may assume, comes as close to making a connection with this girl as any other human being, but it is a fragile, barely human one: she leads the girl back to the dorm by tying a catgut string around her arm. The story of Wild Child becomes even more outrageous after the riot that ensues when students are prevented from burying her on the grounds of Saxon, but we know virtually nothing about her as an individual subject with her own point of view. Sister of Caliban rather than Shakespeare, she is heard "cursing, the only language she knew" (36). Marking the impact of this lesson in inhumanity and isolation on Meridian, Meridian's first paralysis, lasting only two days, follows this episode. Retrospectively, this earlier paralysis resembles the catatonic state into which Meridian fell in chapter one, after leading the children to view Marilene O'Shay's remains.

In both contrast to and continuity with Marilene, the archetype of dead white womanhood, and Wild Child, whose speech is limited and whose life is as inaccessible as it is easily destroyed, the third legendary figure in the opening trilogy of chapters is the famous Louvinie, the


slave woman and storyteller, a "Black Mammy" whose well-known tale is foundational to Saxon College. A bearer of African verbal powers and a victim of American suffering, Louvinie accidentally murdered the white master's son whom she tended by telling him a story so horrible that it stopped his weak heart. To punish her, the slave owner cut out her tongue. A manifest trope of the African American female verbal artist and monster whose native storytelling power is distorted and then erased under slavery, explaining why black women cannot use the powers they innately have, Louvinie buried her tongue under a magnolia tree on the plantation that later became Saxon. Subsequently named the Sojourner, this tree grew to enormous proportions and acquired numerous legends.[30] As in the telling of Marilene O'Shay's story, multiplicity of meanings—none of which may necessarily give us an authentic record of any woman's actual experience—is privileged over single truth; the stories about the Sojourner are so various that "the students of every persuasion had a choice of which to accept" (45). Louvinie, then, is no more an essential or authentic ancestress of all black women in America than Marilene is the symbol of all white women or the Wild Child of all homeless teenage mothers; in each case obvious symbolic meaning is at once present and complicated both by the multiplicity of others' perspectives and the inaccessibility of one—the woman's "own" point of view, whatever it might be that she would say if she could speak.[31]

However, there is one tale, uniting all "persuasions" of black woman at Saxon in a ritual dance around the Sojourner tree, that clearly figures a key aspect of their common reproductive consciousness. This ritual is based on the less fully known or elaborated story of a fourth legendary figure associated with the Sojourner tree: Fast Mary of the Tower. Whereas Louvinie's status as a biological mother is unknown, Fast Mary represents a subsequent, assimilated generation of African American woman; she is a college girl whose story entails illicit sex followed by pregnancy and then infanticide and suicide. As the story goes, Fast Mary concealed her pregnancy and the birth of a child, "Then . . . carefully chopped the infant into bits and fed it into the commode" (45). Caught when "the bits stuck," she was flogged and imprisoned and subsequently hanged herself. This is the dire consequence of the biological process that is held up as threat to every Saxon woman of every persuasion; it is the plot that Meridian might have replicated, but didn't.


Three even less prominently represented women—one just an image in a photograph, the others bit players in a local story—complete this first, overwhelmingly horrifying set of dead mothers. One day, one of the photos on the wall of the shed that her father built to contain his collection of Native Americana catches the young Meridian's eye. It depicts "a frozen Indian child (whose mother lay beside her in a bloody heap)" (53). Meridian reaches out to touch the picture, as if seeking or even sensing connection across time and distance with someone whose fate she might share. But when her father, who was napping in the room, suddenly wakes up with tears on his face, she runs away in shock and fear. The next, only slightly more fully glimpsed figure is the mother of Daxter the mortician, the man who began sexually experimenting with Meridian in the back of his funeral parlor when she was twelve. His mother was reputedly a white version of Fast Mary, "so the story went," who was impregnated by a black man. When they discovered her condition, her parents locked her in a cellar, fed her pig bran, and when the baby was born, threw it out with the trash. And at the end of the tale of this throw-away baby lurks yet another story within the story of an abused surrogate mother, relegated to two sentences: rescued from the trash, Daxter "was raised by an old woman who later died of ptomaine poisoning. She had eaten some sour, rotten tomatoes Daxter gave her" (65).

It is important to underscore that the reproductive consciousness represented by this first cluster of tragic images and stories is conspicuously not the single true story of an inescapable female destiny. These seven figures of dead women, concentrated in the first fifty pages of the novel, all offer incomplete, incohesive, and possibly false or fictitious images of women whose own voices do not or cannot enter the discourse. The stories also vary greatly in prominence for readers and characters alike. Some have the status of widely known folk tales, some are offered as town gossip, some are not yet stories at all. Unless we are looking for mothers, the frozen Native American woman mentioned in parentheses will hardly seem noticeable or meaningful. Though certain stories, like Louvinie's and Fast Mary's, seem to have a deliberate policing effect on Meridian, it is not clear that she herself knows or remembers others. Moreover, near the end of Meridian's time, she has had her reproductive consciousness raised, as it were, to the point where she is no longer susceptible to the fatal prescriptions inherent in these stories. Whereas readers are likely to make much of Marilene O'Shay,


a conspicuous symbol at the opening of the book, Meridian can dismiss her importance: as she says to Truman, the white man is selling something "irrelevant to me, useless" (26).

But hers is a remarkable and unusual realization, and the plot of the rest of the novel follows Meridian's struggle to earn it so that we see exactly what Meridian has escaped, abandoned, subversively inverted, or transcended, depending on one's reading of her status as mother without child. She is embedded in an overdetermined cultural position of helplessness, subjection, silence, and death. At every level of implication, across time, in words and in images, in tales that acquire multiple sets of interpretations and in those that are barely if at all consciously meaningful to those who hear them, in fully developed stories and in the merest, possibly subliminal glimpses, the message that crosses lines of difference among females is insistent: motherhood is cruel, violent, abusive to women; mothers are unable to help themselves, and the only power they have is the power to kill their own children or themselves. The tales and images that deliver this message are stretched through the story in Meridian's time, marking the development of her reproductive consciousness from childhood into womanhood. In reader's time, their placement in the first part of the novel also builds toward the ironically titled eighth chapter, "The Happy Mother," wherein Meridian's early personal experience of motherhood seems to fit inevitably into the negative pattern created by the preceding tales. In this complexly structured way, the legends of mothers out of which the crazy quilt of Meridian is pieced collectively attest to the myths of mothering Meridian grows up on and indoctrinate readers into the pervasive horror that marks her female reproductive consciousness.

"No daughter of mine is a monster, surely."
—Mrs. Hill

All the stories I have recapitulated thus far are stories of strangers, more or less, to Meridian; she comes into quasi-maternal or quasi-sororal contact with only one of them, the Wild Child. Her personal female genealogy supplies a far less remote image or myth of motherhood that is at once vital and almost equally fatal to Meridian's development. The


stories of her foremothers, which are revealed for the most part after the first cluster of opening legends and after we know that Meridian has given up her own child, are possibly even more terrifying and far more conflicted and conflicting for Meridian. At the same time, even in their uniform report of atrocities endured, her foremothers' stories contain seeds of agency and defiance of the sort already figured in Louvinie's dangerous, fertile tongue.

The horror on her mother's side of the family seems extraordinary, although by the time we come to their stories, we have been prepared for just such unspeakable suffering by the tales of Louvinie, Fast Mary, and the Wild Child. Mrs. Hill's great-great-grandmother was a slave who was finally allowed to keep her two children, who had been sold away from her three times and pursued by her three times at the cost of brutal floggings, "on the condition that they would eat no food she did not provide herself" (122). This is a story of unwitting pelican children indeed: when they reached their teens, the mother finally died of slow starvation, and the children were sold again on her burial day. Meridian's mother's great-grandmother seems to have had a somewhat happier lot. She exerted agency and creativity, buying her freedom and her family's with money earned by painting barn decorations. But her art betrays her otherwise unreadable pain. As a trademark, in each of her patterns there appears somewhere "a small contorted face, whether of a man or woman or child, no one could tell" (123). Mrs. Hill's own mother's story is a more ordinarily painful tale of the "free" black woman's suffering. Mother of at least twelve, she is beaten by her husband and makes many sacrifices so that Mrs. Hill can go to school and become a teacher. With her early earnings, the daughter buys her mother's pink coffin.

The ancestresses' stories are all told briefly, in the matter-of-fact tone that such immersion in horror may come to produce, at a point in Meridian's time when she has been paralyzed for almost a month and is about to be "rescued" from near death by words of forgiveness spoken at her bedside by a surrogate mother, Miss Winter. The narrator introduces the series as "her mother's history as Meridian knew it," and then describes the women as "Her mother's great-great-grand-mother . . . Mrs. Hill's great-grandmother . . . Mrs. Hill's mother" (emphasis added). This formulation underscores that this is a maternal inheritance and that Meridian has in fact not fully accepted it as her history—it is her mother's history. Though these historical maternal


characters are comparable to the legends and minor characters of the first cluster in terms of the violence and suffering they endure as mothers, a key difference (and an ambiguous glimmer of hope) is that Mrs. Hill's foremothers do not accidentally or purposefully murder or abandon children, as do all the biological mothers in the first group. Instead, they sacrifice themselves to keep their children (barely) alive, nurture as best they can, eventually free, and finally even begin to educate them. Mrs. Hill thinks that she is reproducing this kind of mothering when she submits and endures, even after she discovers that she does not want her children, and in fact is spiritually destroyed, the narrative suggests, by having them. It is for this reason that when Meridian resists the maternal inheritance of self-sacrifice, Mrs. Hill can only think that she is a monster and that there is a paradox here: "no daughter of mine is a monster, surely" (89).

The logical contradiction Mrs. Hill voices reveals the central problems of Meridian's maternal genealogy. The endurance and self-sacrifice of enslaved foremothers colors the reproductive consciousness of their daughters with a heritage of courage, determination, and voluntary suffering for the good of the next generation. This history gives black women a certain subjectivity and power; in doing so, it also defines them paradoxically as quintessential mothers and hence proper, natural female subjects, in dominant constructions of womanhood, in spite of all efforts to deny them the opportunity to nurture, protect, and rear their children. But Meridian demonstrates, beginning with the story of Mrs. Hill, how self-defeating this erstwhile model of maternal agency can be, especially if unadapted to different historical possibilities. There is an obvious problem of self-cancellation in the concept of maternal self-sacrifice: if a mother must be willing to give up everything to do her job well, at some point there may be nothing left—not even herself—with which to take care of the children. Moreover, the greater the freedom that each mother makes available to her daughter through selfsacrifice, the more the daughter may in fact be obliged and empowered to pursue alternatives that carry her away from the reigning maternal tradition, even as she still feels bound to the older norms.

Although Mrs. Hill thinks she is imitating her mothers' behavior and demanding that Meridian live up to the family standard, the system has already begun to break down. If we compare the ancestresses' unstinting self-sacrifice with Mrs. Hill's insistence not that Meridian do better, but that she sacrifice herself, we see that Mrs. Hill actually seeks to


arrest progress. She keeps Meridian and other black girls, like Meridian's friend Nelda, whom she might have "saved," in ignorance of the reproductive process until it is too late; she then works to block rather than advance the opportunity for education that comes Meridian's way. Legendary aspects of the mothering behavior that was historically crucial to the survival of African Americans and foundational to black women's power and identity are no longer unquestionably appropriate or adaptive. For Meridian to admit this, to give up her child before she murders him or herself, seems, on the one hand, a positive development in light of the versions of infanticide, maternal powerlessness, and neglect she meets in the world around her. On the other hand, to someone who cherishes the past and the collective memories of her people as Meridian does, her behavior seems impossibly selfish and a denial of not only respect for her mother but even her familial identity: "No daughter of mine." Meridian's paralyses embody in this way the impasse confronted by the woman supposedly living in a new age of "choice," when the alternatives offered—selfhood or motherhood—are still seen as mutually exclusive and (therefore) equally impossible.

"The last time God had a baby he skipped, too."

A third cluster of female characters, consisting of nameless strangers as well as personal friends and relations, is interspersed and contrasts with the first two clusters to clarify further that reproductive consciousness is not a monotonous story of passive victimization or active but futile sacrifice. Alternatives already exist, consciousness has changed and will continue to do so, and the culture of black women in itself assists Meridian in breaking away from disabling aspects of black motherhood even as she takes with her the best part of her heritage, that drive to protect and lead new subjects into the future by recognizing them and defending their rights. Meridian feels unique at times, and her name suggests in part her status as "the highest point." But she models herself, as she consciously acknowledges at other times, on stories of black women available to her both in legend and life, and she is supported in her decision by at least a small community of other women. These models and friends, barely sketched in, suggest that the agency attributed to


the individual protagonist is a more collective force than it might seem by conventional readings of Meridian as a novel of self-discovery, and another sense of "meridian" cited in the novel's epigraph suggests this other side of the character: "any of the lines of longitude running north and south." Meridian signifies a particular locus of which there may be an infinite number of other representations, not yet drawn in on most of the available cultural or literary maps of motherhood. Without discounting the enormous power of culture at large (legends, stories, pictures) and family in particular to prescribe and constrain the individual, this cluster of alternatives, fleetingly glimpsed, not yet allowed to speak very often of their resistance, shows us where a space for change has been and can be located.

There are considerably fewer of these figures; change is rare and difficult. The reproductive status of these women is various—we know that some are mothers and some are not, and we don't know about others—which suggests a far more flexible association between the feminine and the maternal than we see in the first two clusters. The first figure mentioned is in fact one of Meridian's ancestresses now on her father's side. This great-grandmother, Feather Mae, was obviously a mother, but we know little about her maternal behavior, for she has two more story-worthy qualities. First, she is a rare instance in this novel of a woman with sexual desire, something Meridian herself rarely expresses. It is "whispered" at least that Feather Mae is "hot" and that she uses her sexuality to prevent her husband from flattening his part of the ancient burial mound in which she, then Meridian's father, and finally Meridian herself experience ecosomatic ecstasy (57). Her bodily desire is compatible with her second important quality, her ability to have an out-of-the-body experience, and in this way suggests yet-tobe explored alternatives to the asceticism and self-denial that we normally see in Meridian.

Another minor character who intervenes directly in Meridian's life and suggests a variant and extension of the biological maternal mode is Miss Winter. A "misfit" at Saxon, like Meridian, she is an unmarried music teacher who came originally from Meridian's home town. Conquering her jealousy of Meridian as a rival (a jealousy that may be a factor in Mrs. Hill's feelings as well), she "instinctively" offers Meridian the maternal forgiveness that she needs but cannot get from her own mother. In doing so, Miss Winter not only releases Meridian from her paralysis but also models the role of nonprocreative Othermother,


that culturally common phenomenon in African and African American communities, that Meridian adopts in her relation to so many children and families in the novel.

Meridian's home town also produces two more named minor characters who embody the possibility of resistance when they go with her to break the news to Mrs. Hill that Meridian will attend Saxon and give Rundi up for adoption. Nelda is a version of Meridian's young, passive, accommodating self, kept home from school to care for younger siblings and ignorant of her own body, so that her first teenaged pregnancy comes as a complete surprise. Looked at from another angle, at another point in her story, Nelda might well belong to the first cluster. But when Mrs. Hill tries to offer Nelda as a traditional model to Meridian, Nelda interrupts to speak—not for herself, but on Meridian's behalf. Only the look of hatred she directs at Mrs. Hill, the neighbor who could have given her information she needed, expresses her feelings. Delores, Meridian's second friend, is more openly defiant. She argues Mrs. Hill down, laughs at her, and appropriates her condemnation of her daughter; "'Let's all be monsters,'" she suggests cheerfully to Meridian and Nelda (90). As is true of all the characters, we know nothing of Nelda and Delores before or after this one scene in which they play only supporting (but highly supportive) roles. Whereas the legends, ranging from Louvinie to Feather Mae, have stories that tend to symbolize particular meanings, usually associated with powerful and established assumptions, the living characters in this case and others suggest an open stock of women with ongoing experiences; though these experiences are rarely as yet turned into full-blown narrative accounts, they inhabit a space where, against the odds, we may find the seeds of social change within the reproductive consciousness of black women.

Meridian also lists, at one point after Miss Winter "forgives" her, several individual but unnamed black women whose stories contradict the maternal legacy: a sergeant in the army, a doctor, a schoolteacher, two lesbians, and "the good-time-girls." All seem to Meridian to have achieved success, and she contrasts these surprisingly numerous black women of her experience with white women in a telling way: "Only the rejects—not of men, but of experience, adventure—fell into the domestic morass that even the most intelligent white girls appeared to be destined for" (108). Meridian here draws on another potentially selfaffirming side of the history of black women, who have always worked


"outside the home" and developed from this experience a power and status beyond the domestic that exceeds white models. She thinks of herself as belonging to the people who produced Harriet Tubman, and the narrator comments explicitly on how this process of finding a new legacy works: "Meridian appropriated all the good qualities of black women to herself . . .. from somewhere had come the will that had got her to Saxon College" (109–10).

"I want to be buried on Mother's Day."
—A dying mother

Readers are not allowed to forget, however, that Meridian's "will," her deliberate choice of those "good qualities" that enable her to resist what is oppressive about motherhood, is both costly and exceptional. For a time, Meridian is divided between the conscious lightheartedness she feels when she gives her son up for adoption and the terrible nightmares that follow, unconsciously expressing what cannot be so easily forgotten. In narrative terms, the unconscious, unintegrated pain of maternal loss and suffering similarly haunts the last part of the story. Here Meridian appears to be well on the road to recovery from her personal traumas, but she proceeds to encounter a set of living mothers who not only reproduce the earlier legendary pattern of misery but also extend the ordeal of motherhood out of past and story into the present actuality of women and children "at risk" in black communities.[32] Closing the novel thus, these figures, like the Wild Child, suggest a reciprocal and even causal relationship between mythic background, historical truth, and individual experience. There is a trajectory of immediacy at work here, as readers' time and Meridian's time merge near the end of the novel. In each of these encounters, however, Meridian acts both as (non-procreative, activist) mother and for the (biological) mother, and there is a trajectory of emerging self-representation, as the voices of these living women gradually begin to speak for themselves, with Meridian's help, about the trials of reproduction and motherhood.

The first group of women in this closing set is the still silent, unindividualized, and nameless mothers of a black community bordering on a drainage ditch, where "disobedient" black children wading in the only water available to them are drowned whenever the nearby reservoir is allowed to overflow without warning. The mothers of this


community are represented only collectively, as all having lost children this way; their husbands as a group curse the white city fathers and the women as a group take food and "share grief" with the most recently bereaved family. Meridian's role is strikingly emblematic here: she confronts and publicizes the communal distress of maternal loss by carrying "the bloated figure of a five-year-old boy who had been stuck in the sewer for two days before he was raked out with a grappling hook" to the town meeting, where she gives the body to the mayor. Perverse surrogate for the biological mother who cannot bear to touch the "grotesque" corpse of her dead child, Meridian serves once more as she did in the opening chapter, as community Othermother transforming the atrocities of maternal experience into political action, taking risks, and doing the maternal work of impersonal love that is so hard and critical.[33]

In three sequential chapters following this episode, at some unspecified point near the end of both Meridian and readers' increasingly common time, Meridian's ongoing political activism leads her to three black women who speak about mothering in response to Meridian's respectful questions and patient listening. "Travels," the first of these chapters, opens with the word Mama, spoken by a half-naked child. Here their voter registration work takes Meridian and Truman to the bedside of a woman dying without medical care who dreams of being buried on Mother's Day: "'I don't know why I want that, but I do,'" she says (204). Her voice is fading and confused, and it bespeaks a desire as perversely apt as Meridian's tender embrace of the drowned boy's corpse. Her dream of a funeral on Mother's Day marks the inherent deadliness of the commercialized national sentiment about mothers and perhaps the gap between the celebration, so important in black communities,[34] and the black reality of mothering as it is represented in this novel: a day for mothers would be a day of a woman's death, indeed. We learn that this woman's wish has been granted when her husband comes to Meridian to register to vote on the Monday after Mother's Day. His act, inspired by Meridian's quiet, local activism, tacitly suggests that it will in some cases take the death of mothers (as in other cases, the death of children) to generate political change.

The next and penultimate woman Meridian tries to help is Miss Treasure, a grotesque figure potentially offering a comic relief or Faulkneresque aestheticization that is explicitly blocked. Fat and of indeterminate old age, Miss Treasure tells Truman and Meridian her story


of lifelong isolation on a plantation with her sister. Using both indirect and direct quotations, the novel records the tale. We learn that elderly Miss Treasure has recently fallen in love with a forty-five-year-old housepainter and thinks she is pregnant; she is frightened that if she marries the painter he will outlive her, own her house, and raise her child badly. Truman is ready to laugh at this absurd woman, but Meridian takes her seriously and helps her to a doctor, where Miss Treasure finds that she is not pregnant and is rejuvenated in a "vacancy of grief"(210). This bizarre story suggests among other things that Meridian now does work that her own mother failed to do, relieving Miss Treasure of the ignorance of her reproductive functions that Meridian suffered from before her first pregnancy. It also testifies to the continuity of female fears of pregnancy across the life cycle, fears associated with endangered ownership of one's own domestic space and frustrated responsibility for a child's nurturance and protection.

"And so they must go to the prison. And so they must. And so they must see the child who murdered her child, nothing new" (211). The last, most important, and probably most deeply disturbing of the three chapters in this final cluster is "Pilgrimage," which opens with these three stuttering sentences, as if at once in the middle and at the extreme edge of the ongoing pain of motherhood that the novel has so meticulously documented. There is "nothing new" in this obligatory journey in the sense that the girl in prison for murdering her child is a composite of Wild Child, Fast Mary, Daxter's mother, Meridian herself, and others inside and outside the novel. What is altogether new, however, is the narrative perspective that readers are allowed. Whereas in the early chapters, dead women's stories were generally reported from an omniscient third-person point of view with no representation of the women's own voices, in these later chapters we hear at least a few words directly attributed by the narrator to the subjects of the stories, the dying mother and Miss Treasure, some of whose language is reported in direct quotations. Now, taking this move further, a startling meditation by the girl who murdered her baby comes in response to a question that Meridian has apparently asked and a picture of an apple that she has brought to the girl:

Yes. She had bitten her baby's cheek, bitten out a plug, before she strangled it with a piece of curtain ruffle. So round and clean it had


been, too. But not red, alas, before she bit. And wasn't it right to seek to devour a perishable? That, though sweet to the nose, soft to the touch, yummy, is yet impossible to keep? It was as if (she said, dreamily) I had taken out my heart (red and round, fine, a glistening valentine!) and held it in my hands . . . and it was my heart I bit, I strangled till it died. I hid beside the river. My heart the roaming dog dug up, barking for the owner of that field. My heart. Where I am (she continues) no one is. And why am I alive, without my heart? And how is this? And who, in the hell, are you? (211–2)

The girl's fusion of self and child, her confusion of infanticide and suicide, her moral logic that responds so clearly to her situation ("wasn't it right to seek to devour a perishable . . . impossible to keep?"), her disconnection and loneliness, her challenge to Meridian—and to readers—as intrusive stranger, all represent in an extraordinary way, and for the first time in the novel, what and how the mother who murders her own child might think and feel. As in the more extended passages of Beloved, the language mimics theorized aspects of the preoedipal or semiotic in agrammatical, disconnected lyricism. As the culminating figure in the series of women whose stories I have been pulling out of the quilt of this novel, the girl in prison breaks the silence of the mothers, to speak of her own reality. The fact that the words are not in quotation marks but in free indirect discourse suggests a merging of the narrative perspective here with the girl's, a strategy that gives her a voice, an "I" in the discourse that Meridian never has. Notably when Meridian, in tears after this encounter, tries to remember and feel compassion for her own son, she too experiences from this perspective and so can only feel for and with the girl-mother. To the girl's final question "who . . . are you?" Meridian may answer that she is, in a sense, this girl, or she would have been had she not given her child away.

Like the figure of Fast Mary who closes and unifies the opening tales of Marilene, Wild Child, and Louvinie, the girl in prison bespeaks the common (not to be confused with the essential) experience that brings together women of many persuasions. The novel registers the actual variety and representational fictionality that constitutes female reproductive consciousness, as well as a common denominator of traumatic suffering, fear, and loss. After this previously unspeakable story is partially told from a point of view that merges narrator and character, the novel has little left to do or say. In three brief final chapters, we glimpse


Lynne and Truman, perhaps reestablishing a relationship of some sort; the photo of the stump of the Sojourner, with a little shoot growing out of one side; and Meridian's quiet departure for a place unknown to us, while the newly maternalized male, Truman, falls dizzily into her sleeping bag. Meridian, destination hereafter unknown, has completed a narrative quest that takes her inevitably to the space of the prison in which the maternal has often been confined. There she calls forth the voice that speaks, as in Beloved, of infanticide, in a language that expresses confusion, lyricism, and challenge.

In that space Meridian serves still as Othermother, complementing and continuing the role we witnessed in the novel's first chapter. There, she led children (and at another level readers) to see that established and dominant ideas about femininity were inauthentic and worthless. Here, having confronted these ideas extensively in the course of the plot, she revises them by actively seeking out a space in which previously silenced or ignored voices can speak. In this space, Meridian is positioned chiefly as a listener, hearing a story not to be forgotten, resolved, or integrated. She is able to listen empathically because, in giving up her own child, Meridian at once repeats and arrests or alters the transmission of that central element in the African American female reproductive consciousness, the trauma of motherhood. At the close of this chapter, I say more about Meridian's role as witness to trauma, but first I consider her own story from another angle.

Remapping Selfhood:
Dissociation, Disconnection, Transformation

I felt myself entering, to some extent, the underground city of female adolescence, the place where powerful learning experiences were happening. The gateway to this underworld was marked by the statement, "I don't know" . . .. Girls, gaining voice and knowledge, are in danger of knowing the unseen and speaking the unspoken and thus losing connection with what is commonly taken to be "reality."
—Carol Gilligan, Making Connections

"I don't know if I could kill anyone . . .. If I had to do it, perhaps I could . . . I would defend myself . . . Maybe I could sort of grow into the idea of killing other human beings . . .. But I'm not sure . . .. I don't know."
—Alice Walker, Meridian


I have argued thus far that Meridian's giving away of her son, like the widespread appearance of the figure of the mother without child itself, is overdetermined, in this case by sometimes overlapping and sometimes conflicting aspects of the southern black woman's reproductive consciousness. I have emphasized that Meridian cannot be fully understood apart from this context, as if she were acting as conventional main character playing her part in the familiar western plot, in quest of separate selfhood. Renegotiating her relationship to her historical maternal heritage, Meridian might also be compared to the female adolescents coming of age in America today that Carol Gilligan and her colleagues are studying, figures of an emergent female subject who, in the process of "gaining voice and knowledge," is "in danger of . . . losing connection." Giving up her own child marks not only Meridian's positive intervention in and subversion of a collective, traumatic past, but also her pervasive personal difficulty in developing and sustaining a coherent self in stable relationship to others. In fact it seems accurate and illuminating to say that Meridian is dissociated, in a clinical sense of the term.[35]

Newly defined and seriously studied in recent decades, dissociation is now considered by psychologists not merely in its major pathological forms, such as multiple personality disorder and various amnesiac states, but as a "continuum" of experiences and behaviors that includes daydreaming, tuning out of a conversation, safely driving a vehicle on a familiar route and subsequently realizing that one has not been attending to the road, and many everyday feelings of adolescence. (My own most frequent experience of this phenomenon is associated with motherhood: reading a story aloud to a small child without comprehending the words I am uttering, while my inner awareness is busily composing a memo, worrying about the next day's scheduling problems, or otherwise dealing with adult business.) Dissociation refers to any "psychophysiological process whereby information—incoming, stored, or outgoing—is actively deflected from integration with its usual or expected associations."[36] And it entails, theoretically, a view of how consciousness is divided that differs somewhat from that of Freudian psychoanalysis. The latter has generally held that the mind or psyche splits along horizontal lines and that repression is the mechanism by which memories are buried, though we proceed as if consciousness were unified. The dissociative psyche is split instead along vertical lines, and the barriers are set


up—as in amnesiac states—between experiences and memories usually available to everyday awareness.

At least in its more extreme and pathological forms, dissociation is frequently considered an effect of trauma, and psychology's renewed interest in dissociative problems and theories over the last few decades has often been linked to the rise of patients suffering from what is now identified as "post-traumatic stress disorder." I return to this connection at the end of the chapter, but for my present purposes, I note merely that three categories of trauma are often thought to precipitate dissociation: loss or threatened loss of an important object, situations where an individual can neither fight nor flee, and experiences of "overwhelming impulse" such as suicidal or homicidal urges. Dissociation is also thought to have several adaptive functions including resolution of irreconcilable conflicts, escape from the constraints of reality, and isolation of catastrophic experiences.

The clearest indication that Meridian is dissociated in a more than everyday sense, although not as a result of any known personal trauma, is found in an early description of her moments of ecstasy in the Serpent Mound.[37] The experience begins with "a sense of vast isolation . . .. She was a dot, a speck in creation, alone and hidden. She had contact with no other living thing: instead she was surrounded by the dead." Meridian is frightened at first, but remembers her great-grandmother, from whom she presumably inherits her dissociative powers, and moves beyond fear to something that begins with light-headedness. Then, "it was as if the walls of earth that enclosed her rushed outward, leveling themselves at a dizzying rate, and then spinning wildly, lifting her out of her body and giving her the feeling of flying" (58). Though the out-of-body experience is joyful, it also suggests a dangerous tendency toward a degree of dissociation and disconnection that is at other points profoundly debilitating and painful for Meridian. She is detached from her own body not just in her out-of-body moments but in her deathlike paralyses and her joyless asexuality. To her own bewilderment, she frequently feels cut off from the people around her, friends and family, from the institutions they accept, from the political movement that first "awakens" her, and from conventional ways of making meaning and constructing reality.

In the following discussion, I explore four points about dissociation, a term I reserve for speaking about an internal sense of split consciousness, and disconnection, a term describing the often concomitant


divide between self and an external, usually social reality. First, dissociation can obviously be pathological; in Meridian, we see this most clearly in the person of Mrs. Hill, who serves also to link dissociation as a pathology with pregnancy and motherhood. Second, dissociation and disconnection can be responses to a reality that fails to afford the individual any recognition, any viable means of expressing or connecting her self and her own experience to the world around her. In this way, dissociative behaviors can be seen as both adaptive, protecting the sense of self from what threatens it, and potentially resistant to and subversive of an oppressive reality. Third, dissociation, detachment, and withdrawal can be means of escaping from one reality in order to see and make connections with other realities, often with what is normally taken to be outside, beyond, or alien to one's everyday experience. Fourth, dissociation and disconnection may be symptoms of "powerful learning experiences" and necessary strategies for attaining personal agency and social change, for rejecting what is self-destructive in reality—racism, misogyny—and reaching out for new, difficult, and at best partial connections between a self and others who will tolerate division and difference and recognize a common traumatic history of unspeakable inhumanity and loss.

But in her first pregnancy she [Mrs. Hill] became distracted from who she was. As divided in her mind as her body was divided, between what was part of herself and what was not.

Some of the pathological aspects of dissociation are outlined most starkly in the story of Meridian's mother, Mrs. Hill. In the second part of the opening chapter of the novel, Mrs. Hill appears in Meridian's introspective reverie as a classic, static figure of maternal absence and loss. In the first narrative flashback to her early days in the civil rights movement, Meridian contemplates her inability to commit herself wholeheartedly to violent revolution and attributes this hesitation to a lack: "Something's missing in me. Something's missing  . . .. What is it? What? What?" (31), she asks herself. In answer to her silent question, Meridian recalls an experience another decade or so earlier that would seem to locate the "missing contents" in a familiar, unspeak-


able place: "Saying nothing, she remembered her mother and the day she lost her" (32).

At first glance, the following flashback within a flashback (to a scene in church, when Meridian is unable to say "Yes" to Christ, as her mother wishes) seems to confirm a conventional psychoanalytic approach to understanding (female) development, not dissimilar from the underlying assumptions in many readings of a novel like Beloved . We seek what is missing, what divides the subject and arrests development, by reconstructing a critical past event that has been repressed. We find that the lack is, as always, the mother's (unavailable) love; we struggle to accept the loss, to integrate the recognition that the mother's love is not unconditional. We finally separate from this cold and rejecting mother, so that the unified consciousness can enter into the father's sphere, represented for Meridian by the "intelligence" and autonomy that she identifies with in Mr. Hill.[38] But looking exclusively to the early relationship with the psychic mother for a full explanation of subjectivity (and often for the cause of pathology) is quickly shown to be inadequate. Mrs. Hill is not just "the mother," an abstract, universal representation of the child's point of view; she has a particular story too.

In what we glimpse of Mrs. Hill's story, it seems clear to begin with that Meridian didn't lose her mother's love at any identifiable moment, because she never had it. Mrs. Hill appears a clarion figure of the damage that can be done to a barely emerging sense of female subjectivity and agency by the experience of maternity. She was "not a woman who should have had children," the narrator observes, because her own southern black female selfhood was particularly tentative and delicate, much in need of freedom: "she was capable of thought and growth and action only if unfettered by the needs of dependents, or the demands, requirements, of a husband. Her spirit was of such fragility that the slightest impact on it caused a shattering beyond restoration" (49).

Mrs. Hill is tricked into marriage and family by the mystification and idealization of motherhood she meets all around her. Maternity seems to promise enriched selfhood, a "mysterious inner life"(51) reflected in the faces of women who have children. But in actuality, becoming a mother obstructs her quest for a more stable, integrated self and renders Mrs. Hill "distracted from who she was," "divided" in both mind and body. Awakened to the reality of mothering in her own experience, she perceives that other mothers too are "dead, living just


enough for their children"; motherhood for her is fundamentally an experience of fatal self-division and isolation, like "being buried alive, walled away from her own life, brick by brick" (51). In what seems both resignation and protest against the division and loss of her frail self, Mrs. Hill cultivates "abstraction," deliberately refusing her own creativity and actively disavowing any connection with past and present reality outside her narrow sphere of family and institutionalized religion. Meridian remembers a "perennial" conversation between her parents concerning the Native American genocide that haunts Mr. Hill; Mrs. Hill tells him, "'I never worry myself . . .. As far as I'm concerned, these people and how they kept off mosquitoes hasn't got a thing to do with me" (29).

Mrs. Hill's sense of distraction, willful self-suppression, and disconnection not only foreshadows aspects of Meridian's own psychic response to maternity, but also suggests that Meridian's upbringing could only contribute to her characteristically dissociative behavior. According to the narrator, Mrs. Hill displaces the connection she might have felt with her children (or anyone else) into her ironing, sending the family out into the world "enclosed in the starch of her anger," and obliged therefore "to keep their distance to avoid providing the soggy wrinkles of contact that would cause her distress" (79). Though the daughter is obviously shaped by this maternal anger and withdrawal, they are by no means the only influences that the novel represents, nor are dissociation and disconnection elsewhere shown to be entirely or necessarily negative, self-destructive responses to circumstances. Meridian has another parent, a father whose "withdrawal from the world" is of an equally influential but different nature, and his disconnection also points to the possibility of a positive separation and distance from "what is taken to be 'reality,'" one that does not isolate the individual completely or deny the existence of others but refuses to participate in the conventional reality of oppression and social injustice.

Mr. Hill, a schoolteacher, is obsessed with the historical injustice done to Native Americans. Mrs. Hill sees Mr. Hill's behavior as irresponsible and escapist, just like Meridian's response to motherhood: "'You would just fly away, if you could,'" she tells him (55). But however he fails in her view, he also paradoxically expresses a deep sense of connection across time and race: "'They've been a part of it, we've been a part of it, everybody's been a part of it for a long time'"(55). He tries to give back his sixty acres of rocky land, inherited from his grand-


father, to a Cherokee from Oklahoma named Walter Longknife. Appropriately enough, it is when Meridian meets this stranger that she finds a new way of understanding the man she has known all her life: "He [Longknife] was a wanderer, a mourner, like her father; she could begin to recognize what her father was by looking at him" (54). Seeing from a distance and understanding the known by looking at the unknown has a certain value; it may promote a recognition that is unavailable in more intimate relationships. The night before Meridian hears the news of the firebombing that causes her to join the civil rights movement, she has a dream that reveals the link between her recognition of her father and her own political activism: she dreams of Native Americans, although "she had thought she had forgotten about them" (73). From her father, Meridian may inherit or learn a disconnection that entails the ability to transcend everyday ways of thinking that promote self-protective ignorance of injustice, to make contact with other human beings across difference and distance, and to take responsibility in larger historical and spiritual ways. As we shall see, Meridian both uses and revises this inheritance in ways that are more responsive than Mr. Hill's to the particularities of female reproductive consciousness and maternal experience.

Though the stories of Meridian's parents help us to account for salient features of her character and behavior, the novel does not merely explain Meridian's dissociation and disconnection, for bad or for good, as family traits. It documents instead, in great detail, the circumstances in which Meridian struggles to know and act in a world where she consistently fails to find the recognition necessary for a coherent sense of self in relationship with others. An early key to understanding this struggle is found in the briefest chapter in the novel, "Gold," a scrap of narrative only half a page long and tellingly situated between the stories of Mrs. Hill's loss of fragile selfhood in motherhood and Mr. Hill's escape from a guilty selfhood into history. In "Gold," seven-year-old Meridian digs up a dirty, rusty piece of metal; she cleans it up, and "to her amazement, what she had found was a bar of gold." She runs to her mother, who is shelling peas, and places the heavy object in Mrs. Hill's lap; her mother, like any mother who finds her child's enthusiasms interrupt the mundane tasks she wishes to finish and forget, speaks "sharply" and tells her to "move that thing." This is not just another moment of maternal failure and rejection: Meridian's father and her brothers also fail to be "impressed" by Meridian's finding. She nevertheless polishes it, buries it under a tree, and for a while


digs it up regularly to look at it. "Then she dug it up less and less . . . until finally she forgot to dig it up. Her mind turned to other things" (52).

Although it fits easily enough into what we learn about the family dynamics in the Hill household and about Meridian's personality, "Gold" seems to be one piece of the crazy quilt that is not as tightly stitched into a pattern as most of the others are. The main narrative, like Meridian, forgets about the gold; the story is presented not as a distressing or painful experience that was repressed but as one of the many little disappointments that happen and are simply forgotten. But it can at the same time be read as a parable about the model of consciousness and identity that the novel as a whole presupposes and represents most clearly in Meridian. The child is not merely the sum of her two parents; in "Gold" we meet Meridian as a young, developing individual, framed but not exclusively defined by familial genealogy, already at seven an agent of discovery and imagination. This chapter, opening a small space between the parents' stories in the chapters that surround it, represents the embryonic self as a place of mystery, excitement, potentially great worth, and lack of recognition. Worthless in the eyes of the world, soon forgotten by Meridian herself who once knew or imagined its worth, and now buried forever, the gold bar is a projection of a core value that is at once a childish illusion and a lost treasure. It also brings to mind the "mysterious inner life" that Mrs. Hill naively hoped to find in motherhood and her bitter disappointment when that hidden treasure turned out to be the phantom of dead women. In the course of the novel, we never go back to the yard and dig this treasure up; there is no map that shows the way to finding it; it is not in our mother's lap or breast. If we did go back, it is not clear exactly what we might find. Thus if "Gold" signifies what is lacking in Meridian, it suggests that those missing contents always escape full narration, are not a knowable whole; "the past" is made of bits and pieces, some of which might be useful to us now, some of which might not; some of which might be authentic, some of which might be fake.

By such a reading, "Gold" figures the postmodern fragmentation and inaccessibility of the past as originary ground of being and critiques theories of unified consciousness and full interpretation, calling instead for something closer to a dissociative model of the mind. At the same time, "Gold" does not dismiss the intrinsic worth of the self, even as it understands the fragility and ambiguity of identity. The chapter speaks


a truth about Meridian that no one except the novel as a whole hears or believes: note that the narrator's statement, "what she had found was a bar of gold," either assumes Meridian's childish perspective or avows faith in what everyone but Meridian discredits. The failure of others, particularly parents, to accept Meridian's finding at least partially accounts for her own characteristic, sometimes crippling self-doubt. When she herself listens to and finds value in "Miss Treasure" near the end of the novel, she recuperates something of her self that was buried and forgotten.

"Gold" also introduces us to an early instance of how Meridian deals with the refusal of recognition by linking forgetting and self-protection. At seven, she accidentally finds a fragment of the impersonal past, sees it as beautiful and valuable, and resourcefully buries what she believes is a precious find in order to preserve it, to hold onto it, and to save it from the blatant failure of others to acknowledge and appreciate either the treasure or her own role in finding it. As a consequence, however, she too loses sight of what she once knew or believed to be true. This strategy for protecting her own belief is characteristic of Meridian in adolescence and adulthood, and thinking about "Gold" helps us to see Meridian's habit of dissociation as a risky act of resistance and protest against a reality that neither recognizes nor values her worth.[39]

Recent psychological studies suggest that adolescence is "a watershed in female development, a time when girls are in danger of drowning or disappearing" (10). Though "Gold" implies that this crisis has roots in childhood and in fact refracts an endemic psychic condition, subsequent chapters confirm that adolescence is a time of increasing self-doubt and disconnection, particularly as the female child enters into heterosexual relationships. The keynotes of Meridian's feelings about sex are ignorance, incomprehension, and distance from anything that might be called her own desire; the effect of her sexual experience is disconnection from those to whom she is apparently closest.

Mrs. Hill is presented as initially responsible for Meridian's lack of knowledge of even the simplest facts of reproductive processes and for failing to understand the relation between knowing and doing: "Having told her absolutely nothing, she [Mrs. Hill] had expected her to do nothing." Ignorant of the code her mother uses—"be sweet," "Keep your panties up and your dress down" (60)—Meridian has sex as often as her boyfriends want it. Her motive is not pleasure but protection from frightening reality and dangerous knowledge: "It saved her from


the strain of responding to other boys or even noting the whole category of men. This was worth a great deal, because she was afraid of men" (61–2). One particularized source of Meridian's fear is her experience, starting at the age of twelve, in the back office of George Daxter's funeral parlor, where the half-white mortician exchanges candy for "a swift, exploratory feel" (66). Here she also meets his assistant, who displays himself to Meridian using only his voice, describing the act of intercourse, to seduce another schoolgirl. Whereas Mrs. Hill's clichés fail to have the intended effect because they lack reference to any meaning that Meridian understands, the assistant's words do what he intends them to; in both cases, however, Meridian's own desires and intentions go unrecognized by those who try to use words to control her behavior, and she becomes increasingly silenced and unsure about what she feels.

Even as she willingly meets her boyfriend Eddie's constant demands for sex, Meridian fails to comprehend her complicity, and we repeatedly hear variants on those key words, "I don't know." "She could not understand why she was doing something with such frequency that she did not enjoy"; she didn't even like Eddie's name "and didn't know why" (62, emphasis added). When she laughs with Eddie, it is "as if she did it underwater, and the echo of it whirled sluggishly through her head" (63). Pregnant and then married to him, she wonders "who really, he was. What he was doing there in bed with her"; though he seems to work hard for their future, "she could not even recognize it" (63). Her even more patent lack of interest in sex, once she is pregnant, marks "frigidity" as both a self-denying form of resistance and an accurate reading of how little her desire would be recognized by others: "she—her body, that is—never had any intention of giving in . She was suspicious of pleasure . . . Besides, Eddie did not seriously expect more than 'interest' from her . . . they never discussed anything beyond her attitude" (68–9).

As was the case for Mrs. Hill, pregnancy, dividing the female subject in a particularly manifest way, is a critical experience for Meridian, promising and potentially embodying the most intimate connection imaginable with another human being, but also entailing confusion of boundaries and inevitable separation. The problem of knowing who she is and what she thinks is compounded when even her bodily integrity is invaded. As mother-to-be, Meridian is utterly confused. She "never thought about the baby at all . . . She knew she did nor want it.


But even this was blurred. How could she not want something she was not even sure she was having?" After the baby is born, exhaustion contributes to her befuddlement, making it "futile to attempt to think straight, or even to think at all" (69). Like the mother of object relations theory, Meridian feels her caretaking capacities brought into being by the baby's needs. But this only heightens feelings of internal dissociation—"her body prompted not by her own desires, but by her son's cries"—and disconnection from the infant who thus both divides and dominates her. Given what she knows about reality, this experience seems analogous to the historical domination of her ancestors: "So this . . . is what slavery is like," she tells herself. She begins to dream of ways to murder her child, "because he did not feel like anything to her but a ball and chain." Frightened by these dreams, she substitutes conscious daydreams of her own suicide, finding it "pleasantly distracting to imagine herself stiff and oblivious, her head stuck in an oven. Or coolly out of it, a hole through the roof of her mouth" (70). Ironically able to function only with the help of these dysfunctional fantasies, she takes delight in her ability to fool those who see her as "an exemplary young mother," and living this schizophrenic nightmare, she verges on disintegration: "She felt as though something perched inside her brain was about to fly away" (70). Suicide is averted only by disconnection, a great lethargy that keeps her in a "fog of unconcern" (71) so impenetrable that she is hardly even aware that the baby's father, Eddie, leaves her and the baby.

But motherhood, like unwanted and unsatisfying sex, is only part of the problem, and giving her baby away does not lead to wholeness or freedom. Disconnection is reinforced at the institutional level when Meridian goes to Saxon College. Here, female sexuality is simply ignored, even as the rules that police female students contradict that ignorance, and so too the college simply closes its eyes to the forbidden activism of women who join the civil rights movement. Meridian's experience with hometown boys is cruelly replicated in her affair with the worldly college student, Truman, for whom she does for a time feel desire. Conversation is often difficult with him for an odd reason: he likes to speak French, which Meridian understands but cannot quickly speak. Meridian finds herself pregnant again, after only one sexual experience with Truman—during which he thinks he has deflowered a virgin—and then he abandons her to date the white civil rights worker, Lynne. Meridian has an abortion and sterilization. Then, when the


white exchange students have gone north, Truman comes back and tries to seduce Meridian again, whispering "worshipfully" and "urgently," in English this time: "Have my beautiful black babies"(116). Expressing the kind of resentment that her mother felt duty-bound to contain, Meridian strikes out before she rationally comprehends her response: "She hit him three times before she even knew what was happening" (116, emphasis added).

It is hardly surprising that Meridian withdraws from the everyday worlds of heterosexuality, motherhood, and college, all spheres of "not knowing," where persons and institutions claiming to protect or train or give her pleasure lack any intention or means to recognize her desire. Any effort to discover her self must lead Meridian to lose connection with such reality. Just after the abortion and break with Truman occurs (in reader's time), the narrative embeds yet another incident that dramatizes how a girl who begins to think about what she actually knows and believes is distracted and silenced, because comprehension of the lies that pass for reality, as opposed to safe not knowing, stuns her. The story is filtered through Miss Winter's reverie as she sits by Meridian's bed and remembers the first time she saw the younger woman at an oratorical competition at their hometown high school. In the middle of the same memorized speech about the Constitution and the American Way of Life that Miss Winter once performed, Meridian suddenly falls silent and leaves the stage. Trying to explain herself to a shamed, angry, and willfully uncomprehending Mrs. Hill, Meridian says that "for the first time she really listened to what she was saying, knew she didn't believe it, and was so distracted by this revelation that she could not make the rest of her speech" (121).

While attending college and participating actively in the civil rights movement, Meridian finds hope only when she is beaten into unconsciousness by police at demonstrations. So too the paralyses she experiences from her college days into the beginning of the novel's present time mark not only the impasse in her reproductive consciousness, but also the familiar, dangerous effort to escape an unbearable situation. Actually hearing the disparities between self and society, experience and myth, black and white, personal belief and public opinion, means shutting out the rote words, forgetting the available language. It may also mean losing the capacity to speak, burying what might be gold, and seeking unconsciousness to evade the traumas of consciousness and history. To avoid this pathological potential in dissociation as a strategy


for dealing with conflicts, escaping the constraints of reality, and isolating unbearable experiences, it may be necessary to focus on the unvarnished truth of loss, to listen to the terrible stories, so that the self is not walled up but newly connected. Meridian's quest, I suggest, follows precisely this course of action.

The absence of the child herself was what had finally brought them together.

Lines of latitude running north and south.

In their ecstatic dissociative states, their out-of-body experiences, Meridian and her father are sometimes able to escape a present reality that does not recognize them or many others, and they both find joy in this shared secret power to achieve a "tangible connection to the past" (59). But they disagree about the meaning and purpose of their paranormal ecstasies. Mr. Hill believes that the Native Americans built the sacred coil where the body can be left behind "in order to give the living a sensation similar to that of dying . . . only the spirit lived, set free in the world" (58). Meridian disagrees: "It seemed to her that it was a way the living sought to expand the consciousness of being alive" (59). In contemplating suicide, welcoming police beatings, and seeking more and more ways to dissociate mind from body as a coping strategy, Meridian comes dangerously close to the death that Mr. Hill views as freedom. But she eventually chooses "consciousness of being alive" instead by finding ways of reconnecting with a reality that at once challenges old lies and looks less hopelessly oppressive and unchanging than it once did, and with others who confirm and respond to her own experience rather than ignore and seek to control it. This experience entails "really listening" to stories about a shared history of loss and dispossession, particularly the traumatic loss of children, one of the most horrifying events that can happen to an individual and to a community. To know and live with the truth of her own experience, Meridian must recognize it elsewhere; to take advantage of the possibilities for future change, she and others must reconstruct and mourn the unspeakable inhumanity of their collective history.


There is not just one turning point or moment of connection for Meridian but a more diffuse representation of a series of partial points of contact, all of which turn on this paradoxical presence of connection on the ground of absence. I have discussed some of these relationships, ranging from Meridian's tentative hold on the Wild Child to her empathy for the girl in prison who has murdered her infant. But these are one-way connections, often with a younger or narrowly averted version of the self, who is among the dying. Here I consider in detail two episodes in which Meridian is able to move from the subversive to the reconstructive powers of her disconnectedness by making tentative contact with maimed but living people who are very different and distanced from Meridian, and to whose stories she must struggle to listen.

The first and less frequently noted connection built across difference and disconnection is Meridian's friendship with Lynne Rabinowitz, the white exchange student whom Truman eventually marries and then abandons. This friendship opens the question of connection across racial lines, the dominant image of which is displayed in a button Meridian particularly admires "that showed a black hand and a white hand shaking, although since the colors were flat the hands did not seem, on closer inspection to be shaking at all; they seemed to be merely touching palms, or in the act of sliding away from each other" (81). Lynne and Meridian, white and black woman, have been separated from the beginning of their relationship as much by their competition over Truman as by their race, although the two concerns are tightly interwoven in a way that foregrounds the multiplicity of subject positions a woman actually occupies. But Meridian's first response to Lynne, before Truman has met her, signals the possibility of connection: "I like her," Meridian says, even as she proceeds to tell a story that firmly mocks Lynne for her ignorance of black folks' ways. And Lynne sees Meridian more accurately than any one else in the novel, as Truman recalls when he finally corrects his own view of Meridian and recognizes what "Lynne—who had known her only briefly—had insisted anyone could see": "Meridian, no matter what she was saying to you, and no matter what you were saying to her, seemed to be thinking of something else, another conversation perhaps, an earlier one, that continued on a parallel track. Or of a future one that was running an identical course. This was always true" (1401).

Given this rare insight into Meridian's oddly connected form of disconnection, Lynne later comes closer to Meridian than any other char-


acter. The tragic precipitant of their eventual bond is the violent death of Lynne and Truman's interracial daughter, Camara. As Meridian helps Lynne grieve for Camara in the chapter entitled "Two Women," they have the kind of ordinary contact that is rarely glimpsed in this novel: watching television, reading poems, combing hair, and sharing political insights. The novel neither romanticizes nor dismisses this connection. Its fragility, and the novel's ambivalence, is seen in the disruption of narrative chronology, so that in reader's time, the chapter in which we see Lynne and Meridian together, at least "touching palms" after the death of Camara, is framed by their meeting a year or so after that period, when Lynne has come south to Meridian's current house to find Truman and the two women seem to be "sliding away from each other."

This substantial episode, which spans seven chapters, focuses on the divisions between white and black women and on the question of how they might avoid competing for men and better listen to each other's horror stories. At the beginning of "Visits," set a year before the opening of the novel, Lynne seems to think that Truman is still having an affair with Meridian, and Meridian explicitly refuses to hear Lynne's story of being raped by one of Truman's black friends, Tommy Odds. This is a key refusal of connection on Meridian's part, suggesting the limits of interracial female friendship, and in her response to Lynne's plea that she listen Meridian sounds just like her mother: "'Can't you understand that there are some things I don't want to know?'" (153). The narrative, however, disclaims or qualifies MeridJan's denial. First, it proceeds to tell Lynne's story for the next twenty-eight pages on the presumption that Lynne is talking to herself—"Perhaps Meridian wouldn't listen to her, but she could sit there herself and try to remember" (153, emphasis added). The perspective not only moves from the third-person voice of the black author into the first-person voice of the white character, but obliges readers, whatever their color, to serve as surrogate listeners for the black heroine, who apparently falls asleep. In retrospect, the weight of that "Perhaps" increases when we come to the end of the long, multichaptered flashback to discover that Meridian is still in the room with Lynne. When Lynne speaks out loud at this point—"Black folks aren't so special"—Meridian suddenly answers, "'Maybe . . . the time for being special has passed,'" and the narrator adds, "said Meridian, as if she had been listening all along" (181, emphasis added). The chapter ends by


reporting a gesture that embodies what the novel does to readers here: Meridian winks at Lynne. The entire sequence of events raises the critical question for any discussion of the ongoing, tangled traumas of black people and white people in racist America: just who is supposed to be listening to whom, and who can or will serve as audience to this story that is so hard to tell and hear?

We are left with this uncertain representation of Meridian's ability to make a rare and difficult contact across racial difference, despite or perhaps because of her constitutional and habitual disconnection—tuning into another conversation, falling asleep, passing into catatonic fits. It is useful to contrast this late episode with the opening flashback in chapter 1, where Meridian seems to her revolutionary friends to have fallen asleep but in fact is simply remembering her own past. The attempt to understand the self through intrasubjective reverie, in the first instance, is supplanted in the later chapters by the effort to make intersubjective contact. "Perhaps" this exchange of stories between black women and white women can only be heard conditionally for now, "as if" listening were taking place—just as Evelyn Hall may occupy the position of "the mother figure of the moment." Whether Lynne and Meridian are "touching palms" or "sliding away" from each other when the story leaves them is unclear. But characteristically, Meridian is better at establishing unusual and difficult connections—ones that border on disconnection and demand a higher tolerance for partial, fleeting, ambivalent touching and a conversational engagement that situates the participants on parallel tracks—than the easy everyday ones that may in fact disguise the lack of connection and communication under the illusory notion that it is a simple matter of "telling one's own story" to an empathic listener. And this point of contact, however temporary and hesitant, is forged on the basis of an experience of living with abrupt, painful, and permanent disconnection that Meridian and Lynne share with many women: the voluntary or involuntary loss of a child. Giving away her son severs Meridian's bonds with both the problematic cultural image of the good mother and those persons to whom she would normally be tied in bonds of natural affection, "blood" relatives and heterosexual partners like Rundi himself or Mrs. Hill and Eddie Jr. or Truman. Her unnatural act makes possible, however, not so much her own selfhood but a deployment of the self into connection with many black women and, more surprisingly, Lynne. It also fa-


cilitates her move into the position of a listener to whom Lynne, like the girl in prison, can speak.[40]

"My son died."

A more commonly recognized moment of connection for Meridian, often mentioned as the point at which she "discovers herself," begins to heal, and move forward, comes just two chapters later, immediately before the trio of chapters in which an awakened Meridian exercises her listening skills and we hear three women's voices that speak painfully of reproductive violence.[41] This second moment of connection is tightly and implicitly linked to the relationship with Lynne and the common bond of lost child by the chapter title, "Camara," the name of Lynne's murdered child, which seems at first to have nothing to do with the narrated events. The title's apparent disconnection from events complements the effect that Deborah McDowell has pointed out: Camara, as a written word, differs by just one vowel from camera, a machine suggesting Meridian's characteristically distanced perspective.[42] In the opening of the chapter, Meridian stands outside the strange church she has come to visit and watches the congregation gather "as if into an ageless photograph," and her initial stance as objectifying photographer rather than participant is reiterated: "And she . . . was not part of it . . . she sensed herself an outsider, as a single eye behind a camera that was aimed from a corner of her youth, attached now only because she watched. If she were not there watching the scene would be exactly the same" (193–4). The feeling of disconnection Meridian expresses here is that of the outside observer detached from a scene; it goes on without her and she cannot change it in any way. This is clearly not a position that acknowledges agency or fosters activism. It disavows the power to alter the world outside the self even as it posits a fragmented, easily dissolved self. In fact, however, Meridian is misreading the scene, as she soon learns, and she also mistakes the relationship between her self and the observed world. In the transformation she is about to experience, as she comprehends a change that has already


taken place, it is not a question of whether the scene is the same—it is not—but of how and why she can begin to hear what is different.

It is important to trace in detail the nature and mode of the change that is recorded here, as Meridian moves toward a surprising reconnection with an institution she thought she had left behind long ago (just as she thought she had forgotten about the Native Americans). As so often in her adolescence, she enters the scene moving and acting out of motives unclear to herself. Her feelings of not knowing should by now tell us that something important is being concealed, and so potentially may be disclosed. She has come to a strange church, "perhaps" because of its particularly bright stained glass windows but really "for no reason she was sure of." Inside, she finds herself unable to remember the words to the hymn she hears. Suspicious of words, which have failed to recognize her feelings so often in the past, drawn instead by color and sound, she must consciously resist or defer finding what she was seeking in the very first chapter, the "something missing" in herself that she tried initially to locate in the memory of losing her mother's love. But now, "she did not want to find right then whatever it was she was looking for. She had no idea, really, what it was." This refusal of a particular kind of knowing—like falling asleep when Lynne tells her story—makes possible another kind of hearing and understanding. As the tune of the music changes to "a martial melody," Meridian begins to connect, not at first through words but through the aural, nonverbal experience of joining: "her consciousness was no longer led off after a vain search for words she could not recall, but began instead to slowly merge itself with the triumphant forcefulness of the oddly death-defying music" (195).

Displacing or putting on hold the quest for self and voice in order to feel connection and listen to others is the first step and privileged epistemological and linguistic mode here, as in the scene with Lynne. But this is not a story that celebrates remaining silent, outside language, dissociated, and powerless. Rather, it points to the possibility of collectively appropriating and reinventing discourse. Meridian quickly finds herself adding other words to the hymn, quoting Margaret Walker's "Let the martial songs be written," and it is through these new words authored by the black poet rather than simply through her own sensory intake that she is able to comprehend something that shocks her: the people and their music have changed. Listening to the sermon, she first thinks it is a mocking parody of Martin Luther King's style,


another instance of tragic misappropriation and disconnection. But then she perceives it as a different mode of connecting with the history and meaning of King, a deliberate, death-defying performance, "keeping that voice alive" so that it can be heard over and over. The understanding of what has changed comes into focus, however, only when the "red-eyed" father of a young man martyred in the civil rights movement, a man who has passed through madness into resigned grief, stands up to speak. His words come through despite an almost paralyzing dissociation that helps him to survive, "from a throat that seemed stopped with anxiety, memory, grief and dope"; "in confusion, in loss," and "inarticulate grief," he utters three words that complete the process of changing Meridian's mind: "'My son died'"(198).

Meridian has hitherto seen the Black Church, like her mother, as a "reactionary power," but now she perceives that the son's death has finally evoked a new anger in the people, who vow to fight. As she "comprehends" this feeling, which touches on her reproductive consciousness of victimization and survival, Meridian's voice is liberated—"as if a tight string binding her lungs had given away"—from the lure of self-sacrifice and the desire to escape her body. As opposed to the pages of not knowing, not understanding, hesitating and wondering why, she "understood finally" that she will fight to live; and at that point she is able to join the congregation of strangers in making the promise to the red-eyed father that she couldn't make to her friends years before: "that yes, indeed she would kill, before she allowed anyone to murder his son again" (200).

This affirmation and resolution to preserve someone else's child is immediately qualified and cannot be assimilated into the standard moment of "self-discovery" or philosophical certainty that it has sometimes been taken to be. It is not a pledge to act as an individual self. Meridian adds that any murder she contemplates could only be undertaken in the context of a community aware of its history, "a church surrounded by the righteous guardians of the people's memories"; "only among the pious could this idea [of murder] both comfort and uplift" (200). Moreover, her dedication subsequently wavers; it is not a fixed point that she has reached. She sometimes thinks that she will never "belong to the future" and must "walk behind the real revolutionaries." At other times, however—notably those that situate her as an Othermother and connect to political activism—her commitment returns: "she needed only to see a starving child or attempt to register to vote a grown person who could neither read nor write" (201).


This moment of (partial) revolution, (sometime) change, and (ambivalent) transformation for Meridian is grounded in the story of losing a child, the disconnection between mother (and now father) and child that the novel relentlessly depicts and that Meridian, already disconnected from an unbearable reality, in some sense chooses for herself. In "Two Women," the loss of the known child brings the white and black mothers together. Then the even broader force of the politicized absent body of the child, now also the body of a grown son, is confirmed by the naming of the "Camara" chapter, where the utterly impersonal love of a stranger's dead child—the same kind of love that helped Meridian give away her child rather than murder him—has collective transformative power for Meridian and the Black Church as an institution. Through Meridian's resistance to the conventional prescriptions of motherhood and through her actions in the culturally traditional role of Othermother, the maternal position or subject has come to be understood in this novel as one that demands not only protection of the child but also recognition of the parent, who must survive to fight in a world where protection and recognition are not readily provided. It may be a position that a mother with child ironically cannot yet take, at least not unilaterally, because of the historical circumstances that make her solely responsible for her children (and hence so often doomed to maternal failure). Alone, Meridian cannot occupy this position until it is extended to and occupied by not only the father but also the larger community, who resolve to turn grief into anger, anger into action. The metaphor of detachment and one-way relations implicit in Meridian's initial sense of herself as the camera's eye is discarded, and the process of self-discovery and social change as we often see it is at once reversed and made reciprocal. The individual is changed by listening and hearing change in the impersonal, collective action of the community, as opposed to the hero leading the way to change. Meridian may remain outside and behind the community; where she goes after the novel remains unseen.

Not a Story to Pass On

Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don't know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed . . ..


It was not a story to pass on . . ..

So, in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise . . ..

It was not a story to pass on . . ..

So they forgot her . . .. They can touch it if they like, but don't, because they know things will never be the same if they do . . ..

This is not a story to pass on.

Perhaps the most provocative sentence in Beloved is repeated, in one of two variants, three times on the last two pages of the novel: "It was/This is not a story to pass on." Almost everyone who writes and speaks about this novel speculates about the meaning of such a puzzling and ambiguous refrain. Does "pass on" mean transmit, as would seem likely if we are speaking about stories, or "die" ? Or, if the stress is on the first word rather than the second, might it also mean "pass on" in the sense of passing judgment? Or could it mean to pull back from engagement, or forget (as in "I'll pass on this one" said while playing poker or refusing a proffered edible)? Many readers have spoken to the first sense of "pass on," even if they acknowledge the other possibilities, and have wondered about the apparent paradox. If the purpose of the story we have read is to remember Beloved (in multiple senses of the word "remember"), why does the novel end with an emphasis on the wisdom of forgetting her? In the third and final iteration, "This is not a story to pass on," the shift from past to present tense and the deictic "this" as opposed to the impersonal "it" anchors us in the narrator's present time and perspective, suggesting that a kind of community and closure has been attained, but doesn't the sentence also enjoin us as members of that community not to do what the novel as a whole and many characters within it have just done? Does the narrator feel guilty for her "complicity" in the act of writing itself, which is arguably a crime of violence against "the mother tongue," and does she "metaphorically slit her own throat" with this statement, as Lorraine Liscio has suggested?[43] Or is it the preoedipal daughter who has been done violence, who "remains outside language and therefore outside narrative memory," even as she "continues to haunt the borders," as Jean Wyatt observes?[44] Let me add yet another possibility to the accumulating commentary on this crux, one that is informed by and hence


requires further elaboration of my proposal that both Beloved and Meridian belong to the literature of trauma and recovery.

According to only recently codified medical definitions, trauma is "an event that is outside the range of usual human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone"; it entails "a sudden extreme discontinuity in a person's experience."[45] As Judith Herman points out in her study Trauma and Recovery, the psychological and public awareness of trauma has an "episodic" history in the last one hundred years. Herman identifies three "waves" of concern with three varieties or manifestations of trauma: hysteria, combat neuroses, and, only recently, sexual and domestic violence. All three syndromes are "one thing," Herman argues, but in each case the systematic study of a particular kind of traumatic experience "depends on the support of a political movement."[46] Her particular concern with rape and domestic violence is made possible by the second wave of feminism. Herman notes that, though psychological aspects of this kind of trauma are consistent with others, the high incidence of sexual abuse challenges the standing definition of trauma as "outside the range of usual human experience."[47] She is also interested in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and posits four main components to psychological recovery: a healing relationship (by which she means a relationship with a well-trained therapist); safety; remembrance and mourning, wherein the goal is to reconstruct the trauma, not forget or "exorcise" it; and reconnection with persons or groups, where the goal is to restore the victim's belief that human relationships can be trusted.

In her introduction to a recent journal issue on trauma (brought to my attention by a footnote in Wyatt's essay), Cathy Caruth focuses on a paradox that further problematizes the task of reconstructing trauma. As experienced by survivors, traumatic events belong to what Caruth describes as "a past that was never fully experienced as it occurred"; dissociation, as I have noted, is the main defense against fear, pain, and loss of control during trauma, and hence perception and memory are often distorted. After the traumatic experience is over, it usually remains "inaccessible to conscious recall and control" and comes back in flashbacks and nightmares.[48] Amnesia may coexist with these constant intrusions of traumatic past events, and it has been suggested that the very strength and precision of the involuntary, often disabling recollection derives from the fact that the event has not been "encoded" in normal ways. Herman makes this point too, noting that trauma memories "lack verbal narrative and context," are fragmentary, and


are often remembered "in the form of vivid sensations and images."[49] Psychologists stress the difficulty that this causes for recovery, delaying "the necessary working through and putting into perspective" of trauma.[50] Caruth, however, foregrounds an epistemological and historiographical dimension to the problem: the traumatic "event" is in effect a paradox, both true and incomprehensible; trauma "both urgently demands historical awareness and yet denies our usual modes of access to it." Caruth asks, "How is it possible . . . to gain access to a traumatic history?"[51] To be healed, the "patient" suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder needs to verbalize, integrate, and communicate the past in narrative and memory, but in the very act of doing so there is further loss, in at least two senses: the details are often forgotten, rearranged, or blurred (an effect of "putting into perspective"), and the power of the trauma as "affront to understanding" may be, perhaps must be, weakened.[52]

This paradox is expressed at the end of Beloved in the refrain: "This is not a story to pass on." The trauma the novel seeks to reconstruct cannot be conveyed, handed down, or judged in conventional ways, but it must not die or be forgotten. To verbalize and transmit it as story, as cohesive and coherent narrative, is to change things as they were, perhaps to make them knowable and bearable but thereby to falsify what was, and should be remembered as, irrational and intolerable about the experience. A case study from the founding theorist of dissociation, Pierre Janet, exemplifies this problem in a way that tellingly links it to the particular trauma that Beloved and Meridian confront. Janet cites the instance of a patient named Irene, a thirty-one-year-old woman who lost two infants and was subsequently haunted by images of death. Janet treated her with a hypnotic suggestion that enabled her to replace the images of death with images of flowers, and cured, she became a midwife. As B. A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart observe, this therapy is effective, but isn't it also a "sacrilege"?[53] It may be better for individuals to forget, but is there a way to register the truth and to survive with what you lose (as Jane Rule's character understands), to avoid losing again what was lost before? As Herman points out and as recent discussions of the Holocaust confirm, the history of trauma study would suggest that it is all too easy to forget or deny that atrocities "really happened."

Caruth cites another possibility for transmitting "the historical truth" of trauma, one that honors "the refusal of a certain framework of understanding" that trauma entails and is resistant to "the platitudes


of knowledge" that would diminish the horror and forget the loss. Instead of requiring knowledge in a conventional sense of the term, this strategy calls for "a creative act of listening" to speech that exceeds understanding, listening that "opens up the space for a testimony that can speak beyond what is already understood." This "difficult task . . . of historical listening," this "attempt to gain access to a traumatic history," is also, Caruth says, "the project of hearing beyond individual suffering, to the reality of a history that in its crisis can only be perceived in unassimilable forms."[54] This is not, again, a story to pass on.[55]

Most psychological research on trauma has treated victims of either natural calamity or acts of human violence such as war, torture, rape, and domestic abuse. Morrison's and Walker's novels add black motherhood to the list of atrocities that demand and challenge remembrance, mourning, and reconnection, and as novels they represent the possibility of a safe space and healing relationship within which the work of recovery in two senses of the word—retrieval of the story and healing of the victims—can take place. It is perhaps hardly newsworthy and certainly not difficult to justify this claim for Beloved . Morrison's novel obviously presents infanticide as a traumatic experience, a rare event of sudden discontinuity that is unusually distressing. It also confounds our knowledge of who is victim and who is victimizer in the particular trauma of Beloved's death and resurrection (Sethe and Beloved occupy both positions with regard to each other) in order to indict the true perpetrator of the larger, collective trauma that is responsible for the discontinuity of black motherhood: the white slave owner and the system that legitimates his violence (with regard to which Sethe and Beloved are both victims). The trauma of Sethe in captivity reenters the narrative present in a way that registers both necessary forgetting and "abnormal" modes of remembering, here in the form of the ghost story. Beloved herself represents precisely the kind of "reenactmerit" of trauma, including particularly its nonverbal encoding in sensations and images, that as Herman points out can be both adaptive and dangerous.[56]

I suggest that it is equally if not more important to locate Meridian in the literature of trauma and recovery and thus to resist assimilating Meridian's giving up of her child into the familiar narrative of the feminist bildungsroman. It might be argued that I stretch the word trauma too far in applying it to Meridian's maternal experience: her unhappiness as a mother, though it contradicts myths of maternal instinct, is


hardly a rare phenomenon "outside the range of usual human experience"; few people would agree that giving a child up to responsible, loving adoptive parents is always a "markedly distressing" thing; and the "discontinuity" Meridian feels is more extreme before rather than after she gives her son away. But this is just the kind of stretching that the novel urges us to do. Meridian as mother without child can in fact be seen as a composite figure of the trauma victim, the post-traumatic survivor, and the creative listener and witness who forms an alliance with other victims.

Trauma is reconstructed in Meridian, as in Beloved, in a way that honors its abnormal encoding in fragments that resist linear narration and mark instead dissociation and disconnection: the form of the crazy quilt, which at once serves to mimic and integrate or reconstruct the psychological effects of trauma. In this form, Meridian initially contextualizes the heroine's act in a representation of the southern black woman's reproductive consciousness as collective trauma, not a single event but a communal and ongoing set of historical circumstances that begin with captivity, comprise innumerable stories as "bad" as Sethe's, and do not end with emancipation. Taking us beyond the pathology of "individual suffering," this mother without child is embedded in the history of all black mothers who could not "claim" their children. Meridian's personal experience as an adolescent girl in an age of choice also bears these characteristic marks of trauma, dissociation, and disconnection. Her recovery draws on the more positive or adaptive aspects of dissociation—defense and resistance—and reconnects her to other women and to the community. In this process of reconnection, however, Meridian participates not as victim—a position she rejects—but as a model of alternative, nonprocreative maternal force and "creative listening." Drawing on the "good qualities" of her maternal heritage, she serves as Othermother to children who are not her own, educating and defending the living while witnessing and politicizing the dead. She serves as addressee so that Miss Treasure and the girl in prison can be speakers, and she responds to their crises of motherhood with action where possible, with empathy where there is no hope. In what I have called a kind of conditional listening, "as if" in an altered state of consciousness, she is able to hear (or let us hear) what she consciously doesn't want to know: the story of Lynne's rape, which acknowledges the common vulnerability of women to male violence and complicates questions of racial identity and responsibility. This is a model of what


it might mean to be a "creative" listener to speech that is difficult to hear, perceived in ways that in some sense preserve its "unassimilable" form. Her position as reverberant listener reaches its acme in the Black Church, where she is able to hear and then join with a community of victims and witnesses connected by trauma: "the years in America had created them One life." The change in this community from resignation and forgetting to potential recovery through remembrance, mourning, and anger is made possible by a political movement and energized by the "survivor mission," to borrow Herman's phrase, that Meridian accepts: "to continue, against whatever obstacles, to live" and to make that inconstant, collective promise that "she would kill, before she allowed anyone to murder his son again" (200).

The history of black motherhood told in Meridian and Beloved is and should remain an "affront" to our normal ways of thinking and knowing, revising many of our conventional "platitudes," especially about maternal subjects, maternal instincts, and maternal rights and duties. Taken in tandem, the content of these narratives ranges from and thereby links the slave mother's infanticide, an unquestionably complex traumatic event, and the relatively common occurrence of giving up a child for adoption in an age of "freedom" and "choice." Neither story can or should be fully absorbed into our ordinary ways of seeing. There is little risk that Beloved, told the way it is, will be. But so too Meridian needs to be claimed in our readings as a type of the impossible figure of the mother without child, not assimilated, as her story so easily can be, into a framework that either cuts her off from her traumatic maternal heritage or assumes the separation and incompatibility of selfhood and motherhood.


Three— Claiming the Monstrosity in Alice Walker's Meridian

Preferred Citation: Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. Mother Without Child: Contemporary Fiction and the Crisis of Motherhood. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.