Back at college, Tara's physical symptoms draw the attention of her roommate Robin. Tara still refuses to see a doctor, and also ignores Robin's suggestion of meeting with a counselor. Tara manages to score a perfect grade on her algebra final, and this result convinces her that she is invincible. Tara returns home for Christmas, observing her brother Richard and noting his intelligence. Tara is shocked when Tyler mentions to her that Gene is supportive of Richard going to college, and eventually learns that her father wants Richard to go to college because he believes his son will use his intelligence to undermine current cultural values.
Throughout Tara's time at home, Shawn forces her to go into the store where Charles is working while she is wearing her dirty work clothes. When Tara resists, Shawn physically attacks her in the parking lot. That night, Shawn apologizes, and Tara wrestles with confusion about whether or not she could have misunderstood the events.
Tara's relationship with Charles reflects a new stage of emotional development but also shows the lingering trauma of her childhood. Charles may have always had feelings for her, or his attraction may be ignited by seeing Tara as a new person once she has started to build a new life for herself. Tara is acquiring an intellectual education at college, but the possibility of a romantic relationship gives her the chance to learn about herself in a romantic and sexual context. In the same way that she was curious about college and the wider world, Tara is curious about exploring what it means to date Charles. However, even a simple touch from Charles is too much for Tara because she has been taught that her body and her desires are bad and sinful. While she is developing her independence in crucial ways, Tara's panic shows that she is still deeply influenced by the way she grew up.
Along with her intelligence, Tara's grit and resilience become a huge factor in the success of her education. She is capable of excelling in her classes, but she also needs money, and this means that she needs to juggle her classes and work multiple jobs. Because she is used to hard, manual labor, Tara is prepared to do whatever it takes—including taking on a janitorial role—and doesn't even comment on the work she does in her memoir. On top of her many exhausting commitments, Tara must grapple with physical suffering. Her ulcers and tooth problems result directly from her stressful life and an upbringing in which she did not receive proper care. Most college students would not have to contend with these problems, but Tara meets her challenges head-on.
Shawn's abusive behavior becomes heightened because he senses that Tara is slipping beyond his control. His sister is now physically absent for months at a time, and she is building a future for herself where she will someday be able to live and work independently from the family if she chooses. Tara's relationship with Charles also shows Shawn that she is starting to make her own choices, and that she is drawn to a man who is not seeking to control or dominate her. Shawn's physical abuse becomes more pronounced and blatant, and he does not care whether people outside of the family know what is happening. Shawn is also psychologically astute, and knows how to cause Tara shame, which actually hurts her more than any of the physical actions do.
Despite her increasing independence, Tara still second-guesses the severity of what Shawn is doing and blames herself. When Tara realizes that Charles has seen the way Shawn treats her, she reacts with intense shame, as if she is the one who has done something wrong. Tara is terrified of pity. In her family, vulnerability is wielded against people, so she cannot imagine Charles feeling compassion for her. Because of the abuse, Tara's view of the world becomes very distorted, and she isolates herself. Her shame and insecurity allow Shawn to prey on her further, because Tara is always tempted to blame herself or minimize what has happened. Shawn does seem to sometimes experience genuine regret, even though he always repeats his abusive behavior later. Because Tara is not confident in her own perspective, she can fall victim to believing that nothing bad is actually happening to her.