Who among us does not know or has not been affected by the heinous outcomes drugs have played upon lives of those we love and care about? They have become a major killer of our people as well as addicting them to a life of hardship and ruin where their wonderful human potential is dashed and their life becomes one of abandon, neglect, and possible death. At times addiction comes about through a human choice, but there are other times when because of injury and pain, one becomes addicted because drug companies have led people to believe a certain drug in not addictive while consciously knowing it is. Recently Purdue Pharmaceutical has been made to pay eight billion dollars in a settlement to the Justice Department for their part in pushing Oxycontin to the general public well aware of the addictive qualities of this drug. However, we all know that no amount of money can replace the life of a loved one we have lost or have witnessed traveling down the road to addictive hell.
“Homo sapiens is the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom.”
Gifty’s parents immigrated to Alabama from Ghana before she was born, and Gifty, now in her late 20s, is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction.
Personal experience drives her quest. Nana, her brilliant brother, a rising basketball star, became addicted to opioids after a sports injury. The addiction costs him his life (the townspeople aren’t surprised – it’s to be expected from “their kind”). Her mother falls into a debilitating depression that will haunt her for decades.
The racism Gifty and her family grew up with in the South has given her even more motivation to succeed: to prove the townspeople wrong. The story alternates between the present and to her childhood. She grew up in poverty, with an absentee father and a harsh, hard-working mother who struggled to show love.
“If I’ve thought of my mother as callous, and many times I have, then it is important to remember what a callus is: the hardened tissue that forms over a wound.”
Gifty adored her brother and watched helplessly as his bright star was dimmed by addiction. Still very young when he died, she prayed fervently and poured her heart out to God in her journal. With no one to guide her, she loses hope and her faith dims. She decides to pour her energies into science.
“…it‘s easier to write all addicts off as bad and weak-willed people, than it is to look closely at the nature of their suffering… there is no case study in the world that could capture the whole animal of my brother, that could show how smart and kind and generous he was, how much he wanted to get better, how much he wanted to live.”
“The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That’s science, but that’s also everything else, isn’t it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions.”
This is a beautiful look into the immigrant experience, the weight of expectations, racism, poverty, grief, depression, and addiction. But at its heart it’s an exploration of grief and the search for meaning. The brain wants the hard facts of science but the seeds of faith in Gifty’s heart wants an answer from God, even as she struggles against the fundamentalism faith of her childhood. Perhaps it’s not science vs faith but both?
Neither the science or the religion is heavy-handed or preachy. This is a brilliantly written book with a tone that perfectly captures Gifty’s emotions and the trauma she has survived. The prose was just as luminous as described and I gave my book darts a heavy workout. I was moved by Gifty’s story and was rooting for her from beginning to end.
*this was a buddy read with my friend Marialyce, which generated thoughtful discussions.
In the book, Transcendent Kingdom, we meet a family that were from Ghana living in Alabama. The son is a gifted athlete, one who is expected to go far but then an injury sidelines him and as Oxycontin is prescribed we find him slipping away into the drug and eventually dying from a drug overdose. His father had left the family and returned to Ghana soon to forget the family left behind, and the mother suffers from depression and takes to her bed, suicidal.
Hope lies in the brilliant daughter, tasking herself with finding the why of the suffering. There must be a reason that some brains are disposed to addiction and it must be based in science. However, as the daughter, Gifty, researches, she tries to come to grips with what she is, a child of faith, guaranteed a life of salvation and endeavoring to reconcile that upbringing with the science she clings to. Her faith itself has been cast aside for now, but it is a part and parcel of who she is. Can she reconcile that inner faith with the woman of science she now is?
This is a book that will move you to understand all that stands in the way to acceptance, to finding a path no matter how fraught it is, and to stepping forward into what one so desires to be a better day, one that has answers and reasons why. Beautifully written with pathos and the longing for all the blessings that appear when life begins to be joyously present as it journeys forward, this is excellent story that brings you face to face with the demon so many of us have dealt with, that of facing our own addictions.
*Jan and I read and had some wonderful discussions about this story. Trying to understand the people. trying to know the suffering, trying to be cognizant that the loss of one life is a loss to us all.
and here’s the author:
YAA GYASI was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn.
Yaa Gyasi (born 1989) is a Ghanaian-American novelist. Her debut novel, Homegoing, published in 2016, won her, at the age of 26, the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honors for 2016 and the American Book Award.She was awarded a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise …