Jeanette retells the story of her life beginning when she is seven years old and living in England with her adoptive parents. Jeanette's mother is a fundamentalist Christian and dominants Jeanette's life. Jeanette's father is almost never present. Up until the age of seven Jeanette's mother had educated her at home, mostly by teaching her to read the Bible. Jeanette's mother adopted Jeanette because she wanted to acquire a child in a sexless manner whom she could train to be a servant to God. Her mother has instilled in Jeanette the idea that she is unique and will eventually become a missionary to the world. Jeanette does not know anyone aside from the other members of the church until at the age of the seven her mother is ordered to send Jeanette to school.
Jeanette also lost her hearing at the age of seven. Her condition was misdiagnosed for a long time since her mother and the congregation believed that she was in a state of rapture. After another church member, Miss Jewsbury discovered that Jeanette simply has a physical ailment, and Jeanette is treated at the hospital. Following her operation, Jeanette spends a lot of time with another church member Elsie who teaches Jeanette about poetry and other worldly phenomena like Wagner.
At school, Jeanette is always an outcast because of her evangelical beliefs. The teachers shun her essays that deal with missionary work. Her art projects that quote biblical text are equally disdained. Ultimately, one teacher, Mrs. Vole, informs Jeanette that she is obsessed by God and that she has been scaring the other students with her talk of Hell. Mrs. Vole sends a letter to Jeanette's mother about this issue, but Jeanette's mother reacts with elation rather than anger. Eventually, Jeanette stops making projects that refer to biblical themes, but she still finds that she remains an outcast.
As she ages, Jeanette realizes that she sometimes disagrees with the teachings of her congregation. Jeanette particularly disagrees with one sermon about the nature of perfection. Although Jeanette begins to see some difference in her ideas and those of the church, she still is closely aligned with her mother who is a motivating member of their Society for the Lost.
As Jeanette grows older she starts to think about romance. She worries about whether or not men are beasts and she listens intently to other women's complains and opinions about their husbands. One day Jeanette and her mother go downtown and Jeanette sees a compelling girl named Melanie working at a fish stall. Jeanette tries to talk to Melanie, but Melanie cannot talk on that day. Soon after Jeanette is offered a job washing dishes in a nearby ice cream shop and spends her Saturdays working and looking at Melanie. Eventually, she and Melanie become friends.
Jeanette brings Melanie to their church and on the first visit Melanie agrees to be saved by Jesus Christ. After this, Jeanette frequently visits Melanie's house for Bible study. As the two spend more time together, they start having a love affair. Jeanette eventually tells her mother about how much she loves and needs Melanie because Jeanette feels so happy. The following Sunday at church the pastor publicly confronts them about their fallen state. Melanie repents immediately, but Jeanette argues and flees. She takes refuge at the house of Miss Jewsbury, who is herself a lesbian, and that evening Miss Jewsbury and Jeanette sleep together. The following day the elders of the church attempt to exorcise the demons from Jeanette by laying hands on her for fourteen hours. When she still will not repent, her mother locks her in the parlor for thirty- six hours with no food. After this hungry spell, she pretends to repent, but maintains her impression that she has not done anything wrong by loving both Melanie and God.
Melanie disappears and Jeanette becomes deeply involved in the church again. Her role in the church has grown and she now preaches her own sermons and teaches Sunday school. Soon Jeanette begins a new affair with Katy, a recent convert. When they are caught one weekend, Jeanette takes all the blame saying that she had been with Melanie. The church then decides that Jeanette has been given too much responsibility so that she now almost thinks that she is a man. They insist that she give up teaching and preaching. Instead, Jeanette quits the church. Jeanette's mother forces her to leave their home since her evilness will bring illness to them all.
With no home, friends, or money, Jeanette takes up various jobs. She works in a funeral parlor, as an ice cream truck driver, and eventually at a mental hospital. On occasion, she runs into her mother or members of her congregation who treat Jeanette coldly and say she is possessed by demons. Eventually she moves to the city. After an unspecified time, Jeanette does return home one winter to see her mother. Her mother still faithfully believes, but her Society for the Lost has been shaken by corruption. Jeanette's mother does not discuss Jeanette's lifestyle with her, but her behavior indicates that she has softened in her beliefs. Jeanette's mother still listens to the missionary reports on the radio system with her usual fervor.