Otherwise known as O.I. or Brittle Bone Disease, this biologically inherited disease is, at its roots, a calcium deficiency. The bones literally do not absorb calcium. Mild O.I. results in minor bone fractures while moderately severe cases can cause multiple fractures from small movements. The more severe the O.I., the shorter the life expectancy. Severe cases of O.I. can result in child death within the first year of life, as movement of small degrees can cause breakage. Severe O.I. patients who live may experience bowed legs or arms, which can be corrected with surgery, or have to use a wheelchair or crutches to move around. The disease has a 50% chance of being passed down through childbirth. The least destructive form a child can inherit is classified as being a carrier of the disease, but even that does not guarantee the next child down won’t have it too.
In Beloved, there is a point, just after Beloved shows up at the house, where Denver is watching over Beloved and not letting anyone else near her. When Beloved first opens her eyes, Denver is struck by them.
“It wasn’t that she was looking at that face for the first time with no trace of sleep in it, or that the eyes were big and black. Nor was it that the whites of them were much too white – blue-white. It was that deep down in those big black eyes there was no expression at all.”
When someone has O.I., a common symptom appears intensely at birth and then fades over time (or at least becomes less intense). The symptom is blue sclera, where the whites of the eyes are tinted blue. Even someone who is just a carrier of the disease can exhibit this symptom.
If Beloved has O.I., this means that Denver and Sethe have it as well. Sethe asks Beloved at one point what her mother’s eyes looked like, trying to find out if she is Beloved’s mother. I believe she is looking for Beloved to say her mother had blue sclera, which Sethe may have currently or have had more intensely when Beloved was a baby. If the family has O.I. (not including Baby Suggs, as she is not blood related), this gives a whole new meaning to the idea of the broken family and trying to mend. It is possible that Denver is the only carrier, but that Sethe and Beloved are both effected by the disease. If Beloved breaks easily, she may not walk much on her own, which can explain her baby soft skin if we assume she’s not actually dead. Sethe emotionally breaks all the time. Only Denver seems to be able to grow out of the brokenness.
The is currently no cure for O.I., so the idea of the broken family, at least for Beloved and Sethe, can never be fully mended.
(A notable movie character with O.I. appears in the Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson movie “Unbreakable”.)