When James gives Ellen his drawing of her and her "interesting qualities," Ellen sees that the traits he chose to exemplify were "curious, careful, kind, and intense." These adjectives sum her up pretty well, actually. She's a quiet, intelligent, introvert, so it makes sense that her most compelling qualities pertain to her brains.
Sometimes reading My Heartbeat feels like a series of Ellen asking questions and people patiently answering her queries. Much of the dialogue between her and James consist of educational talks that would be right at home on an after-school special:
"I'm not an expert," he says, "but I don't think sex is the thing that makes someone gay."
"It's more whom you love," James says. "The how and why of it. And if what you get back is worth what you give up."
What is he talking about?
"Is Link?" I ask, putting aside the question of what makes someone gay.
"Is Link what?" James asks.
"Gay," I say, being specific. "Is he gay?"
"He doesn't know," James says. "Which makes him afraid he is. Which makes him swear he isn't."
"Are you?" I ask, realizing yet again that I am not going to get an answer about my brother. I might as well find out about James.
"I don't know either," James says, pouring us both another glass. "It doesn't scare me, though." (6.20-29)
Freymann-Weyr must've worn out the "?" key when writing our story, because there sure are a ton of questions. Ellen is intrigued by the mystery surrounding her brother's sexual identity crisis, and she's bound and determined to discover everything there is to know about homosexuality.
When Ellen is confronted with a problem, her first step is usually to hit the books. This dates the book a bit, since most teens today would rather Google something before they'd schlep themselves to the library, but Ellen seems more comfortable using resources that are more tangible:
I spend a couple of weeks ignoring my homework in an attempt to increase what I know about gay people. After a brief session with my computer during which I see pictures I would prefer not to know about, I stick to books. (7.1)
She's always asking, "What do other people know that I don't know?" Disappointingly, though, she finds that her sources are lacking the information she so desperately wants to find out. The problem lies in what she's looking for: trying to answer the question "What makes people gay" by reading books about Oscar Wilde is like trying to learn about the life cycles of crabs by watching Deadliest Catch.
The thing about Ellen is that despite her disappointment, she keeps returning to books for all her answers. Unfortunately, books aren't the best medium for answering the specific questions that she has, though—this is where her "careful" quality gets in her way. If she could get over her fear of talking to people other than James, she would be able to get the answers she craves pretty easily. For example, Link tells Ellen that her friend Adena's father is gay. Why couldn't she ask Adena some of her questions? Here's her thinking:
Not to mention I would eat my own hand to avoid any prolonged contact with Adena. If Link is right, she knows more than I do about what gay means. I am not confident that I could talk to Adena without inadvertently betraying the uncertainties that my brother harbors in secret and with fear. (7.21)
Adena would be the perfect resource, don't you think? If one of her parents is gay, then she knows aspects of homosexuality that apply to daily life… you know, the very information that Ellen is seeking. If Ellen could just get over her cautious nature and reach out, she could probably carefully probe Adena's knowledge in order to better understand Link's issues.
So why doesn't she? Well, part of Ellen's problem comes from the fact that since she was very little, she's had a home life that has some pretty high standards. Even her dad is someone that she's afraid to talk to for fear of disappointing him in some way:
The thing about Dad is that he makes you want and dread his attention at the same time. I like the fact that he's interested in my thoughts, but I'm always terrified of what he thinks about what I think. After all, I know he's judging whether or not my mind has any kind of a heartbeat yet. What can I safely say about what I thought? (3.21)
That's intimidating, for sure. But instead of cautiously probing her limits, Ellen errs on the side of being hyper careful, and she suffers for it.
Sometimes Ellen's naïveté can be attributed more to her innate kindness than her inability to seek out effective sources of information. For example, she is dismayed by the fact that the only thing she knows about homosexuality are the offensive slang that is used to refer to gay people:
Faggot is one of the many words that I know are used instead of the pleasant-sounding gay, whose definition has totally eluded me tonight. There are a bunch of these words: queer, queen, fairy. How come I know this awful list and not very much else about what gay means? (6.68)
Her answer, as always, is to find more information from the local gay bookstore. But when she does, she fails to truly wrap her mind around the stakes of being gay—as far as she can tell, it's just really not that big of a deal, and the only people who think it is are simply stupid. Her research leads her to make the observation that:
Now it's not a big deal. There's AIDS to worry about or getting attacked by a redneck, but that's about it. Only people who don't know better still think it's shameful or wrong to be gay, but not people we know. Not smart people. Which makes me think there's something seriously wrong with Link. Why the nuclear meltdown at my asking if he and James were a couple? James said Link was afraid. Afraid of what? Link's too smart to think like the people I've read about. The religious zealots and other people who don't know better. (7.7)
It doesn't occur to Ellen that something as ugly as prejudice could exist in society solely due to inherent bigotry. She assumes intelligent, educated people know better than to discriminate against people based on who they love… but we know it's not that easy. It takes James spelling out his lesson about "unwritten laws" to help her fully understand that even though homosexuality is often openly accepted, the same people privately condemn it (cough, Ellen's dad). It's her kindness that prevents Ellen from initially grasping this, and in this way, her kindness contributes to her naïveté.
Despite Ellen's respectable drive to self-educate about all the things school hasn't taught her, she remains pretty clueless. This extends to other areas of her life. While Ellen is like a greedy sponge when it comes to more intellectual pursuits, making friends in junior high is not her forte. The problem is she's a bit too intense.
I can tell by watching the fourteen girls in various stages of undress that I am the only one not making an effort to "form social attachments." The girls laugh, talking about how ugly the skirts are or how they must go on a diet immediately or how their summers were. My continued "consistent failure" is mostly due to the fact that I know how my summer was, I don't need a diet, and the skirts appearance speaks for itself. (3.39)
Sometimes, Ellen's intense nature—while it's handy for research projects conducted in her free time—can be a double-edged sword. She doesn't have time to discuss things she already knows the answer to; she's busy figuring out life's bigger questions. This is one reason why she comes across as so antisocial; most girls her age are more interested in fitting in.
Ellen never pursues something halfheartedly, either. So once she discovers a proclivity for drawing, she goes all out and draws everything:
I cover page after page. I draw every room of the house in Maine. Link's model airplanes in their various stages of being built. The kitchen right at the start of a dinner party for Important Guests. Mom and Dad in the living room after Important Guests have left. I do blown-up detail drawings of Mom's tea trays, Link's immaculate desk, and the unruly stacks of Dad's cookbooks. (17.1)
Somehow, her drawings become enough of a priority to overcome her insecurities, and she actually starts letting her guard down a little bit:
I show my drawings to everyone. I am not secretive with them the way James is with his. I don't see the point. He doesn't like to think that another pair of eyes will spot an error before he does, but I feel just the opposite. Only another pair of eyes will see what I have missed. (17.22)
Even though she's opening up a bit by sharing her artwork, Ellen can't just draw for the fun of it; she has to get it right. That's pretty intense if you ask us.
By the end of the book, Ellen has matured quite a bit from the overly cautious, inquisitive girl we meet at the beginning of the story. Sure, she's still pretty interested in things, but it's in a more comfortable sense; there is less desperation to discover and more calm curiosity.
She also has an easier time accepting change and the unknown, and this newfound ability comes with a sense of security and self-worth that she didn't have when we first encountered her at her summer home in Maine. This is probably due to a number of reasons; in the past year she's started a new school, read a ton of books (which can be transformative in and of itself), made new friends, and explored a bunch of new territory in regards to worldly knowledge. But more importantly, she fell in love and was loved in return:
It will be amazing in the way that girl walking through the park is. I see her in her hideous green skirt, acting as if her mind isn't beating with what her body knows. Although I'm still in the process of meeting her, I've already decided to like her.
Not because she's curious, careful, kind, and intense. But because she's let somebody else discover that about her and love her for it. (20.58-59)
As the book ends, it looks like Ellen is well on her way to a happy future.