Last Updated on February 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1262
Two diary entries describe moments when Nana was supportive of young Gifty. In the first, he told her that a girl who mocked her was going to hell. Gifty knew this was not a kind thing to say, but she appreciated it. In the other entry, she writes about playing a lost lamb in the nativity play at church and how Nana gave her performance a standing ovation.
As young Gifty’s mother slowly healed, she continued to experience anhedonia. Her other symptoms were better, however, and she was going to church. Though Gifty knew her mother was ill, she did not understand what her mother was suffering from until she learned about depression as an illness in college. Later, home on a break, college-age Gifty asked her mother questions about her previous depression. Her mother answered honestly, due to a new phase in their relationship in which she no longer dodged Gifty’s questions. Because she had feared that she would be subjected to electroshock therapy, Gifty’s mother had not told anyone that her medication was not working. Adult Gifty reflects on old-fashioned electroshock therapy and lobotomies, rapid and then-untested psychiatric treatments that ruined many lives in the 1940s and 50s. Thinking about this history makes Gifty grateful for the slowness and caution of her own research.
While young Gifty was still in Ghana, her mother finally rose from her bed. Gifty’s return was arranged. At a church service in Ghana, the preacher praised God for rousing Gifty’s mother and pointedly criticized the West—meaning Gifty, raised in America—for its lack of faith. Gifty did not join in the praise, as she did not dare believe that her mother had been healed. Saying goodbye to her aunt, she realized that this joyful woman was what her mother could have been if she had been comfortable with herself and the world she lived in. Her aunt told her she was proud of her, and Gifty boarded the plane. When her mother saw Gifty, she smiled, and Gifty felt nourished by this small gesture.
Attending the funeral of one of her mother’s patients helped young Gifty begin to realize that her mother did not belong wholly to her, that she played important roles in other people’s lives as well. In the present, Gifty’s mother gets out of bed and asks to see Gifty’s lab. They visit it, and Gifty is relieved that no one is there. She does not want these experts on the brain to understand her mother as someone with a problem. Looking at Gifty’s mice, her mother asks if she might hold one. Gifty watches her handle the mouse tenderly. Thinking about how her mother was never really tender with her or Nana when they were children, she realizes once more how complex her mother is as a person. She thinks about this issue in terms of a psychological theory about children coming to understand their parents as they mature. She believes that this process never really ends and that she will never completely know her mother.
Gifty’s mother goes back to lying in bed all the time, so Gifty tries new strategies for attracting her attention. Meanwhile, instead of working, she imagines a fairy tale in which her mother is an African Sleeping Beauty who will be awakened by the sea and become a mermaid who lives forever. In her college class on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gifty recalls, she witnessed a conversation about the effect of religion on the poet’s life, which became a debate over whether religion could be a good thing. Gifty wondered if her professor had ever experienced the sense of being called to know God that Gifty did as a child. In the present, Gifty thinks about the unique human quality of being willing to try something new and unknown, even if it is dangerous. Humans want to feel alive through that risk. Yet the human desire to explore, she reflects, has led to colonial oppression of Indigenous people and caused serious environmental harm. What religion does not recognize, in her mind, is that human beings are animals, even if we behave differently than other animals. She looks at one of her mice and hopes that she will be able to get him to break the human habit of recklessness that her work has instilled in him.
A diary entry relates an experience in which Gifty competed with a friend to see who could stay underwater the longest. Gifty passed out and had to be rescued by her friend’s mother, who scolded her for risking her life. The entry ends with Gifty asking God whether he would let her die.
Reacting to the fallout of her brother’s addiction, Gifty avoided risk after his death. In high school and early in college, she refused to drink at parties. She had helped cover for Nana when he held parties at their home, always envying the quality that made him the center of attention. In her sophomore year of college, lonely and desperate for people to notice her, she got drunk at a party and attracted a great deal of attention. Her friend Anne asked her to dance and then took her away from the party. They discussed Anne wanting to win Gifty over and what Anne liked best about Gifty. Soon after, the two drove to a forest area to consume psychedelic mushrooms. Gifty felt herself unwinding and becoming open, but she could not make herself embrace that feeling of freedom. Despite her intimate friendship with Anne, she always refused to tell her stories about Nana. One day, Anne prodded her to tell one of these dark stories. Overcome with frustration, Gifty confronted Anne with the fact that Nana had died.
Human beings’ relationship with risk is central to this section. In the narration, Gifty says that reckless curiosity and the willingness to confront danger are what make human beings unique, different from other animals. Yet those reckless impulses can be profoundly destructive, whether on the scale of one person, one family, or the entire planet. In a sense, Gifty’s experiments are focused on restraining that aspect of human behavior, despite its importance to our unique identity. She is working toward making humans more like her mice, who would never have risked a danger like the electric shock until she prompted their addiction to Ensure. By doing so, she is also reconciling herself to a fact that her upbringing denied: humans are animals, too.
This section also focuses on Gifty’s ongoing attempts to understand her mother as a person. Starting with the moment in fifth grade when Gifty realizes her mother “wasn’t [hers,]” she constantly tries to understand who this separate human being is and how she works. When she observes her aunt’s cheerful behavior and realizes that her mother could have been “at ease in her body and in the world” if she had stayed in Ghana, Gifty begins to understand the effect that immigrating to a strange country and struggling to survive there must have had on her mother. In college, Gifty learns about depression and comes to “get a clearer picture” of this woman who raised her. Yet even as an adult in the book’s present, she is still puzzled by her mother at times, such when her mother tenderly holds one Gifty’s mice. Gifty thus believes that she will “never know” her mother as a whole person.
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