Everyone gossiped about the pastor’s pregnant daughter, wondering where she’d conceived her baby. But it wasn’t just her: many other teens got pregnant that year, including five from Gifty’s church. At the time, her “sex ed” was religious in tone: she had been told her body was a temple that she should keep holy, and she was asked to write an essay about the virtue of patience. Finally, the church rounded up the girls for an intervention.
The teenage pregnancy crisis in Gifty’s town vividly illustrates the fact that not everyone in the church practiced what they preached (or what was preached to them). Even when she was still a believer, there were signs all around Gifty that maybe her faith wasn’t so consistent as she believed—or wanted—it to be. This memory also serves to illustrate the profound anti-intellectual strain of Christianity Gifty experienced as a child, which rejected out of hand anatomically aware sex education. This helps to explain why she feels such a profound divorce between her religious, child self and her adult, scientific self, even if her actual approach to life blends elements of both selves.
The girls were taken to a former abortion clinic that’s been turned into a place for abstinence courses. Gifty and the other girls saw horrific images of STDs and were reminded that “covenant” agreements (like marriage, described as a covenant in the Bible) require bloodshed. A girl losing her virginity before marriage was making promises she couldn’t keep. This was about all of Gifty’s sex ed. When she got her period, she didn’t even know where to insert a tampon. She didn’t learn anything about vaginas until her freshman biology class in college. And, she realized, most of the other students’ early educations didn’t have the same massive holes (about things like sex and science) that hers did.
The memory of her “sex ed” also illuminates some of Gifty’s profound difficulty forming intimate relationships as an adult. It isn’t just the profound loss and trauma that happened in her family when she was a child, but that her religious faith made things like sex sound frightening and dangerous. As a result, Gifty felt herself to be profoundly behind her peers when she arrived at college and began to realize how different her upbringing and education were from the typical Harvard student.
Gifty’s memories switch back to the day she defended religion in Integrated Science. After class, Anne caught up with her and apologized for being a “bitch.” She followed Gifty back to her dorm, and soon they were inseparable. Anne was a senior, a mixed-race, atheist, incisive woman. She wanted to know if Gifty’s religion really required her to “flagellate” herself for her perceived sins. Gifty protested that she didn’t and that she no longer believed in God. But Anne knew she was rigid and “goody”: Gifty didn’t skip class, do drugs, or drink. Anne suspected she was still a virgin. Sitting together on the bed, Anne asked if Gifty had ever been kissed.
Reflecting on the gaps in her education because of her religious upbringing, Gifty’s memories circle back to her Integrated Science class, where her impassioned defense of religion may have marked her as a zealot to most of her peers. But it impressed Anne, who respects Gifty’s willingness to say what she believes, even when it’s not necessarily the easy or the popular opinion. It’s also clear that she has some of her own biases and stereotypes about Christianity, for instance that all Christians punish themselves excessively for straying from their understanding of good behavior. The fact that Gifty has to protest that she’s no longer Christian even though she avoids the kinds of teenaged behavior stereotypically classed as sins (drinking, drugs, and sex) further suggests that Gifty’s adult, non-believing self is less divorced from her faithful child self than she thinks at the beginning of the book.