Gifty’s mother does nothing but sleep. She refuses to eat the komo, a favorite Ghanaian food, that Gifty makes after going to three stores for ingredients. Her mother’s back is always turned to her. After five days, her mother asks Gifty if she still prays.
One of the ways Gifty tries to show care for her mother is with food. She puts a great deal of effort into making Ghanaian dishes, which her mother rejects. The fact that the first words her mother says to her concern the practice of Christianity suggest that her faith is more important to Gifty’s mother than almost anything else, including her daughter.
Gifty thinks she was a merciful child, but she doesn’t see any continuity between that child and herself. So, she tells her mother the harsh truth: she doesn’t. Gifty remembers how, as a child, she prayed, read her Bible, and wrote letters to God in a journal, with code names for her family because she often wanted God to punish them for her. In excerpts, she complains to God that her mother (the Black Mamba) is being mean to her. She also brags about her adored brother Nana (Buzz), who got her treats and stuck up for her in games. But over time, he changed; one excerpt describes a night where he came home, yelled at their mother, and smashed up the living room. Gifty was 10. She remembers hiding in her bedroom with her mother while Nana raged and her mother prayed.
In an earlier moment, Gifty looked at herself in the mirror and felt completely disconnected from her childhood self. Here, she thinks that she would have been kinder to her mother as a child than she is as an adult. But then her memory suggests otherwise: she was a dogmatic and unmerciful child, complaining to God when people did things she didn’t like or approve of. These ruminations lead to a memory of her brother, Nana, when he was struggling with addiction and behaving in ways that scared and hurt Gifty and her mother.
In the present, her mother tells Gifty that she should pray. Then she takes two bites of the food. When Gifty asks if it’s okay, her mother shrugs and turns her back.
When Gifty’s mother eats a few bites of the food, it seems like a moment of redemption, or at least reconnection. But just as quickly, Gifty’s mother turns her back on her daughter again. Gifty seems to feel that the silence is punishment for her lost faith rather than a symptom of her mother’s depression.
Gifty goes back to the lab and performs surgery on some of her mice. No matter how many times she sees a brain, she’s still awed by its complexity. It’s this complexity that makes Homo sapiens what they are: the only animal to have transcended its kingdom. For Gifty, the “unknowable” and “magical” brain has displaced the Pentecostalism of her childhood as her religion.
Gifty’s mother just asked if she still prayed and Gifty said no because she no longer identifies with the Pentecostal faith of her childhood. But that doesn’t mean that she’s lost her sense of wonder or a belief in the transcendent. It’s just that now, science has become her religion. The brain, while available to scientific study, is so complex that it still seems mysterious and magical to Gifty. While her Pentecostal faith sought to transcend the merely human by appealing to God, as an adult, Gifty finds a sense of transcendence in the mysterious workings of human beings in and of themselves.
As a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford, Gifty is researching “the neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior,” although she has learned to simplify how she describes her work to most people. Now she tells her dates that she gets mice hooked on cocaine and then takes it away. It thrills her to have something illicit and interesting to say, just like having sex makes her feel powerful. She didn’t date in high school and spent college trying to move beyond the strict abstinence encouraged by her Christian faith.
The experiments that Gifty performs on the mice, especially the way she describes them to bored dates, emphasizes their symbolic alignment with Nana, who became addicted to opiates and died of an accidental heroin overdose. Gifty’s romantic history reveals how isolated she has become in response to her traumatic childhood: she sees relationships in terms of power dynamics rather than as intimate, mutually beneficial partnerships.
Gifty remembers a time when she asked her mother if she was beautiful. Her mother told Gifty to look at what God (and she) made, while forcing Gifty to look at herself in the mirror. When her work alarm went off, Gifty’s mother put on her lipstick, kissed her own reflection, and left. Gifty kissed her own reflection, too.
As Gifty thinks about how sex makes her feel powerful, she remembers a moment when she felt small and unpowerful. Gifty remembers looking at her own reflection in the mirror with her mother, while her mother made her acknowledge her own beauty. If Gifty looks and acts like her mother as a child, then it follows that she would still look and act something like her as an adult. Since Gifty needs to separate herself from her mother in order to discover her own identity, this memory is a reminder of how stuck Gifty is at the beginning of the story.
Gifty tries not to humanize her mice, but she does wonder if they notice the weight of the lenses she puts in their brains. She goes to her office to try to work on finishing an article for publication. But despite a sign that says “TWENTY MINUTES OF WRITING A DAY OR ELSE,” she has been “twiddling her thumbs” because the idea of graduating seems impossible. She doodles, then re-reads the journal entry that she keeps in her desk for inspiration.
Gifty prides herself on self-control and has done since she was a child. However, at this point in her research, she is struggling to hold on to that piece of her identity, and her inability to convince herself to work on the writing necessary to finish her degree suggests that she may have less control over herself than she imagined. The fact that she keeps a journal entry in her desk at the lab also suggests that there is more continuity between her past selves and her current self than she has been willing to admit.
In the entry, Gifty describes how handsome Nana looks as he dresses for prom in his special-ordered suit. When he gets into the limo with his date, he looks “normal.” And although she begged God to let things stay like this, her brother died of a heroin overdose just a few months later.
Although it’s been clear that something bad happened to Nana since the beginning of the story, it’s only after Gifty begins to describe her research that the book reveals the cause of Nana’s death. In fact, he died as the result of addiction, and addictive behavior is what Gifty studies in her mice. This reinforces the symbolic connection between Nana and the mice while also explaining part of the reason why Gifty lost her faith in a God who apparently didn’t listen to her prayer to heal her brother.