Last Updated on February 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1370
Gifty relates her childhood hunger for an exotic family origin story, which her mother would never provide. Remembering the racism of her mother’s caregiving charge, Mr. Thomas, she thinks about the way that her father was treated in America generally. Her mother never wanted to admit that she herself was the target of racism, but she couldn’t ignore the way Americans reacted to her husband. The Chin Chin Man’s despair at being treated like a criminal kept him at home, which motivated his wife to find a church for their family. The church helped Gifty’s mother discover a place of connection, which gave her hope that she could become accustomed to living in the United States.
Gifty describes her childhood exploration of different careers. At age fifteen, the same age Nana had been when his problems with addiction began, she became interested in science. The narration turns to a time after Nana’s death when her mother expressed feelings of guilt about not having done more to help her son. Gifty, who blamed both her mother and herself, found herself unable to comfort her mother, and in that moment, Gifty lost her faith in God. She remembers doing a science experiment that upset her mother. Using this metaphor of an experiment, she describes the tentative nature of her relationship with her mother when only the two of them were left. The question of whether they were “okay” was constant.
The narration returns to Gifty’s graduate school days. She goes to a party and has a conversation with Katherine, a psychiatrist-turned-graduate student. This talk leads Gifty to think about her mother’s lack of belief in mental illness and the motivations behind Gifty’s own choice to become a neuroscientist. She wanted to do the hardest thing she could, as well as to understand what causes particular emotions in the brain and to discover how to stop an emotion. When she arrives home from the party, she sees evidence that her mother has left the bed. She reflects that they are “doing okay.”
After some time in the United States, Gifty says, her father found a job in a daycare, where the children loved the stories he told of secretly being a tree. The Chin Chin Man and Nana were very close. Nana told his father everything, and his father told him the same tree stories. Nana later said to Gifty that Nana had actually believed their father. In the lab, adult Gifty thinks about the time she told her mother she was going into science. She remembers a church service she attended when visiting from college, in which the pastor prayed for the college students not to be seduced by the secular world. Today, the goal of her scientific research is to determine whether the technique she is using on mice can eventually become a treatment for depression and drug addiction in human beings.
Gifty relates that her mother’s pregnancy with her was a surprise that wasn’t entirely welcome. Her mother always told her what a bad baby she had been. Young Gifty was able to interpret this in the context of Nana’s birth as a true miracle to her parents. Gifty says that in her own babyhood, she was loud and talkative, the opposite of her current self. She describes an audio recording from her childhood of Nana and the Chin Chin Man trying to have a conversation, which baby Gifty kept interrupting with urgent babble. Her disruptions made the two angry, especially Nana, but the Chin Chin Man implied that they had to tolerate it because Gifty was family.
In the present, Gifty notices evidence that her mother has been eating. She tries to attract her mother’s attention by going into the bedroom and loudly eating soup, but her mother still won’t talk to her. Reflecting on their relationship, she realizes that she has become an expert in her mother’s sadness over the years. That sadness cannot harm her now in the way it did when she was a child, but she still wants to communicate with her mother. As a child, Gifty remembers, she had a conversation with her mother about how to “pray without ceasing,” as the Bible commands. Her mother explained the idea of living itself as a form of prayer and encouraged Gifty to write to God. That was when Gifty started keeping a diary.
One of Gifty’s diary entries describes Gifty racing with Nana and planning to beat him next time. Another asks God to bless Nana and her mother and to let Nana adopt a dog.
Gifty describes the experience of going to Mr. Thomas’s funeral, which her father did not want to do, because Mr. Thomas was racist. Her mother insisted. At the funeral, one of Mr. Thomas’s children spoke ill of him, leading Gifty’s mother to make the Chin Chin Man stop the family car on the way home so that the family could pray about it. Gifty thinks about prayer and how they always prayed for Nana’s soccer team, of which he was the star, to win their games. She describes a particular game at which a racist man, whose son was on the other team, told his son “don’t you let them niggers win.” Nana was the only Black person on the team, so the slur must have referred to Gifty and her parents as well, reacting to the idea of a Black family succeeding. Enraged, Nana became a powerhouse, winning the game almost on his own. The message of this moment for young Gifty was that as a Black person, she would always be judged. She would need to excel at all times in order to prove herself.
This section highlights the role that racism has played in the lives of Gifty and her family. Racism against Black men oppressed both the Chin Chin Man and Nana. When discussing the soccer game incident, Gifty describes Nana’s rage as “a fury that would come to define and consume him,” implying that the racism he had experienced was at the root of Nana’s violent behavior and his fatal drug addiction. The direct effect of racism in Gifty’s own life is more insidious, creating a constant pressure to show “blazing brilliance” in a professional environment in which there are few women and even fewer Black people. Gifty wonders about what it was that turned her from a loud, talkative baby into a quiet person. Though Gifty does not say so, the book implies that this change was a result of the racist expectations that society has for Black women.
The reader also learns much more about Gifty’s mother and her personality. Discussing the way her mother acted and spoke to her and Nana, Gifty describes her mother as “a matter-of-fact kind of woman, not a cruel woman, but something quite close to cruel.” This description applies to her mother before Nana’s death. Afterward, that matter-of-factness did become cruel, making the “experiment” of Gifty and her mother living alone together more difficult. This section introduces the question of “are we okay,” an open issue in their relationship for adult Gifty as well as young Gifty.
In addition to the metaphor of a troubled family relationship as an experiment, there are some other key images that emerge in this section. Animals recur several times as a symbol of people’s gentleness or lack thereof. The author uses Gifty’s mother’s cold reaction to her children’s attempt to save a baby bird to show her not-quite-cruelty. Nana’s desire for a dog shows that he still had a loving nature even just before he died of the drug addiction that had made him violent. Gifty’s complex relationship with her mice makes her wonder what kind of person she is.
Mirrors are also mentioned several times in the context of Gifty’s relationship with her mother. Young Gifty wants to look like her mother when she looks in the mirror, while for adult Gifty, looking like her mother is an unpleasant surprise.
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