As a child, Gifty thought she would grow up to be a dancer, a worship leader, a preacher’s wife, or an actress. She suspects her mother would have preferred worship leader, but she changed her mind on that career when she was old enough to go to the adult service and the singer’s warbling soprano voice made her uncomfortable.
When Gifty mentions her childhood aspirations, it becomes a bit easier to see how she feels her adult self is totally different from her childhood self: nothing like a scientist is on her early list of dream careers. It’s an early marker of difference between them that Gifty thinks her mother would have liked her to be a worship leader, when this was the potential career she crossed off her list first.
It reminded her of the baby bird she and Nana found when she was five. It had fallen from its nest. They brought it home, even though their mother would have unsentimentally left it to die. Gifty held the trembling bird while Nana got milk to feed it. The singer’s voice reminded Gifty of the bird’s trembling.
The worship leader’s voice reminds Gifty of the baby bird, which in turn symbolizes her unacknowledged need to be cared for and loved. This subtly suggests an early intuition that the First Assemblies of God Church would be incapable of fulfilling Gifty’s needs or answering her search for meaning. The siblings found the bird when Nana was still alive and was still a caretaker for his younger sister. Its unavoidable death after falling from the nest foreshadows how brief Gifty’s experience of being cared for and protected will be.
Next, Gifty planned to be a preacher’s wife, and prepared by offering to pray for her friends’ pets. One was a dog named Buddy, who was being threatened by a neighbor after he tipped over a garbage can and accidentally revealed the man’s secrets. In her living room, Gifty laid hands on Buddy and asked God to give him a spirit of peace. His continuing survival showed her the efficacy of her prayers.
Gifty’s memory of her brief career as a future preacher’s wife helps to paint a fuller picture of her character. Even as a young child, she relied on a sense of structure and order, a belief that if she did the right things (laying hands on Buddy the way church members lay hands on each other in prayer), then she would get the expected result.
When Nana was 15, their mother was cleaning his room and discovered hidden pills. Years later, at his funeral, she told Gifty that she blamed herself for not doing more. Gifty refused to comfort her, although she should have, because she felt angry and guilty, too. In the space of one tremble on that day, she stopped believing in God. When she was 15 herself, her biology teacher kindled her love of science. At the time, she felt that the teacher’s platitudes about the compatibility of faith and science were ridiculous, but now they are comforting. Especially the idea that people don’t know what they didn’t know; science helps humanity experiment and explore until it illuminates one more tiny light in the dark.
Gifty’s refusal to comfort her mother at Nana’s funeral is a second piece of evidence disproving her earlier belief that she was a merciful child. It seems that, for a long time, she has refused to show her mother compassion. The funeral is also the point at which she stopped believing in God, although she doesn’t yet reveal the specific reasons for her loss of faith. When she stopped believing in Christianity, she found her teacher’s attempts to square faith and science childish, but as an adult, she’s become more willing to acknowledge the limitations of her own knowledge (and human knowledge generally). This is one of the ways in which religion and science are similar: they are both responses to the limitations of human knowledge.
This reminds Gifty of the Naked Egg experiment she did in middle school to learn about osmosis. Because her mother complained about having to buy corn syrup, Gifty asked the teacher for some. But this mortified her mother, who worried that the teacher would think they couldn’t afford it. Watching the egg absorb colored water, all Gifty could think about was her mother’s tantrum over the corn syrup bottle. Gifty thinks that her life with her mother was (and still is) an experiment testing whether they will be okay.
The memory of the Naked Egg experiment touches on many of Gifty’s important formative experiences. Her mother’s horror at learning that Gifty asked the teacher for supplies points to her mother’s independence and pride in supporting her family all by herself in America. The tantrum her mother threw is an early indication of the reversal of roles between the two, foreshadowing how Gifty will have to become the parent when her mother becomes depressed. And the bird’s egg recalls the baby bird that Nana and Gifty found, pointing towards Gifty’s need for intimacy and love at a time in her life when she felt that she no longer had either.
In the present, Gifty and her mother aren’t talking. One night, when she goes to a party at Han’s house, she approaches her colleague, Katherine. She’s wary around Katherine, whom she feels overshares. Katherine reminisces about her psychiatry practice, which she misses because she loved seeing people get better. Gifty knows that her mother didn’t get better through therapy; she distrusted it and rejected mental illness as a Western invention.
Gifty recalls the Naked Egg experiment in the context of her mother’s silence, almost suggesting that her old tantrum might have been preferable. Desperate for connection, Gifty goes to a party at Han’s house. But when she’s there, it becomes clear that she has no idea how to get her need for intimacy met, since she’s completely unwilling to share anything about either her past or her current situation.
Still, Gifty remembers that not long after the Naked Egg experiment, her mother climbed into bed and refused to get up. Only 11 years old, Gifty made her food and learned to clean the house. When she found her mother in an overflowing bathtub, she felt betrayed, since she thought she was doing a good job.
The memory of the Naked Egg experiment is also connected to the memory of her mother’s suicide attempt, since both represent times that child Gifty thought she misunderstood what her mother wanted or needed from her. She tried to perform her mother’s caretaking tasks (cooking and cleaning), believing that if she did them “right,” then she’d get the result she wanted—her mother’s return to normal.
In the present, Gifty thinks about how she went into neuroscience because it is such a hard subject. After Nana’s addiction and her mother’s depression, she wanted to prove that she had no mental weakness. She was “a self-righteous child,” who used to pray for classmates she considered sinful and who lacked empathy for “small things” like friends’ breakups.
Gifty claims that she went into neuroscience to prove her own strength, which ties into her ongoing need to demonstrate masterful self-control. Thus, although she’s experimenting on mice to discover if it’s possible to adjust the way the brain reacts to reward, her choices in life have betrayed her belief that she can moderate her behavior on her own. Additionally, based on being raised by a distant mother and losing her beloved brother prematurely, for Gifty “self-control” primarily seems to mean holding herself apart from other people.
Eventually, her mother’s depression had “healed through prayer,” but her mother was like a broken bone that hadn’t been properly set, no longer strong or straight. In the present, Gifty goes home after the party to discover that her mother has been out of bed. Gifty thinks that they’re doing okay.
After Nana’s death and her mother’s depression, Gifty grew up needing to prove that she could control herself (unlike them). Yet, it’s not through self-control but through time and faith that her mother healed, suggesting a truth Gifty hasn’t yet realized: that sometimes an outside force is necessary to moderate or change a person’s behavior. And there are indications that time will heal her again: like when Gifty comes home from her failed attempt to connect with others to find that her mother has gotten out of bed, at least briefly.