As a child, Gifty assumed a caretaking role for her drug-addicted older brother, Nana, and then for her deeply depressed mother. As an adult, she can’t relinquish her caretaker role or accept intimacy until she realizes that accepting care from others doesn’t make her weak, which only happens after her experiments on the neuroscience of addiction are successful. In this way, the book shows both the importance of caretaking in intimate relationships and outlines why Gifty struggles to accept intimacy herself: forced into taking care of others whom she saw as weak, Gifty must first confront her own limitations and learn that needing help doesn’t make a person weak.
Life circumstances required Gifty to fill adult caretaking roles early in life. She, not their mother, rode with Nana to the hospital after his injury. And it was Gifty who made Nana coffee in a misguided attempt to rouse him from his stupor and nursed him while he came down from his highs. When their mother became depressed after Nana’s death, 11-year-old Gifty took on the cooking and cleaning in addition to school. A rules-oriented child, Gifty thought she needed to cultivate personal strength as a defense against depression and addiction. But strength, the novel shows, is isolating. Because she wants to believe that she doesn’t need help, she rejects an important friendship with Anne and a romantic partnership with Raymond, leaving her alone and without anyone to support her.
But Gifty’s experiments prove that strength of character alone won’t protect against “mental weakness.” This knowledge—in addition to the loneliness and isolation of caring for her mother as she suffers yet another depression—begin to break down Gifty’s barriers. To escape the apartment she now shares with her mother, Gifty attends a party thrown by her lab mate, Han. This act of camaraderie allows them to talk more at work, until Han overcomes his shyness and asks Gifty on a date. At the party, Gifty is so desperate to fix her mother’s depression that she tries to tell a colleague, Katherine, about it. It takes a few more failed attempts, but eventually Gifty asks Katherine for help. Through her neuroscientific experiments, Gifty comes to realize that mental strength isn’t the answer to life’s pain, and that being depressed or addicted doesn’t make a person weak. And by developing friendships with Katherine and Han (and later, a long-term romantic relationship with Han), she begins to realize that accepting help and support from others is essential to her mental health. Indeed, it helps her heal from the trauma she experienced as a child, when she was forced to take on a caretaking role long before she was ready to do so.
Trauma, Caretaking, and Intimacy ThemeTracker
Trauma, Caretaking, and Intimacy Quotes in Transcendent Kingdom
I was determined not to let that happen again. I’d bought a Ghanian cookbook online to make up for the years I’d spent avoiding my mother’s kitchen, and I’d practiced a few of the dishes in the days leading up to my mother’s arrival, hoping to perfect them before I saw her. I’d bought a deep fryer, even though my grad student stipend left little room for extravagances like bofrot or plantains. Fried food was my mother’s favorite. Her mother had made fried food from a cart on the side of the road in Kumasi. My grandmother was a Fante woman from Abandze, a sea town, and she was notorious for despising Asantes, so much so that she refused to speak Twi, even after twenty years of living in the Asante capital. If you bought her food, you had to listen to her language.
Like when I was five and Nana was eleven, and we found a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. Nana scooped it into his big palms, and the two of us ran home. The house was empty. The house was always empty, but we knew we needed to act fast, because if our mother came home to find the bird, she’d kill it outright or take it away and drop it in some small stretch of wilderness, leaving it to die. She’d tell us exactly what she’d done, too. She was never the kind of parent who lied to make her children feel better … Nana left the bird with me while he poured a bowl of milk for it. When I held it in my hands, I felt its fear, the unending shiver of its little round body, and I started crying.
I’m not pretending there is an impending disaster; I truly believe that there is one. At one point, I make a low, guttural, animal sound, a sound so clearly biological in its design to elicit attention and sympathy from my fellow animals, and yet my fellow animals—my father, my brother,—do nothing but talk over me … we are all safe, in a small, rented house in Alabama, not stranded in a dark and dangerous rain forest, not on a raft in the middle of the sea. So the sound is a nonsense sound, a misplaced sound, a lion’s roar in the tundra. When I listen to the tape now, it seems to me that this itself was the disaster I foresaw, a common enough disaster for most infants these days: that I was a baby, born cute, loud, needy, but wild, but the conditions of the wilderness had changed.
If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remind myself what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound. And what a wound my father leaving was. On those phone calls with the Chin Chin Man, my mother was always so tender, drawing from a wellspring of patience that I never would have had if I were in her shoes. To think of the situation now still makes me furious. That this man, my father, went back to Ghana in such a cowardly way, leaving his two children and wife alone to navigate a difficult country, a punishing state. That he let us, let her, believe that he might return.
We walked to the Greyhound station, our mother holding our hands the entire time. We took that bus home, and I don’t think Nana made a single noise. I don’t think I did either. I could feel that something had changed among the three of us and I was trying to learn what my role in this new configuration of my family might be. That day was the end of my naughtiness, the beginning of my good years. If our mother was angry or upset at us, me for being a terror, Nana for changing his mind, she didn’t let on. She wrapped us in her arms during that long ride home, her face inscrutable. When we got home, she put all of Nana’s soccer gear into a box, sealed the box, and dumped it into the nether regions of our garage, never to be seen again.
She would tell me stories about her sister and then look at me expectantly as though I were meant to trade. A sister story for a brother story, but I wouldn’t do it. Anne’s stories about her sister, about the parties they’d gone to, the people they’d slept with, they didn’t feel like an even trade for the stories I had about Nana. My Nana stories didn’t have happy endings. His years of partying, of sleeping around, they didn’t end with him holding down a job in finance in New York, as Anne’s sister did. And it wasn’t fair. That was the thing that was at the heart of my reluctance and my resentment. Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some people don’t.
I started reading my way through every entry I’d ever written, reading my way through what was essentially my entire conscious lifetime. I was so embarrassed by the early entries that I read them all, cringing and squinting my eyes in an attempt to hide from my former self. By the time I got to the years of Nana’s addiction, I was undone. I couldn’t proceed. I decided then and there that I would build a new Gifty from scratch. She would be the person I took along with me to Cambridge—confident, poised, smart. She would be strong and unafraid. I opened up a blank page and wrote a new entry that began with these words: I will figure out a way to be myself, whatever that means, and I won’t talk about Nana or my mom all the time. It’s too depressing.