Late one morning, Rachel asks Beth if she knows what love is. Beth says that she knows she loves Jesse, even though she can’t explain why. When Rachel tells her friends about Beth’s boyfriend, they usually respond with a combination of pity and surprise, and they want to know “how retarded” Jesse is. But to Rachel, Beth and Jesse are just Beth and Jesse—their IQs don’t matter.
Rachel and Beth’s conversation speaks to the key force at the heart of this book: the love that binds them together and convinces Rachel to immerse herself in Beth’s world. Rachel emphasizes that Beth and Jesse are just as capable of love as anyone else. She does so to dispel the assumption that every aspect of disabled people’s lives is somehow incomplete or inferior, compared to non-disabled people. This is the same assumption that leads Rachel’s friends to ask the inappropriate question of “how retarded” Beth and Jesse are (or, in today’s updated vocabulary, how severely disabled they are). Rachel suggests that ability, disability, and life experience can’t be neatly measured or quantified on a single spectrum—even though IQ tests might try to do so.
Jesse is shy, probably because he grew up Black in a racist Southern town, and he’s blind in one eye because, as a kid, he accidentally stepped on a pipe that hit him face. He spends his time riding his bike and sometimes doing small jobs, like mowing an old woman’s lawn. He and Beth visit each other often, but they don’t usually go out in public together because of the townspeople’s racism. They tell Beth that “people should stick with their own kind,” but Rachel can’t imagine two people who fit the same “kind” more so than Beth and Jesse.
Rather than defining Jesse through his disability or IQ, like her friends are apt to, Rachel introduces him as a complete person with his own personality, interests, and history. Like Beth, he lives a relatively autonomous life, of a sort that would have been unthinkable for people with developmental disabilities a generation ago. Still, the racism that he and Beth face shows that their city remains deeply prejudiced—if its residents judge people by surface-level traits like race, there’s no doubt that they also judge Beth and Jesse for their disabilities. Rachel says that Beth and Jesse are the same “kind” not simply because of their disabilities, but also because of their personalities and chemistry.
Rachel and Beth visit Jesse’s apartment, where he’s wearing a white martial arts uniform. He hesitates at first, but then he shakes Rachel’s hand and lets her in. Jesse and Beth are as comfortable around each other as any couple. Jesse tells Rachel about earning his black belt in karate, and Rachel catches Beth tuning out and talking to herself. Then, Jesse shows off his remarkably agile tae kwon do punches and kicks. Rachel explains that Jesse used to practice so much that he would have visions of people doing martial arts around him. After his demonstration, he tells Rachel that martial arts is a way of aligning the mind, body, and spirit—like prayer.
Jesse’s martial arts skill might surprise Rachel’s readers—perhaps because they have unconsciously absorbed harmful stereotypes about disability. Specifically, many people assume that people with developmental disabilities must be inferior to non-disabled people at everything and therefore cannot truly excel at anything. But Jesse’s skill shows that with practice and concentration, people with developmental disabilities can master complex skills just as well as non-disabled people. It may take them longer, but their disability is no barrier to success. This truth has important social implications, because it suggests that policies and social programs must focus on giving people with disabilities the support that they need to succeed, rather than simply assuming that they never will.
Before they leave for lunch, Jesse comments that he’s afraid of how people will treat him in public. They go to an empty restaurant. At first, the waitress looks unhappy to see Beth, but she takes her and Jesse’s orders respectfully. Rachel point out that it’s very difficult for most people to decide how to treat developmentally disabled people in public—after all, for several generations, most of them spent their lives locked up at home or in institutions.
Jesse’s fear shows how ableist prejudice makes it far more difficult for people with disabilities to fully participate in public, communal life. In fact, prejudice limits Jesse’s opportunities far more than his actual disability does. For instance, while readers might attribute Jesse’s shyness to his disability, in reality, it’s a response to this prejudice. In fact, it’s far easier to blame Jesse’s disability for his shyness, because this casts the problem as unsolvable and alleviates everyone else of responsibility. Yet Rachel emphasizes that combatting anti-disability prejudice requires empathy not only for people with disabilities, but also for non-disabled people who do not yet understand disability.
Rachel notices a bald man glaring at Beth and Jesse from across the restaurant, and she starts trembling with anxiety. But Jesse notices and tells her not to worry—he and Beth get stares all the time, and the only thing they can do is to ignore them and treat people respectfully. He explains that people used to bully him terribly, and he developed a serious anger problem. But he took classes to work through it, and now he just enjoys his life. He concludes that the bald man just “don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Jesse’s calm response to the staring man reminds the reader that Rachel is in the early stages of understanding truths that Beth and Jesse have already known for years. Specifically, they know that it’s impossible to stop people from judging them for their disability, so all they can do is try to fight that prejudice through kindness and empathy. In fact, Jesse empathizes with the bald man by recognizing that his prejudice is rooted in ignorance, not evil.
After Rachel, Beth, and Jesse finish eating, Beth goes to the bathroom, and Rachel asks Jesse what he thinks love means. He says that love means caring enough about someone to be willing to do anything for them. He says that he loves Beth’s sense of humor and the way they cheer each other up when they’re feeling sad. Rachel remembers how she used to feel about Sam, and Jesse jokes, “Now I got you stumped.” A few days later, Beth sends Rachel a letter with a list of things she loves about Jesse.
Unlike Beth, who struggles to articulate her feelings about love, Jesse offers a clear, concise definition that even surprises Rachel. Indeed, she’s “stumped” by his definition because it leads her to think through her own relationship issues and deep commitment to helping her sister. In this way, Jesse again defies stereotypes: based on his comments, his relationship with Beth looks remarkably like any other. And his wisdom about life and love, like his martial arts skills, far exceeds that of most non-disabled people.
Shortly after meeting Jesse, Beth showed Rachel a naked picture of him; the day after, she called their brother Max to reveal that she and Jesse had done “evrythiiiing.” Rachel’s family has always worried about how Beth would have sex safely, since she isn’t diligent enough to consistently take birth control. She loves babies and has always talked about wanting one—but the family agrees that she’s not responsible enough to raise a child. For a week after Beth first had sex with Jesse, everyone in the family took turns calling her, explaining the difficulties of motherhood and her options for contraception. Beth decided that she didn’t want a baby but refused all contraceptive methods except one: sterilization.
Beth and Jesse’s relationship may be healthy and mutually supportive, but their sex life presents yet another thorny ethical dilemma. If they don’t have safe sex, they might have a child they’re not prepared to car for; but forcing them to use protection would take away their autonomy to make their own health decisions. Beth’s family addresses this dilemma in the best way they can: by giving Beth as much support and information as possible, so that she can make an informed decision for herself. This is a model for how society can balance the concerns of safety and autonomy through policies to accommodate people with disabilities.
Rachel accompanied Beth to all of her medical appointments. She knew that she was doing her sister and family a great service, but she also felt like she was doing something terrible by making it impossible for Beth to have children. Rachel notices that, due to her own difficult childhood and her lifetime helping parent Beth, she hasn’t decided if she wants children, either. The morning of Beth’s surgery, the doctor re-explained the procedure, Beth signed a consent form, and Rachel and Jesse sat nervously in the waiting room. The procedure went smoothly. A decade later, Beth and Jesse are still together, but the subject of Beth’s surgery still makes Rachel uneasy.
Rachel recognizes that while helping Beth is necessary and morally good, the costs of doing so will always be hard to bear. In particular, Beth’s sterilization means that, in one crucial respect, her disability will prevent her from living the same kind of life as non-disabled people. Similarly, Beth’s procedure also reminds Rachel about the dark history of countries like the U.S. forcibly sterilizing women with intellectual disabilities. And it brings up her own personal struggles with love, romance, and family, which largely stem from her own difficult childhood.