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Transcendent Kingdom

Synopsis & Summary


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The Quick Plot Synopsis and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.

Table of Contents
Quick Plot Synopsis
Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.

Quick(-ish) Summary

Gifty is a 28-year-old sixth-year PhD student in neuroscience who is studying the effect of drugs on the brain through experiments with mice. Her older brother, Nana, died from a heroin overdose when Gifty was 11, which led to her mother into a deep depression. Gifty's research is aimed at understanding and modifying reward-seeking behaviors, both in cases of too much (addiction) and too little (depression) reward-seeking.

The book intersperses stories of Gifty's past with her current life and research. Her parents were Ghanaian immigrants who moved to Alabama after Nana was born. Gifty's mother is deeply religious, and she had been the one who had once insisted on moving to America. The move made Gifty's father miserable, but Gifty's mother rooted herself in a local church. Gifty's father eventually moved back to Ghana by himself when Gifty was still young, leaving a gaping hole in their family. Nana was 11 at the time and Gifty was preschool aged.

Now, Gifty's mother is depressed again and goes to Stanford to stay with Gifty. Gifty takes care of her mother and runs her lab experiments. Early on, she experimented to determine that some mice would continue to push a lever that gives a reward (food), even when they will sometimes receive pain (shocks). From there, she identified two potential neurons that moderate that reward-seeking behavior. Now, she is in the process of using optogenetics (using light to control neurons) to see if triggering those neurons will adjust the mice's behavior. It's science that could eventually transcend its usage on mice to help manage reward-seeking behaviors in humans. It's also part of Gifty's attempts to understand her mother and brother.

After their father left, Nana was angry and resentful over his father's absence. Nana discovers basketball at 13 and becomes a star player. His sophomore year, he hurts his ankle and is put on Oxycontin. He gets hooked and his addiction grows into a two-and-a-half-year drug problem, ending with his death.

After Nana dies, Gifty loses her faith in God. Through much of the book, Gifty tries to reconcile and process her conflicted thoughts about her faith. It's mixed in with her feelings about the racism and contempt she encountered while Nana was in the throes of addiction. Meanwhile, her mother is deeply depressed after Nana's death. When her mother attempts suicide, Gifty is sent to Ghana to stay with her Aunt Joyce for the summer.

In present day, her mother's has good days and long stretches of bad days. Meanwhile, Gifty has some doubts about her science, with the slow pace of the progress and frustration over the limits of neuroscience, such as the fact that it still doesn't answer the question of why things like addiction occur in the first place. However, her experiment works, and she is able to stop a reward-seeking mouse from pushing the lever. Gifty, who tends to be a loner and unable to let people in, also gets to know Katherine, a fellow neuroscience PhD and a former psychiatrist. Katherine is persistent in her attempts at friendship and Gifty slowly allows Katherine to help support her as a friend.

Gifty comes home one day to find her mother missing. She ultimately finds her mother in a swimming pool in her pajamas. Gifty is frantic, but even in her disjointed state, her mother assures Gifty that she will be okay, and that God is always with her. Gifty drives around not knowing what to do, but finally tells herself that everything will be okay.

The book ends by flashing forward to Gifty being married to Han, her old lab mate, who she has a trusting and healthy relationship with. Her mother is now passed away, but she died at home, in bed and with her caregiver to help. Gifty still visits church and no longer has doubts about her faith. Before she leaves church each time, she lights two candles.


Chapter-by-Chapter Summary & Analysis

Chapter 1

The book opens with Gifty recalls being sent to Ghana as an 11-year-old child when her mother was sick. She and her aunt go to Kejetia Market each day to sell knock-off bags. Her aunt, speaking in Twi (a dialect of a language spoken in Ghana), points out a gesticulating, dreadlocked man, saying that “That is what crazy looks like”. In her mind, Gifty juxtaposes the images of the serene, but wildly gesticulating man against the vision of her mom sleeping completely still but going crazy inside.

Analysis: Gifty narrates that she could see that her mother actually “wasn’t sick, not in the ways that I was used to” and indicates that there’s something mentally wrong with her mother. (Later, it becomes clear that her mother was depressed.) Gifty is not sure what her aunt meant by it, but Gifty associates being “crazy” with her mother, except her mother is lifeless and going crazy inside. Meanwhile, this man seems perfectly serene, but is acting crazy to others.

It also shows how Gifty is preoccupied with worry about her mother. The scene also sets up a recurring visual imagery that Gyasi uses throughout the novel, of juxtaposing two alike-yet-contrasting things against each other.

Chapter 2

Years later, Gifty is a graduate student at Stanford, working in a lab. Her mother’s illness is back again. Their pastor, Pastor John, puts Gifty’s mother on a plane to SFO, and Gifty sees that her mother seems lifeless and vacant. Her mother lost 70 pounds the last time she was sick, so this time around, Gifty has purchased a Ghanaian cookbook and deep-fryer to cook her mother’s favorite foods — fried foods reminiscent of the food that her grandmother cooked for her mother as a child in Kumasi, Ghana.

Analysis: In this chapter, we get a better sense of who Gifty’s mother is. She is a devout Christian and a Ghanaian immigrant who moved to Alabama. She calls Gifty “a bleeding heart” because she has left the bible belt to live among liberal “sinners” (though she gets the phrase wrong and calls her “my bleeding heart”, which seems to subconsciously imply a love and possession over Gifty even as she criticizes her life choices).

We also learn that Gifty’s grandmother was a “woman from Abandze, a sea town” who sold food from a cart at the side of the road. Her grandmother was Fante and insisted on speaking the Fante dialect, as opposed to Twi, which was more common in that area.

Gifty’s mother is sick again, but Gifty is older this time around. Despite her limited budget, she’s determined to take care of her mother which she was unable to do last time as a child.

Chapter 3

Gifty goes to the lab, where she is running an experiment on mice. She goes to check on them to find a wounded one that will likely soon die. She cries (and attributes the crying to a bad date when her lab mate, Han, notices.)

Analysis: Gifty cries over her mouse because it reminds her of her mother’s mortality. Gifty’s fear of losing her mother is compounded by the fact that two other members of their family are no longer there (“there used to be four of us, then three, two”). When her mother dies, Gifty will be all alone.

While it’s not clear yet, throughout the book, we see the impact each one of the family members had on one another, creating a careful balance and rounding out each others’ edges that later falls apart.

Chapter 4

Three notes addressed to God, presumably written by Gifty, ask questions about where God is and what he looks like.

Analysis: It’s not clear yet when these notes were written or who they were written by, but it seems to be written by Gifty in when she was much younger. (Later, it’s clear that they are part of her continuous journaling to God as a child.) It talks about someone named “Buzz”, who Gifty seems to have fun with and rely on for answers. It can be inferred to be someone from her family that is now gone, likely an older brother.

Young Gifty is asking questions of God (where is he? what does he look like?), which seems to show her as an inquisitive child trying to understand her religion. She and Buzz nickname their mother the “Black Mamba” (which is a fierce, African snake) because her mother is fierce and stealthy.

She also mentions that Buzz “doesn’t do impressions of the Chin Chin Man anymore” (which we soon learn is a nickname for their father). It hints that at some point there was a significant change (probably their father’s absence) in Gifty and Buzz’s life that resulted in Buzz no longer doing that impression.

Chapter 5

Gifty’s mother used to call her father “the Chin Chin Man”. (Chin chin is a nickname for achomo, a type of Ghanaian food, that her father liked). They married when Gifty’s mother was around 30 years old, and Gifty’s father was six years older. They are Pentecostal. They are grateful when Gifty’s brother, Nana, is born.

Gifty’s father loved Ghana and their life there, but her mother wanted to move to America to give Nana the world. She has a cousin in America who sends money and clothes back, which makes her mother believe that those things are plentiful in America. They apply for a green card via lottery at a time when it is not common for Ghanaians to do so, which means the odds are good. Her mother moves to America a few months after, staying with her cousin in Alabama. Gifty’s father moves, too, after they save up enough for another plane ticket and a home.

Analysis: This chapter is about Gifty’s father and Gifty’s parents relationship. It shows that they were religious, but it borders on being superstitious (Gifty’s mother fasts and prays for three days and is certain that is what brought about the pregnancy she was hoping for). The superstitions of Gifty’s mother come into play later in the book. (There are many examples throughout the book of how, in Ghana, it’s more acceptable and more of a positive thing to be superstitious, believe in folk treatments and other things like that.)

Gifty refers to Nana as her mother’s “Isaac”. This is a reference to a biblical story from the Old Testament. Isaac in the is son of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah is past the age of childbearing, but God promises Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son and Isaac is born.

This chapter also discusses the green card lottery. The chances of “winning” the green card lottery are dependent upon how many people in your country are also applying, because the quotas are on a country-by-country basis. Therefore, if less people are applying, then the odds are in your favor if you apply.

Chapter 6

In present day, Gifty tries to care for her mom, but her mother keeps her back faced towards her whenever Gifty enters the room. Gifty admits to her mother that she no longer prays. Gifty reads through her old journals from when she was very young. In them, young Gifty refers to her family with nicknames in case the journals are found, but is too young to realize how easily this code can be cracked.

Gifty is a sixth-year PhD student in neuroscience. In the lab, she inspects a mouse’s brain, in order to help her better understand the human brain. She is studying the effects of drugs and withdrawal (from cocaine, from Ensure which is a milkshake-like meal replacement, etc) on their brains. The chapter ends with Gifty explaining that her brother Nana/”Buzz” died of a heroin overdose.

Gifty also thinks about her dating life and the effect her religion had on her. She didn’t date in high school, and the religious message of “saving herself” for marriage left her fearing men and her own body. As she dates now, Gifty tells her dates about working with cocaine, even though they’ve now switched to using the Ensure, because the men seem to find the reference to cocaine more interesting and exciting.

Analysis: Here, Gyasi explains the title of the novel and a major theme of the novel, transcendence, when she inspects the mouse’s brain. Despite being a much smaller and simpler organism, it’s still understood that conclusions about the mouse brain can transcend and be used to draw conclusions about the human brain. This is the concept of transcendence, the idea that knowledge derived from one source can transcend that area to be applied to other areas.

Gifty’s mother keeps her back towards her at all times in order to keep Gifty at a distance. As is made clearer later, her mother is a cold and hard woman, and it’s a type of rejection of her daughter and also a way to keep her out. It also shows her mother’s unwillingness to accept help.

This chapter also discusses Gifty’s research and Gifty’s brother. Gifty notes how in her journal how much she used to admire her brother, nicknamed “Buzz”. But in later years, it’s clear Buzz became angrier, wilder and scarier. He later dies of a heroin overdose. Now, Gifty studies the effects of drugs on mice, presumably because of the impact that Buzz’s death had on her.

Also, Gifty’s need to seem more interesting and to wield it as some type of protection is seen here, but continues in the next chapter. Also, a theme in the book is how Gifty ends up associating her religion with fear. It’s seen here in her fear of men and her body, due to her fearing the sin of sexual immorality.

Chapter 7

As a child, Gifty tells lies about her ancestry, claiming that she is a princess or that her grandfather was a lion tamer. She does this because her mother’s actual stories are neither fantastical enough or desolate enough like the representations of starving children she sees on television.

Her mother works as a home health aid for, Mr. Thomas, an awful racist man who constantly calls her a n—-r. But she finds a church that becomes like a second home for her. Meanwhile, Gifty’s father has a harder time getting a job, which her mother thinks is because they’re scared of him (due to his towering height). He’s stopped and frisked by police repeatedly, which humiliates him. He stops leaving the house.

Analysis: Gifty uses her fabricated tales as ammunition, like how in the previous chapter she says misleading things about her research in order to seem more interesting and cover up her insecurities.

When Gifty’s father finally comes to America, they take away his bag of achomo at customs. It’s symbolic of him losing a part of himself in this move away from the country he loves, a process that continues as part of his immigrant experience. Gifty’s father unhappiness continues at the hands of policeman who frisk him and accuse him of theft. He feels homesick and unhappy. This contrasts with Gifty’s mother’s experience, where she helps to roots herself through religion, when she finds the First Assemblies of God Church.

Chapter 8

Gifty received good grades growing up. When she’s 15, Gifty’s biology teacher, Mrs. Pasternack, encourages her to pursue science as a career. Gifty later chooses molecular biology because she likes the idea of doing the hardest thing to you can do. She thought that her brother succumbed to drugs and her mother to depression because they were weak, and she wanted to do something hard to prove to herself she was stronger than that.

Gifty thinks back to when Nana was 15 and they’d discovered his OxyContin habit. Years later, when he dies, Gifty stops believing in God. The first few years after his death (their father is dead by then, too), when Gifty is in middle school, were the hardest as she and her mother navigated life as a two-some.

The first experiment Gifty ever did (soon after her brother’s death) was a “Naked Egg Experiment”, which involves putting an egg into various substances (corn syrup, blue colored water) to teach demonstrate the concept of osmosis. To do it, students need to buy corn syrup, which makes Gifty’s mother unhappy. So, Gifty tells her teacher about her mother’s concerns, and the teacher gives her the corn syrup, instead. However, this makes her mother furious (out of embarrassment that her teacher might think they can’t afford corn syrup).

In present day, Gifty leaves her depressed mother at home to go to a party at Han’s. She chats with Katherine, a former practicing psychiatrist who now does research. Katherine had once told Gifty about how she’d found out her husband Steve had been secretly tracking her ovulation cycle, trying to trick her into getting pregnant sooner than they’d planned. Gifty had been outraged on her behalf, but Katherine and Steve are still together. Gifty wonders how Katherine is able to share such personal things so freely.

Gifty thinks about how her mother doesn’t “believe in” mental illness and how Gifty herself once dismissed psychiatry since it was a “soft science”. Gifty recalls what a self-righteous and judgmental child she was, dismissing anyone who showed vulnerability (crying after a breakup) or hints of vices (spending frivolously).

Analysis: This chapter juxtaposes Gifty at fifteen, charting her future career, against Nana at fifteen, having his drug habit revealed. There’s also a juxtaposition of two contrasting parts of Gifty’s life: an egg growing large and blue by osmosis (science, Gifty’s future) versus Gifty’s mother’s face turning purple from rage (Gifty’s past).

Here, we see again the recurring theme of how Gifty associates her religion with fear. When she explains why she didn’t choose to go into the ministry (which her mother would probably have preferred), she says it’s because the fear she once saw in an injured baby bird reminded her of her worship leader’s voice.

Chapter 9

Gifty’s father also eventually found work as a janitor at a day care, and the children were delighted by him. He would tell them stories about being one of two living man-trees from Kakum Forest in Ghana. Later, Nana tells Gifty that if their father is a tree, then their mother is a rock.

After Nana died, Gifty became callous and cold like her mother, unable to understand the loss that her mother was going through. When Gifty finally leaves for college, her mother softens. When her mother says “I love you” after dismissing those words for so long as “white people foolishness”, Gifty laughs. When Gifty goes back home to visit for the first time after starting college at Harvard, she goes to church with her mother, where Pastor John makes repeated entreaties in his sermon for God to lead Gifty back to her faith.

In the present day in the lab, Gifty is trying to answer the question of whether optogenetics can “be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking”, such as depression (too much restraint) and addiction (too little restraint). In other words, she’s trying to light up the parts of the brain associated with reward-seeking. She hopes that, if so, that research can be used to address those illnesses.

Analysis:
Gifty’s brother sees their father as a tree (a strong, but living and malleable thing), but their mother as a rock (something hardened, not pliable.) It’s a reflection of their personalities, but also shows how they complement each other. After the other two are gone, Gifty ends up becoming like her mother, having to harden herself to the situation as well. When her mother tells her “I love you”, she laughs. As will become clear later, it’s a distraction from the awkwardness of that vulnerability and is Gifty’s standard response to these types of situations.

There’s another juxtaposition here of Pastor John saying that Gifty’s mother is “doing real good” versus Gifty saying “you’re doing real good” to her mouse. It can be seen as contrast between faith and science. It can also be seen as Gifty’s past (her religious upbringing and Pastor John’s mannerisms) being a part of her, even as she tries to walk away from it.

The beginning of this chapter also demonstrates how racism is a learned behavior, seen in how the kids enjoy being around Gifty’s father (contrasting with the adults that fear him).

Chapter 10

Mr. Thomas comes to appreciate Gifty’s mother by the time Gifty is born. As a child, Gifty’s mother nicknames her “asaa”, a berry that causes sour foods to taste sweet (if you eat it first). In conjunction with that something else, it’s a miracle berry, but by itself it does nothing. With Nana and Gifty together, there is sweetness everywhere. Gifty was also a chatty child, unlike the way she is now. It’s said that talkativeness in children is a sign of future intelligence. However, Gifty is more interested in what happens when there’s a temperament shift.

After Gifty’s mother has been in California for a week, she is eating again a little. Her mother still keeps her back to Gifty. This reminds Gifty of the “Still Face Experiment” from the 1970s, a researcher had mothers sit facing their babies, mirroring and reacting to their children. Then, the mothers are told to stop reacting completely. The babies continue trying to illicit a response and are clearly suffering when they cannot. Gifty knows that her mother will reject everything — doctors, her daughter — and accept only prayer. Gifty lies and says that she still prays sometimes.

Gifty remembers having difficulty praying as a child and wondering what prayer really is. Her mom says it can be in everything she does. Gifty is dissatisfied with the answer, so her mother encourages her to write to God instead, which is why she starts journaling.

Analysis: Gifty lies to her mother about praying to try to meet her mother halfway. She knows when she was younger that she did not appreciate the depth of her mother’s suffering and loss. Gifty wants to try to reach out to her in any way possible instead of being rigid.

Chapter 11

Two journal entries, both about Buzz.

Analysis: Young Gifty talks about Buzz a lot to God, wishing good things for him, which highlights how important he was to her.

Chapter 12

Gifty recalls seeing a demonstration of DBS, deep brain stimulation. It’s a surgery meant to improve motor function by stimulating the areas of the brain that control movement. When she witnessed it, it accidentally triggered over the wrong neuron, casing the patient to cry. That demonstration helped to prompt Gifty’s excitement that optogenetics (which are much more precise) could cure these things.

DBS is also used in Parkinson’s patients, like Mr. Thomas. After he dies, Gifty’s mother insists on going to the funeral, even though he was awful. When one of his kids speaks ill of him, Gifty’s mother insists they pray for her as soon as possible.

Gifty’s father loved soccer, and the family would attend all of Nana’s games. Gifty recalls going to a game where Nana is called a “n—-r” after scoring twice on the opposing team. Afterwards, he plays with “pure fury”, which would “would come to define and consume him”. After winning the game, their father is so delighted that Nana’s rage fades into happiness. From this, Gifty learns the lesson that, as a black person, she will always have something to prove to others and only “blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it”.

Analysis: The soccer scene shows the beginning of Nana’s rage that later consumes him. It also shows what an important role Gifty’s father played in their dynamic, helping to manage Nana’s anger over the injustice and discrimination in his life. It’s another illustration, too, of importance of their family dynamic and how they balanced each other out as a four-some.

Chapter 13

As part of Nana’s team sports, they are part of a rotating snack schedule for the team. When it’s their turn, they note how wasteful and picky the other kids are. When Gifty decides to “try out” picky eating, her mom places a switch (a rod used for whipping) on the table, which ends the behavior after a brief showdown. (The only time her mom had used it was when Gifty said “damn” in church.)

As a kid, Nana eats a lot, continually growing taller, so their parents try hiding food to try to limit how much he eats. One day, Nana gets the idea for the two of them to go through the house and locate the hidden food. When their mom finds out, their father defends them, saying they need to eat. It soon turns into a fight (their mother saying they need more money, their father saying she was the one who wanted to move to America, etc.). Nana leads Gifty away and gives her a coloring book, telling her how good her coloring is.

Analysis: The previous chapter showed how their father protected Nana from his rage, and this chapter shows how Nana protected Gifty from their parents’ fighting. It’s another example of their interdependent family dynamics that ends up falling apart piece by piece.

Chapter 14

Gifty starts seeing a guy, Raymond (a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature), during her first PhD year, and more seriously towards the middle of that year. His father is a preacher at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia. It’s Gifty’s first real relationship.

At one point, he asks her about what she’s working on. At that point, she’d just completed an experiment on mice where they pushed a lever that would sometimes give them pleasure (a bit of Ensure) and other times give them pain (small shocks) in a randomized pattern. Gifty recalls that some mice refused to press the lever immediately after being shocked. Others continued trying until realizing the shocks wouldn’t stop. A small amount insisted on continuing the press the lever, knowing they would sometimes be shocked.

Gifty talks about that early research at a dinner party that Raymond throws while they eat a indulgent meal that he has cooked. One of the dinner guests jokes about this idea of mice showing restraint and how she should probably restrain herself from eating the meal. Afterwards, Gifty throws up and never is able to eat that dish anymore.

Gifty thinks about how her parents fought every day, about all sorts of things. Her father missed Ghana and would talk all the time about how much better things were there. Finally, Gifty’s father decides to go back to visit his brother. He says he’s coming back “soon” initially, but keeps saying it and in the end, he never comes back. (Nana is 10 when he leaves.) Afterwards, Gifty’s mother refuses to say a harsh word about him, even when Nana says he hates him, reminding her children that their father loved them, but he loved his country too.

By the time Gifty’s mom moves in, she and her team have now built on that first-year research to try to understand what neurological factors result in the third group (the ones that never stop) of mice. The idea is that there are neurons that should stop them, but aren’t firing and they want to use the blue light to turn those neurons on.

Analysis: The discussion of Gifty’s mice shocking experiment is interspersed with the discussion of her father leaving. In some ways, her father is like the second group of mice, who continues trying until he realizes that the shocks won’t stop and decides to remove himself from the pattern of pleasure and pain.

In general, Gifty is like the first group of mice, the ones that exercise total restraint, perhaps too much. Upon associating that meal with indulgence, she can’t eat it. Gifty fears going down the road of addiction so much that she exercise discipline and restraint in everything she does.

Chapter 15

As a child, Gifty was confused by the idea that your thoughts could be a sin. As someone who wanted to live a sinless life, young Gifty considered this question carefully.

Gifty thinks about the separation between the heart, the soul and the mind. Now, as a neuroscientist, they think of the brain as containing all the mysteries about the inner workings of humans, with no mention of a soul. But as a child, it was the soul that reigned supreme. She recalls the death of her friend Ashley’s dog, Buddy. Gifty had been comforted by the idea that it’s little doggie soul was doing well, even if the dog was dead. Now, Gifty considers how even now in her research, she is still asking the question of: “Do we have control over our thoughts?”

After their father left, the three of them try for the next year to keep things the same as before, as if holding on to the hope he would return. Nana continues to play soccer. It causes a financial strain, but also difficulties in finding care for Gifty. When Gifty and their mom end up having to ride with him on the team bus, it embarrasses Nana. He also seemed to have realized that their father was never coming back. He decides to quit soccer, despite being the star player. Their mother says okay, and they head home.

On the way home, things feel different after the tacit acknowledgement that they are on their own now. Gifty goes from being slightly naughty to being good all the time. Nana’s soccer gear is put away for good.

Analysis: This chapter juxtaposes the idea of Gifty the ardently religious child versus Gifty the neuroscientist both trying to answer the same question of: “Do we have control over our thoughts?”

Gifty’s sudden personality change after they internalize that their father is not coming back indicates that Gifty had to grow up, fast, under the circumstances.

Chapter 16

Gifty goes to lunch with Katherine, a feminist and one of the only other women in her program. But Gifty has no interest in any of that, chosing to play down her womanhood and only interested in courting the interest of high-profile scientists in their field. She’s not even interested in Katherine’s research in their field.

Instead, Gifty wants to ask for her advice about her mother, who continues to lose weight despite Gifty’s best efforts. However, when the time comes, Gifty is unable to find the words to talk about her mother, despite Katherine empathetic attitude. Afterwards, Gifty reminds herself that becoming tough was something she’d chosen.

Analysis: Gifty’s attitude toward Katherine shows her cold and somewhat unapologetically callous attitude. She extends a sign of friendship to Katherine, only for the purpose of getting what she wants from her. Gifty has described herself previously in the book as being like her mother, but this is the first time the reader really sees it. It’s a far cry from the young girl praying ardently for her friend’s dog that is shown in previous chapters.

This chapter also shows what a burden the hardening of Gifty’s personality (and her mother’s, as evidenced by her depression and unwillingness to seek help) is for her. Like her mother, she is not even able to be vulnerable enough to ask for help.

Chapter 17

Gifty recalls the difficulty of her sophomore year at Harvard. One of the classes requires small group participation, which Gifty struggles with. Gifty is largely silent, affecting her grade. Finally, when her group happens upon the topic of religion, Gifty defends the existence of God and the power of faith, which disgusts her classmates. After that, she feels free to speak up more, though no one takes her seriously afterwards.

Chapter 18

The Pentecostal church Gifty’s mother went to in Ghana had a permissive, “more is more” attitude when it came to their religion, open to things like speaking in tongues, mystics and witch doctors. However, her mother’s church in Alabama is much more constrictive. They also don’t believe in baptizing babies (since salvation requires an affirmative choice that babies are incapable of), so Gifty is never baptized. As a child, Gifty likes the idea of baptism by water, so she tries repeatedly to submerge herself in water to try to feel that God “has taken root”. It messes up her hair each time though which her mother has to take time to fix, so eventually she gets a spanking and her self-baptisms stop.

When the wounded mouse from her experiment dies, Gifty contemplates how she needs these mice as much as they need her. She thinks that her relationship with them is Holy and sacrosanct, something she would never admit because the religious would consider it blasphemy and other scientists would find the idea ridiculous.

With her mother still struggling, Gifty tries playing music for her and cleaning more. When Gifty’s mother finally asks her for a cup of water, Gifty nearly cries. Afterwards, Gifty is glad to hear her mother chastize her for the state of her hair.

Analysis: Gifty’s joyful curiousity about religion in her early years are seen as she comedically tries to repeatedly baptise herself in bathwater. Later, the depth of Gifty’s religious roots are seen in her relationship with her mice, even if she no longer prays.

Earlier in the book it’s mentioned that Gifty’s mom believes that cleanliness is (next to) godliness, so Gifty’s cleaning is a concession to her mom. To the extent that her mom sees it as a sign of faith and that religion is the only means to communicate with her, it makes sense that this is what provokes a positive response from her mother.

Chapter 19

In college, Gifty takes a poetry class on Gerard Manley Hopkins to satisfy a humanities requirement. While the professor delights in the cadence of his words, Gifty identifies more with his personal letters and the details of his life, such as his repressed sexuality and inner conflict with his religion. She tries writing her own letters to describe her feelings on religion to her mother, but she ends up with four letters each describing different and conflicting ways she sees her faith. None of them are fully representative of her beliefs. She tosses the letters.

Nana had always been conflicted about God, and the youth pastor, Pastor Tom (“P.T.”), didn’t help matters. When Nana asks him about whether people living in a remote African village who had no chance of hearing about Jesus would go to hell, P.T. simply says yes, and Gifty is shocked. Even at seven, she knows it is wrong and suspects that it’s racism that drives people like P.T. to not think twice that people that look like her and Nana belong in hell.

Even as a kid, she sees how poverty is associated with black and brown people, despite there being plenty of poor white kids living in trailer parks. She realizes that there is a similarity in the way poverty in Africa is depicted, with sad children and their distended bellies, like an ad for an animal shelter with sad dogs.

Analysis: Gifty’s is unable to describe her own thoughts about her beliefs because she is conflicted over them. Her doubt starts at a young age. When P.T. casually condemns those African people to hell, Gifty is seven, but recognizes the racism and disregard for people’s lives, and she knows it should be questioned.

Gyasi juxtaposes the image of a commercial of a sad dog in an animal shelter versus that of a poverty-stricken African child in an infomercial. See notes that its subhumanity that is at the root of the efficacy of both of these adverts.

Chapter 20

Two more journal entries, one asking if God is real and the other about Buzz saying Christianity is a cult.

Analysis: Young Gifty’s journal entries continue to reflect her inquisitiveness and her adoration of Buzz, but now there indications of seeds of doubt regarding her religion, too.

Chapter 21

Gifty comes home to find her mother cooking again, to her delight. Gifty brings up the time her mother put hot oil on Nana’s foot, but her mother quickly denies it. Her alarmed look causes Gifty to drop the topic quickly.

Still, she recalls a dinner party that her parents hosted (a rare occurence) with a handful of other Ghanaians in Alabama. The kids had been throwing bofrot (balls of fried dough) at each other when a part of an old couch fell out and Nana stepped on it, ending up with a nail in his foot. The adults tried show each other up with discussions of folk remedies (and hence their Ghanaian-ness), and her mother had ended up pouring hot oil on Nana’s foot (as he screamed), in lieu of getting him a tetanus vaccine. Nana had been confused, angry and upset afterwards.

In present day, Gifty’s mother is still in bed when Gifty leaves for the lab the next morning.

Analysis: Gifty’s mother struggles with her memories of the past, not in terms of being able to remember them, but in terms of understanding how things ended up the way they were. Gifty clearly steps into tumultuous territory by bringing up this memory of her mother causing Nana pain, mixed in with her pride over her Ghanaian identity.

Chapter 22

In the lab, Gifty is working with a mouse with its little blue fiber optic implant (part of the optogenetics setup) which delivers light into its brain. She ends up referencing her brother’s wish for bionic legs in a conversation about biomechanical engineering with Han. When Han asks about her brother, she struggles when saying that Nana is dead.

Gifty recalls Nana’s love for basketball, which he discovered as a 6-ft tall, 13-year-old. He becomes the team star, though Nana dislikes it when other parents talk about Nana like he has nothing else to offer beyond his basketball prowess. One day Nana and Gifty play a game of HORSE. When Gifty asks Nana if he thinks their father would have liked basketball, Nana gets angry saying he doesn’t “give a f— what he thinks”, and the cursing shocks Gifty.

A 1985 study on the effects of cognitive behavioral training on basketball free-throw performance showed that positive thinking improved the chances of making free-throw shots by 50%. Gifty knows that Nana cared deeply what his father would have thought, which drove his to keep practicing. Contrary to the study, Gifty doesn’t think Nana’s negative thinking, trying to convince himself he didn’t care, affected his game. But it affected other areas of his life.

Gifty wonders what affect the family’s somewhat cold interactions had on him. At one point, the janitor who sees Nana and Gifty after games notes now it’s strange that Gifty and Nana don’t hug or anything after his games. Nana shrugs the question off. Later, when Gifty asks him if he wants a hug, he says no, and they laugh.

Analysis: This chapter largely deals with the inability to be vulnerable in their family. Gifty feels distinctively uncomfortable telling Han that her brother is dead. She also wonders what effect this same coldness had on Gifty’s brother, who clearly continued to feel rage and confusion at their father’s absence.

The siblings laughter after Gifty asks Nana if he wants a hug is similar to earlier in the book when Gifty’s mom finally says I love you and Gifty doesn’t know what to do but laugh. Even talking about hugging makes them uncomfortable, since it begs the question of why they don’t hug even though they are siblings.

Chapter 23

With her mother around, Gifty spends even more time in the lab. The problem is, that she’s actually allergic to her mice. Years of coming into contact with them left her immune system weary and weak. She gets rashes if she accidentally touches her skin without washing her hands.

Raymond had once suggested that Gifty go see a doctor, but Gifty had dismissed the suggestion. Raymond notes that for someone in med school, she seems very opposed to seeing doctors or taking medicine. Raymond makes a joke that Gifty doesn’t like (“if a doctor prescribes me the good stuff, I’m taking it”), but she doesn’t say thing about it. She eventually learns to be more careful, but still sometimes the slowness of the progress makes her wonders what the point of it all is.

Analysis: Gifty dislikes Raymond’s joke because it reminds her of her brother’s death. Also, like her doubt in religion, Gifty sometimes has doubts about her scientific progress as well. However, she also reminds herself that asking “What’s the point of all of this?” is what “separates humans from other animals”.

Chapter 24

A 2015 study found that “schizophrenics in India and Ghana hear voices that are kinder, more benevolent than the voices heard by schizophrenics in America.” The people in India and Ghana oftentimes heard positive voices, like that of a sibling or neighbor. Their American counterparts, however, heard hateful, violent voices. Gifty wonders if they all heard the same voices, except what they thought they heard changed based on their assumption that these voices were real and that they could be the voices of those they loved.

Gifty thinks back to the crazy man her aunt had once pointed out in the market. She remembers how other people had not seemed alarmed by him.

Gifty’s mom had also believed that there was a ghost that haunted her cousin’s place (where she had first lived after moving to Alabama). She started noticing its presence after her cousin had restricted her calls back to Ghana, due to the phone bills she had racked up. Gifty’s mom said that she liked the ghost’s company.

Gifty realizes that she should be doing more for her mother, and she starts rubbing her mom’s back or squeezing her mom’s hand. Eventually her mother starts to say more, telling Gifty that she is becoming soft and works too much. Gifty recognizes that these criticisms are her mother’s way of becoming herself again, so Gifty doesn’t mind. Gifty invites her mother to come with her to the lab sometime.

Analysis: The study cited in the beginning of the chapter introduces the idea that people’s perception of what is “crazy” and how that is perceived is can vary by culture. As demonstrated elsewhere in the book (and through these anecdotes about Gifty’s mother and aunt illustrate), things that people consider “crazy”, superstitious and unbelievable are more acceptable in Ghanaian culture. This is seen earlier when they talk about folk remedies or the three day ritual her mother endures in the hopes of having a child. It’s also seen in the permissive culture of the Ghanaian church her mother used to go to.

Gyasi seems to be suggesting that perhaps because the culture does not view these “crazy” things as being bad, when they materialize, they can have positive associations with those things.

Gifty also seems to connect the idea of her mother’s craziness (in terms of both her imagining ghost and her depression) to her unfulfilled emotional needs. The ghost materializes because Gifty’s mother is no longer in consistent contact with her father. So, it’s possible that the depression has materialized because something is missing that Gifty can try to fulfill, beyond trying to offer her mother more food. She starts making more of an effort to engage in physical affection and trying to proactively try to draw her mother out.

Chapter 25

Prior to her mother’s arrival, Gifty had gone out and bought a bible to put near her mother’s bed, but so far it doesn’t seem that she has touched it.

Gifty remembers how she’d loved the verse “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” However, later she’d learned that the translation of “word” was translated from the Greek “logos”, which really means something closer to “premise”. Gifty felt betrayed by her bible with it imprecise translations, but she also liked the new meaning of the phrase (“In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.”)

Gifty thinks about the different approaches to biblical teaching she has encountered. She recalls going to a church service her junior year of college at the Harvard Divinity School and listening to a sermon that felt so humane and thoughtful, a stark contrast from what she was used to. Growing up, P.T. had been so adverse to intellectualism and viewed questions as threats. Gifty also considers the difference between a punitive God and a forgiving God. When Pastor John’s unmarried daughter Mary had gotten pregnant, the tone of his sermons had shifted to focusing on a more forgiving God.

As a kid, after learning about the real translation of “logos,” Gifty becomes very interested in it. Her journal entries take on a more questioning form, instead of just recounting the happenings of her day.

Gifty also notes how her mother acts differently depending on the language she speaks. In Twi (which she speaks to Gifty and her brother), she is scary and stern. In Fante (which she speaks to her friends), she is girlish and fun. And in English, she is meek. Gifty considers that her mother never “figured out how to translate who she really was” in English.

Analysis: This chapter gets more deep into theological discussions. It considers the differences between approaches to religious teachings. It also goes back to one of the themes introduced earlier in the book about how Gifty came to view the God she was introduced to as a “punitive God” and something to be feared.

In describing Pastor John’s shift, the book makes the point that sometimes it requires a personal difficulty in order to have the empathy to see others through a more forgiving light. Pastor John’s personal challenges are what prompt him to encourage his congregation to see God (and therefore everything else) through that prism.

In describing Gifty’s mother as being “meek” when she speaks English, we see the effect that the move to America had on her mother, too. We previously saw how it brought their father down, but their mother also lost a part of herself in the move.

Chapter 26

When Mary had been pregnant, Gifty had been 12. That year, four other teen girls had also gotten pregnant. It led to the all the kids, including Gifty, getting “sex ed” in the form of essays about patience and virtue. Without being told anything about sex itself, they learned the shame of the sins of these pregnant girls and about STDs.

They are also brought to an abandoned abortion clinic for a talk. There, they are also told that the blood (from breaking of the hymen) from when they have sex for the first time on their wedding night is what seals the covenant of marriage. So, sex with other men before then breaks that covenant.

In her sophomore year of college, one of the kids that had gotten angry over Gifty’s talking about faith apologizes. Anne asks to hang out and soon the two of them become inseparable.

Chapter 27

Nana’s love for basketball continues to grow, attracting the attention of college recruiters. His games made it easy to get out of going to church. Meanwhile, Gifty continues going to church with her mother. Each week, there is an altar call, where people can identify when they are ready to be “saved”. Gifty recalls feeling like she wasn’t ready to give up her sins.

Gifty’s father continues to call occasionally, but Nana refuses to talk to him after he announces that he’s getting remarried. Instead, Gifty would tell their father that Nana was practicing basketball.

Gifty is in the fourth grade when Nana hurts his ankle during a game, which turns out to be a torn ligament. The doctor prescribes rest, icing it and OxyContin for the pain.

Analysis: This chapter begins to bridge what the reader already knows about Nana. That he’s great at basketball and that he later dies of an overdose.

Gifty narrates that it’s a bad day that is the result of “just regular old shit luck”. However, given how a major piece of Nana’s support system has fallen away at this point (his relationship with his father), the end result (Nana’s death) really is a mixture of circumstances and luck.

Chapter 28

At the lab, Gifty worries about one of her mice that keeps insisting on going back for more Ensure, despite a limp that has formed due to the shocks. Gifty is curious about the Ensure, so she goes out any buys some to try, which makes Han laugh. He doesn’t understand her curiosity. She tries the Ensure, and then she tells Han that her brother had died of an overdose.

Gift recalls seeing Nana high for the first time, slumped over with a faint smile. Later, six months into his addiction (two years before his death), Gifty asks Nana to describe what being high feels like. By that time, his addiction has become an all-encompassing concern in their household, with their mother pleading for him to stop. He says that “It feels amazing, like everything inside my head just empties out and then there’s nothing left—in a good way”.

Analysis: When Gifty finally tells Han about the circumstances of her brother’s death, it feels like a non-sequitur, because he was just asking about her interest in tasting what the mice were drinking. However, it’s her way of answering his question. Gifty is doing this research partially because she wants to understand her brother’s addiction, and a part her thinks that understanding why this mouse continuously goes back for more Ensure will help her understand her brother.

Chapter 29

After Nana’s injury, Gifty’s mother takes the week off to care for him, but an angry voicemail from her boss results in her returning to work. Gifty goes to church alone, and she has a sudden desire to allow herself to be saved. It was a genuine feeling of a desire to know God. She responds to the altar call by raising her hand. She leaves with the knowledge that God is there.

Analysis: This is the apex of Gifty’s faith in God. She notes that what she felt that night was real and genuine, and that “I had never felt anything like it before, and I have never felt anything like it since.” It’s possible that her mother not being there gave her the freedom to look deep into herself. It has also been seen that when her family is in crisis (such as with her father leaving), Gifty’s response has been to want to be better, as if to compensate for her family’s difficulties.

Chapter 30

After being sanctified, Gifty feels amazing, but also a bit taken aback when she finds out Misty Moore, who had once shown a boy at school her breasts, was sanctified before her. Gifty also starts volunteering at the church. Ryan Green, one of the other youth volunteers, is mischievous, loud and mean. Gifty feels conflicted, imagining how the Kingdom of Heaven could let someone like him in and wonders “how could there also be a place for me?”

Meanwhile, Nana slowly heals up and starts going to practice again, but without putting weight on the injured ankle. He continues to complain of pain.

Analysis: Gifty’s sanctification is one of utmost sincerity and a genuine religious desire. She is confused though when she starts noticing how her devoutness contrasts with those around her.

Chapter 31

Nana ends up getting hooked on OxyContin. Two months after the injury, Nana asks for another refill of OxyContin, and his mother simply says no, not knowing much about addiction at that point, but she soon finds more OxyContin hidden in his room. Gifty notices how sleepy he seems all the time. At school, Gifty asks her teacher if someone can die from sleeping, and the teacher says no. Gifty narrates that “I don’t know why I put my faith in her.”

After finding the hidden pills, their mother cuts Nana off, resulting in withdrawal. He sweats, vomits, shakes and even defecates. Their mother, a caregiver by profession, is undeterred. But Gifty fears death and worries for Nana.

During Nana’s detox, their mother takes him to church one day. Ryan (who is also the biggest dealer in school) offers to “help him out” if he needs, but their mother tells him to go away.

Analysis: Gifty describes to death of Mrs. Palmer, a client of her mother’s, to explain what she fears for Nana. She quotes a line of scripture “You are not alone, it says, and that is a comfort, not to the dying, but to those of us who are terrified of being left behind” because buttressing her fear for Nana, is her fear of being without Nana.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s thinly veiled offer to sell Nana drugs is pretty foreboding foreshadowing of what we already know happens in the end.

Chapter 32

Once Nana’s addiction starts, Gifty’s friend Bethany is no longer allowed to play with her. Gifty recalls finding Nana strung out around that time, wishing that it were cancer, instead. She feels guilt over it, knowing that it was because it would have made things easier for her and given her a better story to tell when people asked about him.

Gifty admits to herself that her research has more to do with her working through her feelings and shame associated with Nana instead of some noble goal to help the world. Even in present day with everything she knows about addition, she doesn’t entirely understand why he couldn’t stop. She recalls one day when she and her mother fetched him from a park, strung out, as the two of them carried him to the car. Gifty recalls feeling a deep shame, which she still feels.

Analysis: Gifty admits that a lot of her distress over the situation also had to do with selfish reasons, like not wanting to be embarrassed and not having to carry the burden of this stigma along with her. Those feelings are mixed in with the shame of knowing that those are selfish concerns. She admits that her research, too, is self-interested in that regard, and so it is unsurprising that her deep feelings of shame still persist.

Chapter 33
Gifty explains that in determining what to research, the answer was the easy part. Figuring out what question to ask was more difficult, since it involves what the root of the problem is. She eventually determines that her questions is: “How does an animal restrain itself from pursuing a reward, especially when there is risk involved?” By the time her mother comes to California, Gifty has identified two different neural circuits that potentially mediate reward-seeking behavior, and that through optogenetics that it’s potentially possible to suppress the reward-seeking behavior.

In the past, Gifty’s mother finally decides to send Nana to rehab center in Nashville. No visitors are allowed, but they can call him once a week. Thirty days later, they pick him up, and Nana’s desire to get better seems genuine. Fourteen hours later, Nana relapses.

Chapter 34

Opioids work by flooding the brain with dopamine, which tells your brain that opioids are good for you, like food or sex. However, they are less effective over time, demanding more and more, until they mostly offer a reprieve from the effects of withdrawal. Gifty attends Han’s lecture on reward expectation imaging. She asks him if getting a “like” on Facebook results in a dopamine boost, and he says yes.

Chapter 35

In a journal entry, Gifty wishes to God that Nana will just die already so that it will end.

Analysis: The journal entry reflects another source of Gifty’s shame.

Chapter 36

Gifty is reminded of her mother telling her that God will read her writing and answer it like a prayer. After wishing for Nana’s death, she tears up the entry the next morning.

After Nana relapses, the strain of the situation becomes increasingly apparent in Gifty’s mother’s behavior. She hunts down Nana in the streets and acts like a woman possessed in church. The town gossips hungrily as they catch on to Nana’s addiction problems. Gifty overhears a conversation between two racist women talking about Nana and stating, falsely of course, how black are predisposed to drug usage. Gifty, 10, feels shame as she overhears it, because she lacks the tools to understand and “parse out” her self-loathing as a result of racism. Only much later does Gifty understands that going to an all-white (apart from them) church where people disparage black people created a “spiritual wound”. Gifty finds herself hoping that Nana will get better to show her church and everyone else that he’s not what they think and to prove them all wrong.

After Nana relapses, Gifty becomes very quiet, choosing the solace of her journals instead. She sees as their town and church turn against them so quickly. She recalls how Pastor John had occasionally called Nana the basketball star up to the altar to receive prayers for upcoming games. It no longer happens now that Nana is struggling and no longer playing basketball. In the two games he played after his addiction began, he is a mess and ends up being booed and getting kicked off the court. Gifty sees her church in those stands, booing.

Gifty soon begins to hate her church, her town, her school and the whole state. Gifty considers not going to church, but she doesn’t like the idea of her mom there, failing around by herself.

Analysis: With the chips down, the racism of their town and church becomes open and apparent, moreso than before. Gifty’s shame and self-loathing from the racism she experiences is mixed in with her religious doubt. She associates the racial hatred from the people with her religion, which creates a “spiritual wound”. She wonders if these racists even pray for them at all, when they ask for prayers for Nana’s healing. Gifty realizes the emptiness of these actions.

That Gifty continues to writes in her journal, however, indicates that despite her doubts, she still has some semblance of her faith, even if it has become separated from her church. Gifty draws inward and holds on to the part of the faith that is entirely internal, as opposed to being connected with external rituals like church.

In seeing the town turn against them so quickly, Gifty also sees how contingent their acceptance of them is. Still, Gifty insists on going to church, keeping herself steeped in this shame and racial hatred, to make sure her mother won’t be alone. For whatever things she has narrated about being cold and callous, it is clear that Gifty is loving and caring in her way even if doing so caused her to harden as a person.

Chapter 37

Gifty describes the progression of Nana’s addition. He becomes sallow, steals from her mother, sells their car and dining table. He disappears for days on end. Nana also starts to rage and break things, scaring Gifty and her mother. Gifty admits that when he was high, he was at least subdued, even if he was gone.

The day Nana overdoses and dies, Nana hasn’t come home, but Gifty and her mother are used to waiting two days to see if he comes home before going out to try to find him. That day, instead, the police come to their door to inform them that Nana has overdosed in the parking lot of a Starbucks. Gifty stops journaling after that.

Analysis: Gifty finally giving up the journaling indicates her loss of faith. We know from her admission earlier in the book that she stops believing in God at all after Nana dies.

Chapter 38

In present day, Gifty runs into Katherine, and Katherine insists on having lunch together again. As Katherine chats her and Steve, Gifty surprises herself by admitting that she hasn’t had sex in a year. It’s a strangely personal thing for Gifty to talk about. (Gifty recalls losing her virginity to a guy, Jeff, the summer after graduating from college. The first time took some work, but as they got into a rhythm, Gifty realized that she likes it a little rough and she wanted him to tell her that she’s “bad”. )

Later, Katherine asks her about why she got into her field to begin with. Gifty finally tells Katherine what she was unable to before, that her mom is depressed and actually staying with her right now. Katherine asks how she can help.

After Nana’s death, Gifty’s friends don’t know how to deal with the death, especially one shrouded in shame, so they don’t even try talking to her about it. Gifty’s mother rents a large space to throw an elaborate Ghanaian funeral, and they dress in traditional Ghanaian clothes. They invite everyone they know, but many do not show up. But their Ghanaian friends show up. Pastor John shows up, too, and prays for Gifty and her mother. Gifty loved him, then, for showing up and he has stayed in their lives ever since. At the funeral, Gifty’s mother chants a Ghanaian song, leaving the Americans bewildered. Pastor John then gets up and says a few words for Nana.

Analysis: Gifty makes some major strides with Katherine and being able to talk about her personal life. It’s possible that because she’s finally making progress with her mom by being a softer person, it’s given her the confidence to be more vulnerable with others as well.

Gifty’s attitudes toward sex are a reflection of her the shame and guilt she associates with enjoying sex. It’s instilled in her that she should not be having sex and so she associates sex and sexual desire with being bad and sin.

In reflecting on the funeral, Gifty notes how everyone acted like only the parts of Nana’s life were worthy of “reflection and compassion”, which wrecks her. The conditional quality of the love and compassion she feels from the community is what breaks her heart.

Chapter 39

In Ghana, their father holds a separate funeral for Nana and sends them photographs. Her father tells people that Nana was sick, and Gifty hangs up on her father when she hears that.

Gifty’s mother occasionally takes an Ambien to sleep, but it makes her loopy and mean. One time, she tells Gifty that she only ever wanted Nana, but now Nana is dead and she’s left with Gifty. Still, Gifty empathizes because she, too, only ever wanted Nana and now is left with her mother. When her mother wakes up, she looks frantic and then wanders off back to bed, the beginning traces of her full blown depression.

Analysis: Gifty hangs up on her father, likely because Gifty loves all of Nana, even the bad parts, and does not want to hear that her father misconstrued Nana’s death.

Gifty and her mother are in the painful process of redefining their family dynamic without Nana. Gifty’s mother isn’t able to deal with it and retreats to bed instead.

Chapter 40

After the funeral, Gifty’s mother starts having difficulty getting out of bed. At school, Mrs. Greer is the school librarian, and a person Gifty could have asked for help who would have been most likely to care and to try to help. Gifty says she’s fine though, when Mrs. Greer asks. With her mother unresponsive, young Gifty feels a profound sense of loneliness. She tries to do things that her mom typically would hav yelled at her for, but her mom doesn’t react.

In present day, Katherine brings by baked goods occasionally after hearing about Gifty’s mother, as a way of making clear that she’s prepared to be there for Gifty. Gifty eats them and shares them with her mother. She reads to her mother from the bible as well.

In her junior year in college, Gifty reads a book about philosophy and neuroscience recommended to her by a T.A. In it, it explains that the brain allows people to think and feel, but doesn’t account for reason and emotion. Even locating the part of the brain where memory is stored doesn’t explain the why of the situation. Essentially, there comes a point where science is not enough.

Gift states that “I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

When Gifty had read the story of Lazarus (a man raised from the dead by Jesus) as a child, she hadn’t understood why Jesus would do that. What made Lazarus so special that warranted it? Unfortunately, there was no answer. Similarly, she thinks about her other answered questions: why does that last group of mice keep pushing the lever?

After Nana’s death, Gifty keeps waiting for her mother to get out of bed. Finally, one day Gifty comes home and she’s not there. At first she is excited, but she finds her mother is submerged in the bathtub after having taken Ambien (she has attempted suicide). Gifty calls Pastor John and EMTs come to take her away. As she leaves on a stretcher, Gifty’s mother admits that their father had wanted to take Nana to Ghana, but she had refused. Now, she regrets it.

Analysis: Here, Gyasi juxtaposes two scenarios, 28-year-old Gifty caring her for mother with depression vs. 11 year-old Gifty caring for her mother with depression. Young Gifty isn’t able to ask for help. Older Gifty does and receives it from Kathy. Even if Kathy isn’t able to do much, there isn’t the same desperate loneliness and she’s able to bring some joy into Gifty’s life in the form of her cakes.

Gifty also expressing her doubts around that capabilities of science, a topic that has come up earlier in the book, too (when discussing the slow progression of her work and what the point of it is). Gifty’s natural inquisitiveness is something that causes her to question what she’d doing and what she puts her faith in.

Just as Gifty has doubts about her faith, she has doubts about the science. Not that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s not enough. She juxtaposes her two questions: one about why Jesus would choose to raise Lazarus versus why do the mice keep pushing the lever?
n her mind, her doubts about science and faith are similar. Those questions are the same because they are both points where their respective field simply don’t have the answers. They are unable to answer the question of “why” things are.

Chapter 41

For two weeks, Gifty’s mother stays at the UAB psychiatric hospital, and Gifty stays at Pastor John’s house. Afterwards, Gifty’s mother tells her that she wants Gifty to go to Ghana. When Gifty pleads to stay, her mother admits she’s sick and that she needs Gifty’s prayers. She needs spiritual warfare and for Gifty to be her warrior. Her mother’s tone indicates to Gifty that her mother is a different woman now.

So, Gifty agrees and flies to Ghana to stay with her aunt Joyce. There, her aunt Joyce notes that Gifty is too skinny and tells her stories about her mother. For some reason, Gifty is unable to picture her mother’s face.

Analysis:Gifty’s mother sends her away so that she can figure herself out. Gifty’s inability to picture her mother’s face seems to be a reflection of how much her mother has changed in her mind that she’s no longer able to picture clearly who her mother is anymore. In fact, Gifty probably doesn’t even know at this point and certainly doesn’t know what her mother will be like by the time they are reunited.

Chapter 42

In Kumasi, they go to the Pentecostal church, which is hot and filled with people. It is loud and powerful. Through the summer, Gifty learns how to make Ghanaian foods like fufu (sticky starch side dish), to haggle and to shake coconuts down from trees. A month into her stay, Gifty asks to see her father. Aunt Joyce takes her to her father’s home, where his wife greets them. On seeing her, Gifty’s father tries to give her hug, but she refuses. He then talks about her life at she sits there in stony silence.

“Anhedonia” is a term for “the inability to derive pleasure from things that are normally pleasurable.” It’s a symptom of depression and substance abuse, but other diseases as well. Gifty considers that on paper Nana (lower income, single parent family, immigrant, black) seems like a prime candidate for this.

It would be hard to isolate what part of his pain was caused by drug use. And the question that remains is what causes drug use in the first place? In casual conversations about why people turn to drugs, many people talk about “will” and “choice”. They want assurances that their lack of drug use is a reflection of their strong will and good choices. However, it’s easier to dismiss addicts as weak-willed people who make bad choices than to understand the source of their suffering.

Gifty notes that for years she looked at Nana and only saw his addiction.

Analysis: Gyasi is making the argument that addicts turn to drugs not because they are weak-willed or bad people, but perhaps because there is suffering that has not been addressed. Nana had pains and stressors in his life even before the drugs came along. It’s easy to chalk up the reason for his end as “addiction”, but what about all the other things that were not entirely out of his control that caused and exacerbated his suffering as well?

Chapter 43

Two more journal entries. They are both about Nana, describing times when he supporting her and providing emotional support.

Analysis: This part is a continuation of the previous chapter, a reminder of who Nana was beyond being an addict.

Chapter 44

Over that summer, Gifty’s mother slowly gets better in Alabama. Later, Gifty asks her mother about it. Her mother explains that she was given pills, but they didn’t help so she stopped. Gifty chides her, explaining that she should have told the doctors that. They probably just needed to adjust the medication until they found a combination that was effective.

But Gifty’s mom says she didn’t want to tell the doctors that the pills were ineffective because she didn’t want to end up getting shock therapy. Gifty considers the history of psychiatry, including the forced lobotomies and “shock” treatment for women who were deemed “too hysterical” and homosexuals. And while Gifty’s research with mice is slow, it’s still preferable to the rushed, reckless process of past human experimentation.

Electroconvulsive therapy can work, but it is imprecise and it’s usually done by patient request as a “last resort”. Katherine and Gifty’s work is meant to be about providing an alternative to that “last resort” treatment for psychiatric patients. When Katherine later returns to practice, she still only accepts patients for whom nothing else has been effective. Katherine’s research focuses on “vagus-nerve stimulation” for depressive patients, but even that is imprecise and it sends small shocks but is not able to differ between cells. Continued research is about developing precise interventions that can be directed at the specific neurons that are affected by or involved in each specific illness.

Gifty recalls the assured and comfortable demeanor of her aunt and the ease with which she cared about Gifty, whom she’d only met a few weeks prior. Gifty imagines that this is what her mother could have been like and deserved to be like under difference circumstances (“this happy, this at ease in her body and in the world”).

Analysis: This chapter addresses how Gifty’s mother fear of medicine — especially psychiatric therapies — doesn’t come from an irrational place, even if avoiding it wasn’t the optimal strategy for her well-being. It also discusses the development and direction of psychiatric therapy.

The chapter ends with a comparison between Gifty’s mother and her aunt. Gifty’s mother is a product of the experiences she went through. It serves as a reminder that for whatever treatments that neuroscience can offer, it still doesn’t address the “whys” of those illnesses.

Chapter 45

Gifty considers the developmental stage when babies recognize that they are separate entities from their parents. She recalls when a woman Gifty’s mother had spent a long time caring for, Mrs. Palmer, died. At the funeral, she had seen her mother be hugged by her family, and she realizes there is a whole other part of her mother and her mother’s doesn’t belong to her.

One morning, Gifty finds her mother ready to go visit her lab, after 11 days of total silence. Gifty shows her the lab equipment and lets her mother hold one of the mice. Her mother asks if she ever hurts them, and Gifty says that they try to be as humane as possible, but that “sometimes we do cause them some discomfort”. She wonders what her mother thinks about that statement. Gifty later recalls her mother telling her when she was younger that “There is no living thing on God’s Earth that doesn’t come to know pain sometime.”

Analysis: Gyasi illustrates the often infuriating inconsistency of mental health recovery. Some weeks her mother relapses into silence, other times she laughs and is curious about the world. Gyasi also seems to be cognizant of the problem of animal testing, and acknowledges the pain of those animals, even if it is something that doesn’t have a solution.

Chapter 46

Gifty imagines a fairy tale for her mother, of her being a beautiful sea creature, the Mermaid of Abandze.

Gifty also considers how humans are the only creatures that exhibit a certain “recklessness and creativity and curiosity” in the face of danger, and it’s part of their greatness and part of their downfall. The only way to ensure that you will never be addicted to anything is to not try anything in the first place, but that curiosity is a very human trait. They explore the worlds even when they are told of its flatness and end up discovering new lands and people. However, they also end up destroying those lands and those people.

Gifty considers her experimentation on mice, how they are subject to her whims because of her curiosity. She handled her mouse with the limp which is now going to get the optogenetic therapy to try to engage the neuron which will hopefully curb its desire to press the lever.

Analysis: Gifty’s fairy tale is a reflection that she wishes that her mother could have had a better, easier, more wonderful life that then one she had.

Gyasi continues to explore the idea that to become an addict is a result of the very human trait of curiosity. Some people try something once and are hooked, so complete abstinence is the only solution. But humans are wired to want to try things, even in the face of danger. Moreover, this risk-taking is a trait that has been evolutionarily beneficial as can be seen in many discoveries that were made that allowed explorers to expand and grow.

Gyasi also considers how that same human trait has a deleterious effect on the things around them, like the new lands and people destroyed by human exploration. Gifty, too, with her mice that may be injured by her whims. She is the one who originally got the mouse hooked on Ensure, resulting in it continuously getting shocks, and now it has a limp.

Chapter 47

A journal entry. Gifty describes competing with her friend Ashley to see who can hold their breath underwater the longest. Gifty wants to win because Ashley always wins at everything, but she ends up passing out. She wakes up to Ashley’s mom screaming at her.

Analysis: This journal entry is a reflection of what was discussed in the previous chapter, the desire to do things despite the risks involved, even when the reward is minimal.

Chapter 48

Nana had always been outgoing and well-liked, throwing parties and having friends over. Meanwhile, Gifty describes herself as generally avoiding risk her whole life. She had been lonely, too. Ashley became her friend because Ashley had marched up to her as a kid and asked to be friends.

Gifty first drinks at a party in sophomore year of college that Anne invites her to. A week later, Anne has convinced her to try mushrooms. They drive into the forest and take them while staring out at the trees. After she comes down from her high and feeling of euphoria, she still can’t imagine feeling completely free the way Anne is, able to share and express herself freely. Gifty and Anne become very close and their relationship becomes romantic, with them kissing a few times. Anne tries to get her to tell her more stories about herself especially Nana, but Gifty doesn’t like to and only tells her happy things.

When Anne suggests that she talk to a therapist, Gifty laughs. When Anne continues to push about talking about Nana, Gifty gets angry.

Analysis: Gifty feels euphoria when she takes the psychedelics, but not the free-ness which seems to be what she really seeks. When Anne talks about therapy, Gifty laughs, which seems to be her standard response when things make her uncomfortable.

Chapter 49

Gifty recalls having nightmares for a week in high school and being unable to tell her mother, for fear of worrying her. She ends up talking to Nana (though he is deceased), but feels like what she’s doing is a bit “crazy”. When Gifty finally admits to her mom about talking to Nana, her mother tells Gifty that she talks to Nana all the time.

Back in college, Gifty finally tells Anne about Nana dying from an overdose. Anne expresses sympathy and wants to be there for her, but Gifty doesn’t respond. After a while, Anne stops trying to contact her, and then summer starts. The next year, when Gifty would miss Anne, she’d talk to Nana.

Analysis: Gifty has nightmares for the month she is in Ghana as well as that week in high school, which stop once she starts talking to Nana, though she can’t remember their contents. It’s not stated affirmatively anywhere what the cause of her dreams are, but it seems that her nightmares are likely associated with missing people. In Ghana, they start when she is separated from her mother, and later they don’t stop until she talks to Nana.

When Gifty stops talking to Anne,it’s because she had to force herself to tell her about Nana’s death in the first place, but even after she does that, she still isn’t ready to deal with everything that comes with it. She wants to avoid the fallout from Anne knowing about Nana’s death, even if that fallout is Anne trying to be supportive.

Chapter 50

At the lab, there is a celebration because Han has gotten his first paper published in Nature, and his postdoc would likely be completed soon. A bit later, he asks her to dinner.

Gifty recalls how Raymond had eventually grown frustrated with Gifty’s unwillingness to let him meet her family, though she had met all of his. It was clear she was keeping things from him. She had managed his frustration by suggesting a trip to Ghana together next summer, and she even pitched the possibility of her mother joining them, knowing that it would never happen. Her mother has never gone back to Ghana.

Gifty imagines that this was not the life her mother had dreamed of when she first decided to move to America. She likens her mother to an explorer, venturing forth into the unknown to see if she could find a life that’s slightly better. For her efforts, she paid a price and suffered for it. Gifty also considers how difficult it is to live in this world and that she once believed that God “never gives us more than we can handle”, but no longer believes that.

Analysis: Gifty’s comparison of her mother to an explorer goes back to her previous example in Chapter 46 of how exploration is an example of humans exercising their curiosity and recklessness. There are very real dangers involved in exploration, but people do it anyway.

Chapter 51

Katherine asks Gifty if she can go to her place, as she has many times before. Gifty recognizes that how she had refused so many times, and Gifty also recognizes that she needs help and needs to be willing to accept help. Gifty agrees. At Gifty’s place, Katherine inquires about her mother and is non-judgmental about Gifty’s religious past. She encourages Gifty’s journaling to God if she feels it helps her.

Analysis: The progress that Gifty has made as a person is apparent in her willingness to allow Katherine into her place. Gifty also finds herself being very self-conscious of her religion, expecting ridicule. She has been trained by others to feel that her religion is embarrassing, perhaps even a bit “crazy”, showing once again that what craziness is and how you perceive that craziness is highly subjective.

Chapter 52

Gifty’s mouse experiment was a success. The limping mouse did, in fact, stop pushing the lever after the optogenetic therapy. She has a paper she needs to write detailing her findings, and it’s possible she can graduate soon. Gifty wishes she could write what she was really thinking about in her paper instead of the coldness of her scientific findings.

She wants to describe the feeling of holding the little limping mouse in her hands. Gifty recalls how being saved is about putting yourself, sins and all, into the hands of God and saying “Walk with me.” She thinks of how the little mouse needed help to control its reward-seeking, and with the help of optogenetics she was able to offer it the grace of being saved, to help it to refuse the lever.

Analysis: Gyasi compares the idea of walking with God and the mouse needing someone’s help to control its reward-seeking. In both, there is the idea that there is grace in the act of accepting help.

In many ways, this is about Nana and anyone else that is struggling, too. Where Nana was written off by everyone around him after his addiction, what he really needed was help (even if the help he needed doesn’t exist right now). And moreover, the is grace in both the giving of that help and the accepting of it.

The need for others is a recurrent theme in Transcendent Kingdom, seen in their family dynamics and Gifty’s suffering as a result of being unable to ask for help. In this juxtaposition of the process of sanctification and the mouse, we see that the idea of putting yourself in another’s hands and no longer walking alone is one that transcends religion.

Chapter 53

Gifty lunches with Katherine again, who inquires about her journaling, which Gifty confirms she is doing.

Gifty recalls her breakup with Raymond. Gifty had picked up journaling again before college started, and continued doing so through grad school. Gifty had discovered that Raymond was reading her journals (sensing the placement was wrong) and penned an entry about having no intention of going to Ghana with him. When Raymond finds it and confront her, she laughs cruelly at him.

After the lunch, Katherine gently reminds Gifty that she has no agenda here, she is not trying to psychoanalyze her or to try to force her to discuss anything she doesn’t want to discuss. Katherine simply wants to be a friend. Gifty nods, but does not believe her.

Analysis: When they break up, Gifty’s laughs, which is her standard reaction to venturing into territory that she finds uncomfortable and wants to back away from, and it disturbs Raymond. Gifty makes no attempt to trying to repair the relationship, and after everything we know about her character at this point it’s doubtful she could find the words to do it even if she were determined. However, it seems that Gifty doesn’t even want to, despite liking Raymond, because she’s been looking for an “out” to avoid letting him in.

Gifty finds it hard to believe people, even the guileless Katherine. In this chapter, we see that Gifty’s loss of faith in God is connected, too, with her loss in faith in people. In many ways, these things are one and the same. She has simply lost the ability to trust, whether that trust is placed in others or in a higher being. The chipping away at the things she thought she knew was a gradual process, a culmination of the small betrayals (like when her science teacher says people can’t die from sleeping) and bigger ones (her father promising to come home soon but not doing so; believing God won’t give you more than you can handle, but letting her family become crushed under the weight of their suffering).

Chapter 54

After lunch, Gifty takes the rest of the day off and heads home, wondering how her dinner date with Han this upcoming weekend will play out. However, Gifty panics when she realizes that her mother is not home. She calls Katherine, who she asks for help.

Katherine immediately drives and picks her up at her place, they drive around the apartment complex. Then, Gifty spots her mother swimming in a pool in her pajamas. Gifty jumps out and they bring her home. Gifty asks her mom if she’s taken anything, and her mom shakes her head. Gifty gives her mother a bath. As she does, her mother tells her “Ebeyeyie”, meaning “it will be all right” in Twi, which is what her mother used to say to Nana as she would bathe him (during his detoxing). Gifty narrates that “it was true then, until it wasn’t”.

Then, her mother takes her by the chin, looks her in the eye and tells her “Don’t be afraid. God is with me; do you hear me? God is with me wherever I go.”

After her mother is in bed, Gifty goes for a drive, not knowing where she is going. She thinks about herself and Nana trespassing at a nearby gated pool as kids. Gifty had asked Nana whether what they were doing (trespassing), and Nana says yes, but that it’s a nice sin.

Gifty continues to drive around until it’s dark. When she finally stops, she tells herself that her mother will get better, that she’s going to get her work done, and that her research will matter to people. Then, she waits a little longer and says “please, please”, still hoping for a sign.

Much later, Gifty and Han own a house together (presumably, they are married), and Gifty runs a lab at Princeton. Gifty feels very secure in her faith, she no longer doubts it. Her mother ended up passing away, but later and at home and with a caregiver with her to help her through it.

Han goes to church with her though he is impatient, but he wants to go. Gifty is open with him, and he knows everything about her and her work. Gifty no longer prays, but she goes to the Church, sits there and remembers and she lights two candles before she leaves.

Analysis: After her mother disappears briefly, Gifty is at a crossroads and doesn’t know where to go mentally, so she drives around hoping that the physical act of navigating the streets will help her figure it out. She hopes for a voice to tell her where to go, but does not hear one. Gifty is torn between wanting to believe things will be okay and her lost faith (in both God and in what people say). Her mother is asking her to trust her and trust that God is with her, and Gifty does not know if she can put her faith in either of those things.

Gifty once lost faith in Nana and his ability to be redeemed, to to be saved. This time around, Gifty tells herself that her mother is going to get better, that everything will work out, that her research matters — she is making the decision to have faith and to trust again, in God, in people and in her science. She still holds out hope for an affirmative sign, but it doesn’t come and she has to accept that. Gifty knows enough about faith to know that is not how God works.

Much later, Gifty goes to church, though she no longer prays. Gifty seems to be at peace with her faith, accepting it for what it is. She has always had difficulty praying (we know that from earlier in the book) and so now she chooses not to engage in that activity. Instead of waiting for a voice to tell her what to do, Gifty’s beliefs come from within.

At the very end, lighting a candle at church is a way to say a prayer for someone and serves as a symbol of that prayer. The two candles are, of course, for Nana and Gifty’s mother.

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