When Gifty looks at her mother and sees the spark of life beneath her illness, she thinks, “Please don’t go.” She tries to work from home, although she spends more time thinking about what she should be doing than actually writing her paper. She writes a fairytale in which her sleepy mother is carried on her bed back to Ghana, where she is laid at the edge of the ocean and brought back to the life by the waves. Then sea creatures make her a tail and she becomes a mermaid.
Gifty is terrified of losing her connection with her mother or her brother, and that seems to be part of the reason why she’s delaying writing up her results. Although her research has given her the answer she’s been seeking—the beginning steps on a path towards being able to “turn off” addiction in the brains of patients—it also represents the end of a project that allowed her to feel connected to her dearly loved and deeply missed brother. The fairytale that Gifty writes is an important step towards her individuation. Imagining her mother as a mythical, magical creature helps her to see her mother as a separate individual from herself. And, imagining a happy ending to her mother’s suffering releases her from some of the responsibility she feels to make things better for her.
Gifty remembers her English professor lecturing on Gerard Manley Hopkins, specifically his concept of “inscape” or “the sanctity of a thing.” A student asked if it was possible to talk about Hopkins without considering the repressive force of religion in his life. Admitting that church can be a place to learn right and wrong, the student nevertheless described the crushing religious guilt that he felt since no one told him that it was impossible to be perfect.
Yet again, Gifty’s college classmates argue for a strict division between the religious and secular worlds, holding religion accountable for causing more misery than salvation. One student acknowledges that there are valuable moral lessons to be learned in church, but he can’t separate those from the crushing sense of guilt he felt there. Gerard Manley Hopkins struggled with the guilt caused by what he felt to be the contradictions between his art and sexuality and his faith. But in response, instead of running away, he found a new and different way to express his understanding of the sacred in the world around him. His idea of “inscape” clearly resonates with the way that Gifty sees sacredness all around her, even though she’s lost her faith. The mice, the lab, and her experiments all have a sense of “inscape” and spiritual importance even though they are so distant from the religious practice of her childhood.
Gifty ruminates on right and wrong, which is sometimes taught to children by their parents and is sometimes learned through painful experimentation. But addicts don’t learn to avoid harmful things through their experiences. The only foolproof way to avoid addiction is to avoid all risks, but humans are hardwired to experiment and take risks. Stanford itself is proof, since the statehood of California depended on the risk-taking of explorers and pioneers.
But Gifty also understands that religion has its limits. For instance, while it can teach about morality, about right and wrong, sometimes those messages just don’t translate into a person’s brain. The painful shocks should teach the mice that their pursuit of the Ensure is potentially bad. And it does for most of them. But for some, it’s not enough and it fails. And this isn’t a failure in humans, but seems to be part of their design, because without taking risks, they wouldn’t have accomplished the things that they did, like crossing North America on foot.
Gifty’s work tries to anticipate this human recklessness and find a way to avert it. And she uses mice, which are subject to her whims. She manipulates them into seeking danger, and she understands that the things that put humanity apart from the animal kingdom—like recklessness and creativity—have also led to the destruction of nature.
The mice are good experimental subjects for Gifty because of their differences from humans. They don’t naturally seek out danger, so when they do, it's easy to tell that she’s found mice who are addicted to the Ensure. Gifty understands that humans are animals. But she also sees how the differences between humanity and the rest of creation—primarily in their heightened willingness to accept risk—can be a liability as much as a benefit.