Jahren’s studies and scientific research take her far from her home in rural Minnesota, and while she experiences long stretches of social isolation, she eventually creates her own—albeit nontraditional—family that is firmly rooted in her love of science. In this way, Lab Girl emphasizes the importance of chosen family, implying that a nontraditional family can be just as supportive and emotionally nourishing as a traditional one, if not more so.
Jahren’s childhood in rural Minnesota sets the stage for her emotional distance from her family and friends: she comments that the “vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.” She notes that she knows little of her ancestors beyond the fact that they arrived from Norway in the late nineteenth century, and rarely saw her extended family members during her childhood, even the ones who lived in the same small town where she grew up. Jahren writes that her family’s strong suit was “silent togetherness”—like how every evening she and her father would walk two miles from his lab to their home in silence. Many of the families in her small town had lived there for generations, and Jahren notes that it was only when she was older, and left home for larger urban areas, that she realized that the world was populated by people she did not already know. Yet warmth, affection, and emotional openness were not culturally appropriate in Jahren’s hometown, and Jahren’s memoir implies that she didn’t maintain close relationships with many people she grew up with. She even comments that she hardly noticed when her three older brothers left home, as she rarely spoke to them when they lived in the same house.
Within this context, Jahren strikes up a friendship with the one person who seems less socially adept than she is; she first notices Bill in a field research trip, where he is perpetually “several meters away from the edge of the group, digging his own private hole.” The deep, platonic relationship that they develop is built on a foundation that combines a love of science and intense social awkwardness—the beginnings of a chosen family that is more supportive and fulfilling than the family she’s grown up with. Jahren and Bill began to seek each other out, sharing space along the margins of any social situation, maintaining a comfortable silence that may have reminded Jaren of her quiet evening walks with her father. When Bill arrives in Atlanta to join Jahren and help her build her own science lab, she recalls “the deep and simple happiness that comes from not being alone.” Jahren and Bill’s friendship changes only slightly when Jahren meets Clint, who will become her husband and the father of her child. At first, Bill is uncomfortable with Jahren’s new relationship, especially as she and Clint show up on his doorstep, proclaiming that they are now married. According to Jahren, however, Clint ensures a smooth transition to this new situation by handing Bill the keys to his car, and the three of them enjoy Family Day at Fort Henry. She notes the significance of the so-called Family Day with no irony: Bill and Clint are her chosen family, the people who keep her safe, sane, and happy, even if they do so in different ways.
When Bill’s father dies, Jahren is living in Norway and can only communicate her support for Bill from a distance, which translates to a string of unanswered emails and texts. Hoping to connect with him in the way that only she can, Jahren buys Bill a ticket to Ireland, meets him at the airport, and the two embark on a multi-day field trip through the countryside to collect soil samples. But as they have not secured the paperwork to take the samples they have collected back to the United States, they bring back only their field notes and the shared memory of the experience. More than the scientific value of the trip, however, is Bill’s realization that family structures change, and while he had lost his father—who played an important role in his young life—he was not alone. Jahren’s gesture ensured that Bill recognized their familial bonds, as she was there to help him grieve.
Jahren’s line of work can be painfully isolating, as she spends more time surrounded by plants in the lab than she spends interacting with other human beings. That, coupled with a childhood that discouraged warmth and closeness even between family members, would suggest dismal outcomes for Jahren’s social connections. Luckily, this was not the case; Jahren’s infectious enthusiasm for scientific research brought her into contact with kindred spirits, giving her the opportunity to share her life’s work with a true professional and platonic partner, as well as a romantic one, crafting for herself a nontraditional, chosen family.
Family and Friendship ThemeTracker
Family and Friendship Quotes in Lab Girl
As much as I desperately wanted to be like my father, I knew that I was meant to be an extension of my indestructible mother: a do-over to make real the life that she deserved and should have had. I left high school a year early to take a scholarship at the University of Minnesota—the same school that my mother, father, and all of my brothers had attended.
“Hey, you guys! Want a cold one?”
“No, I don’t. That stuff you are drinking tastes like piss.”
“Well, I don’t really like beer, but that stuff does seem pretty awful.”
“Jean Genet wouldn’t have even stolen that shit.”
For all the time that we spent together, Bill had mostly remained a mystery to me. I had been around him enough to know that he didn’t do drugs, skip class, or litter on the street—incongruously enough, considering his disaffected comportment—but I didn’t know anything beyond that.
Why are they together, the tree and the fungus? We don’t know. The fungus could certainly live very well alone almost anywhere, but it chooses to entwine itself with the tree over an easier and more independent life […] perhaps the fungus can somehow sense that when it is part of a symbiosis, it is also not alone.
Thus splitters and lumpers are both productive only when forced into bickering collaboration, and though together they produce great maps, they rarely return from field trips on speaking terms.
Look at those guys. I’m going to do this job for thirty more years, work as hard as any of them, accomplish just as much or more, and not one of them will ever look me straight in the eye like I belong here.
I discover within a second context that when something just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work—and similarly, there are some things that you just can’t screw up.
“C’mon, Bill, you’re with us now. Why don’t you drive?”
When I wake, I hold my baby and I think about how he is my second opal that I can forever draw a circle around and point to as mine.
I got out my bike and looked up through the warm, tropical sky, into the terminal coldness of space, and saw light that had been emitted years ago from unimaginably hot fires that were still burning on the other side of the galaxy. I put on my helmet and rode to the lab, ready to spend the rest of the night using the other half of my heart.