Gifty’s mother used to tell Gifty that she wasn’t a very good baby. Nana had been a miracle and Gifty’s birth when her mother was 40 was in its shadow. Her mother made her understand that in a “matter-of-fact” but not “cruel” way. Yet, when Nana died, these “facts” started to feel cruel.
For Gifty, even the story of her own birth demonstrates how she has something to prove. Her mother had wanted Nana but Gifty was a surprise. And, unlike her older brother, she was a trial to her mother when she was an infant. Although (or perhaps because) she clearly longs for a deeper connection with her mother, Gifty continually excuses her less-than-intimate maternal behavior, trying to convince herself (and readers) that things that actually felt cruel were just facts.
But, when Gifty’s family had four members, their life was sweet. The Chin Chin Man, of whom she has pleasant (if distant) memories, had steady work as a janitor. As an adult, Gifty is quiet and shy, but she was a chatty baby. When she sees or hears herself on recordings from that time, she feels like she’s seeing another person. In one, Nana tries to tell their father a story while she babbles urgently in the background. Adult Gifty hears genuine fear and warning in baby Gifty’s voice. Eventually, Nana becomes angry enough to slap her and get in trouble.
For the first time, Gifty shows a true contrast between her childhood (or babyhood) self and her adult self that seems to support the feelings of discontinuity she has about her life. She was a chatty baby, but she is a quiet adult. The question of what changed has already been partially answered: we know that her father will leave the family picture at some point and then Nana will die. But perhaps another clue lies in the family recordings: Nana slaps Gifty for demanding attention when he himself wants it. Although the Chin Chin Man disciplines Nana, the lesson is clear, even to baby Gifty: Nana is the family’s center.
In the present, Gifty’s mother is eating again, but not in front of Gifty, and only Amy’s Chunky Tomato Bisque. Gifty has lots of convenience foods because she is a busy grad student, although she feels ashamed of her purchases at the grocery store. As Gifty sits in her mother’s room to eat, her mother still refuses to face her. After her mother’s first depression, Gifty made herself an expert on her face and its moods. But now it is hidden from her.
Although Gifty has tried to forge an intimate connection with her mother by cooking elaborate Ghanaian food, her mother rejects her attempts and will only eat canned soup. Her turned back is another sign of rejection: she refuses to talk to her daughter and she denies Gifty the opportunity to glean any information about her feelings from looking at her face. The fact that Gifty became an expert in her mother's moods by sight as a child shows how long her functioning in her family has relied on correctly guessing her mother's feelings.
This makes Gifty think of Edward Tronick’s “Still Face Experiment,” which asks mothers to first interact with their babies then to turn to stony-faced silence. In response, the babies panic and suffer. When she watched the video of this experiment in college, Gifty was reminded of the childhood tape of her babbling. But watching the video of the experiment was harder because the students had to see the babies’ distress. One student ran out of the room crying. In the present, she thinks of her relationship with her mother as the “Turned Back” experiment. She feels that the harm she’ll suffer will be minimal, because she’s a fully formed adult and a scientist who understands her mother’s mental illness as a disease. Nevertheless, desperate to get her mother to speak with her, she lies a little and says that she still prays sometimes.
The connection between the audio recording of baby Gifty and the adult Gifty is rejection. Gifty, as yet unable to acknowledge this truth to herself, expresses it mostly by resorting to the comfort of a scientific explanation. In this way, she uses scientific papers almost like a Christian uses the Bible: as a holy text that allows her to understand how the world around her works. In this case, she references a famous study about maternal rejection which also explains how a chatty baby Gifty might have become a withdrawn, suspicious adult Gifty: the babies who are treated to the stony-faced mother panic and quickly become withdrawn and wary. And Gifty’s attempt to connect with her mother by reassuring her that she does still sometimes pray contradicts her assertion that she’s unharmed by her mother’s turned back. The rejection clearly affects Gifty and still makes her suffer, even if she’s somewhat used to it by now.
As a child, Gifty worried about a Bible verse, the words of which tell believers to pray without ceasing. This felt impossible to her. Her mother asked her what she thought prayer was, and Gifty was stumped. She approached faith like homework, expecting that following the rules would yield predictable results. Her mother replied that living a godly life is a kind of prayer. She also suggested that if it was hard to pray, Gifty could write her prayers to God. Gifty began her journal that night, hooked on the feeling it gave her of being connected to God. In the present, she wonders if slurping soup with her mother is prayer.
The degree of Gifty’s lie about still praying depends on how one defines prayer. When she was a child, she interpreted the words of the Bible very literally, so verses saying things like “pray continually” confused and alarmed her. Her first attempt to follow this commandment was literal and she found that it failed. But her mother (as readers have already seen at the beginning of the book) interprets received wisdom like cliches and Bible verses more flexibly. She suggests to Gifty that a life well-lived could be a kind of prayer. And if that’s the case, then adult Gifty’s claim that she still prays might not be so much of a lie.