Mrs. Richardson reads up on Pauline Hawthorne—she’s heard of her before, but doesn’t know much about her. She rediscovers Pauline’s famous photographs and learns that Pauline taught at the New York School of Fine Arts, although her photographs at the time were selling for enormous sums and she had no need of a teaching salary. When Mrs. Richardson contacts the school there is no record of Mia Warren, however there is a record of Mia Wright. Mrs. Richardson learns that Mia Wright had been granted a leave of absence after only one year of school, and had not returned. Hitting a dead end, Mrs. Richardson next plans to attack her research from another point of view: through Pearl.
Mrs. Richardson’s manipulations will not stop at the adults around her—she quickly moves on to seeing Pearl as a viable option for exposing Mia’s past, unaware that Pearl has, at times, been just as desperate for answers about her own identity as Mrs. Richardson is for answers about Mia’s. Mrs. Richardson’s search is now, too, bound up in her hopes of confirming her own identity as a competent journalist. She must succeed no matter what it takes—even if it involves the innocent Pearl.
Lexie is admitted to Yale and, to celebrate, Mrs. Richardson offers to take Lexie, Izzy, and Pearl out for a fancy girls’ lunch. Pearl is surprised by the invitation, but Mrs. Richardson tells Pearl that she is “practically part of the family.” Izzy finds Mrs. Richardson’s interest in Pearl strange, and asks why Pearl is invited. Mrs. Richardson frames the invitation as one of generosity.
Reversing her stance on Pearl’s inclusion in the family for the sake of manipulating her daughter, Mrs. Richardson sets up the perfect scenario for a ruthless manipulation of Pearl’s naiveté and joy to be included in a Richardson family outing. And in typical fashion, Mrs. Richardson disguises this (even to herself) as altruism.
On the day of the lunch, which is held at a crowded and glamorous buffet-style restaurant where the Richardsons go “for very special occasions,” Mrs. Richardson carefully steers the conversation to Pearl’s heritage. She asks where Pearl was born and where else she’s lived, preying on Pearl’s desire to impress her to get Pearl to talk. Pearl tells her that she and Mia have lived all over, and reveals that she was born in San Francisco, but that she and Mia did not spend much time there at all—“we never stay in any place too long,” she says. Mrs. Richardson tells Pearl that roots are important—her grandparents were some of the founding citizens of Shaker Heights. Pearl says that she doesn’t know anything about her family, and reflects privately on how Mia has never told her anything about her heritage.
Mrs. Richardson proves herself to be a master manipulator as the celebratory brunch commences. She plays off of Pearl’s insecurities about her own identity and her desire—of which Mrs. Richardson is well aware—to fit in with the Richardsons and to impress Mrs. Richardson herself. Though Pearl is unaware of what is going on, Mrs. Richardson’s manipulations nonetheless affect her deeply, causing her to question her relationship with her own mother and to her own identity.
Mrs. Richardson, working off of the information obtained from Pearl, contacts the San Francisco Office of Vital Records, and requests a copy of Pearl’s birth certificate. It takes five weeks for the birth certificate to arrive; when it does, the space for Pearl’s father’s name is blank, but Mia’s birthplace is listed on the certificate as Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Richardson believes there is “something unseemly about [Mia’s] unwillingness to state [her] origins plainly.” Mrs. Richardson contacts the Bethel Park directory assistance hotline, and receives a tip that someone named Mia Wright was born in 1962, and a boy named Warren Wright was born two years later. After researching Warren Wright, Mrs. Richardson finds that the boy died at 17 years old. She then finds his obituary, which lists his parents as Mr. and Mrs. George Wright and his older sister as Mia Wright. Mrs. Richardson, from the Bethel Park directory, obtains the Wrights’ home address and phone number, almost disappointed with how easy it is to “figure out anything” about anyone.
Mrs. Richardson is a tireless and patient researcher. She is a good journalist and she is once again, ignited by her desire to topple Mia, firm in her identity as a reporter. She has a clear goal in mind—to discover the truth about Mia in order to “bring her down”—and will do everything in her power to watch it come to fruition. Her disappointment in how easy it ultimately is to discover a large chunk of Mia’s past is representative of her feelings of superiority and her inability to understand the things that truly make up one’s identity—not just the hard, concrete facts of their lives, but who they are as a person.
Even in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, the Chow/McCullough case remains prominent in the local news. As Shaker Heights is a “standard-bearer” in the larger Cleveland community, many people are paying attention to the case. Moreover, it has come to be seen as an issue of more than just who has the right to the child—it is, many feel, a race issue. Though some feel that the McCulloughs are “rescuing” May Ling, other members of the public interviewed on the news—including Serena Wong’s mother — take issue with the fact that May Ling, if she stays with the McCulloughs, will “grow up not knowing anything about her heritage.” The McCulloughs give a rare interview, showing off their large and warm home, and focusing on the Asian art that hangs throughout their house. The McCulloughs brag about May Ling’s love of rice, “her first solid food,” and their plans to raise her as a “typical American girl, exactly the same as everyone else.”
Themes of order and disruption are at work in this passage, as the whole town of Shaker Heights—and the larger Cleveland community—begins to pay rapt attention to the case, waiting to see whether the “order” of the status quo or the disruption of that order will win in the end. Meanwhile, the McCulloughs prove themselves woefully unprepared to handle the media circus that has recently enveloped them, as well as the questions about identity and assimilation that arise around the issue of to how they will handle raising their daughter with an awareness of her birth culture.
The Richardsons continue to bicker back and forth about the case. Mrs. Richardson and Lexie side with the McCulloughs, as does Mr. Richardson, while Moody and Izzy, inspired by Pearl and Mia, take Bebe’s side. Lexie and Brian also argue amongst themselves about May Ling—Brian’s father has sided with the McCulloughs, but his mother is unsure. Lexie asks Brian what he thinks, and though he agrees with his father, he thinks that “there [is] something about the little brown body in Mrs. McCullough’s pale arms that discomfit[s] him.”
The case is shown to have the power to disrupt private familial and romantic relationships as well as public opinion. While the Richardsons continue to argue the nuances of the case and take sides, Lexie—who prefers (and has the privilege) not to “see” race—must reckon with the fact that there is more to the case than she is willing to admit in the wake of hearing Brian’s opinion.
Meanwhile, Bebe Chow has attained visitation rights with her daughter, once a week for two hours, a development about which Mrs. McCullough is deeply distressed. Bebe, for her part, is upset that her visits with May Ling must be at the library or in another public place while a social worker hovers over her. The McCulloughs have invited Bebe to visit May Ling in their home, but Bebe refused, not wanting to “sit and smile while they steal [her] baby.” Mrs. McCullough confides in Mrs. Richardson that she hates giving “her” baby over to the social worker, and has begun to fear that they will not win custody of May Ling after all.
Bebe Chow’s visitation rights signal her ability to affect not just public opinion and private discussions, but the flow of the actual relationship between May Ling and Mrs. McCullough. The McCulloughs realize the power of this, and are frightened by it. Bebe is on the path to reclaiming her identity as a mother, and she hopes this is just the beginning of a reconnection with her daughter.
Mrs. Richardson’s anger at Mia over Mrs. McCullough’s pain continues to burn. She reflects upon her own family history, and the order that her grandparents and parents worked to instill in the community and abide by in their own lives, even as the world outside Shaker Heights was often divided and tumultuous. Mrs. Richardson has been brought up to believe that everyone is equal and that those in a position to do so should help those in need.
Mrs. Richardson’s new hatred of Mia is tied up in Mia’s ability to shirk the order that has defined Mrs. Richardson’s life. Mrs. Richardson’s reflections on all the times when she has, throughout her life, attempted to avoid chaos in favor of order displays clearly the profound differences in her and Mia.
In her own youth, in the late sixties, Mrs. Richardson did not join the protests in Washington—“where would she sleep,” she remembers thinking. Though a college friend asked her to go to California with him, she refused: “passion, like fire,” she thought then and thinks now, is “dangerous.” Her thoughts circle back to Mia, who lives a disorderly life, “dragging” Pearl from place to place, and “heedlessly throwing sparks” throughout Shaker Heights. Fuming over the fact that Mia gets to do whatever she wants “when no one else” does, Mrs. Richardson resolves to take a trip to Pennsylvania to finally solve the mystery of Mia’s past.
Where so much of Mia’s identity is tied up in passion and independence, Mrs. Richardson avoids anything “fiery” or impulsive, believing it to be dangerous and selfish. Ultimately, Mrs. Richardson’s decision to move forward with her investigation of Mia (and to take the drastic step of going to Pennsylvania) stems not from her desire to avenge Mrs. McCullough, but to silence a woman who is more secure in her agency, identity, and lack of need for the order that has stifled Mrs. Richardson for so long—whether she can see she’s been stifled or not. In a way, then, Mrs. Richardson is almost jealous of Mia, though she would never admit this.