By the time Rachel and her siblings are in their twenties, Rachel is writing a book, Laura is succeeding in advertising, and Max is in law school. But Beth spends all of her time watching television in her father’s basement. The whole family worries about what she should do. Rachel and Beth’s father has moved to rural Pennsylvania with his new wife, a professor, and there’s nothing for Beth to do there—unless she can ride the bus downtown on her own. But everyone thinks this would be too dangerous. Beth’s father’s company shut down, so Beth doesn’t have a job anymore. Her father also doesn’t think that it would be right to send her to a group home.
Beth’s developmental disability separates her from her siblings and affects her life path more and more as she grows up. Eventually, by the time she’s a young adult, it’s clear that her life will not look like her siblings’, and that she will need special accommodations in order to succeed. Of course, it’s unclear what success even means for someone like Beth, which is why her early twenties presented such a challenging dilemma for her and her family. Ultimately, the self-determination principle is important precisely because it resolves this dilemma by giving people with disabilities control over their own lives.
Meanwhile, Rachel and Beth’s mother marries a kind, generous factory worker, who helps her work through her fears about Beth. She’s primarily worried about Beth’s obesity and terrible diet. Then, she and her husband both lose their jobs, and they move away to North Carolina.
Rachel and Beth’s mother shows how people can overcome even the worst fear and trauma by building supportive, loving connections with others. In fact, her healing process closely resembles the way Rachel heals over the course of this book by connecting with Beth and the bus drivers.
Rachel and Beth’s father signs Beth up for a social services program called a “sheltered workshop.” Soon, she gets a job. But then, things take a turn for the worse. Beth starts lying about breaking things in the house, stealing money from her stepmother, and sneaking out of the house to meet friends. The workshop’s leaders complain that she is causing serious trouble. She enjoys causing mischief, and she knows that because of her disability, others don’t hold her totally responsible for it. Her siblings all feel lost when dealing with her. None of them wants to be stuck supporting her, but all of them feel guilty that they’re unable to.
Beth’s job and workshop offer an alternative to her old lifestyle of watching TV at home. This is an example of how people with disabilities can flourish and contribute to society if they are able to participate in activities specifically adapted to their needs. However, Beth’s case also shows that not all people with disabilities will benefit from the same kinds of services. Thus, the government must provide a wide range of viable work and lifestyle alternatives to people with disabilities, so that they can choose. This again demonstrates why self-determination is so important: people with disabilities must have the right to choose which services they truly want and need.
Rachel and Beth’s father eventually asks Rachel, Laura, and Max to each care for Beth one weekend per month. Rachel wants to, but she tells her father that she can’t. He admits that her siblings also said no, and Rachel realizes that she has profoundly let down her family. Eventually, Rachel and Beth’s father finds Beth a place in a group home. But Beth doesn’t like it—especially because she has to share her apartment. When Rachel visits, she feels a mix of pity, guilt, and relief. On their way out for ice cream, one of Beth’s roommates “accidentally” slams into Beth’s foot with the vacuum. Beth barely enjoys her ice cream or the round of mini golf they play afterward.
Rachel’s sense of responsibility toward Beth conflicts with her own needs—Rachel knows that no matter what she chooses to do, she will have to sacrifice something deeply important to her. Thus, just like during her year riding the buses with Beth, she feels guilty because there is no “guide to being a good sister.” The group home is one possible solution to her family’s need to balance their own well-being with Beth’s, but Rachel clearly sees that it is far from the best solution. In particular, Beth doesn’t want to live a segregated life, surrounded by other people with similar disabilities—instead, she wants to participate in a broader, more diverse community.
During her first three years in the group home, Beth eventually learns to take the bus to her workshop, makes some friends (including Jesse), and starts to talk in a different dialect, like the other people in her program. But in her fourth year, she quits her workshop and starts spending almost all her time watching TV. She no longer talks about anything else or takes an interest in her family members’ lives. She stops seeing her mom and dad, and Rachel feels her critical “dark voice” latching onto all of Beth’s failures and imperfections.
The group home certainly helps Beth grow and develop some skills, but she loses motivation once she starts to feel that there is no alternative to living there. At that point, she withdraws from other people and the world, much like Rachel after her breakup or their mother after her abusive relationship with the conman. Thus, it’s clear that Beth needs a change in her life, so that she can build genuine relationships with other people and find a sense of purpose beyond her TV screen.
The next year, when Beth is 32, she decides that she wants to live alone. The family worries about her safety, but she insists anyway. Jesse and the social services agency help her move into an apartment, and she immediately sells most of her furniture.
Beth’s decision forces her family to confront the challenges of self-determination for the first time. Just like Rachel throughout her year with Beth, the family struggles to weigh Beth’s happiness and autonomy against her safety.
While Rachel and Sam face deep relationship issues and break up, Rachel starts falling out of touch with Beth. Max reports that Beth has started riding buses, and Rachel and Beth start trading letters. Max visits Beth every month with his family, while Laura visits once a year, and Beth’s mother even less. Their relationships are all awkward and full of conflict. Beth and her dad live in the same city, and he often sees her riding the bus right past his house, but she never gets off.
As everyone in Rachel’s family builds their own individual lives, they start withdrawing from one another. In fact, they simply repeat the same pattern that Rachel and Beth’s mother followed after her abusive relationship, and that Beth followed during her time in the group home. Clearly, someone in the family needs to break this cycle by making a sincere effort to reconnect with everyone else.
One night, Rachel tosses and turns in bed as she struggles to come up with an idea for a magazine article. Then, she sees the full moon out her window and remembers how Beth always said, “Moon’s following us!” This reminds her that some things are impossible to leave behind. She decides to visit Beth.
This scene shows how Rachel decides to take the decisive step in bringing her family back together. She identifies the deeper wisdom in Beth’s longtime refrain about the moon. Of course, when she mentions the things that she can’t leave behind, she’s really talking about her family, their troubled history, and her relationship with Beth.