portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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How does Deborah Lacks initially respond to Skloot's request for information in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

Deborah Lacks initially welcomes the idea of a book being written about her mother. She is especially excited by the prospect of having all of Henrietta's medical records made available to her. However, after Deborah speaks with her family and friends about the possibility of a book being written about her mother, she changes her mind. Deborah and Rebecca Skloot speak on the phone in Chapter 6 . Deborah tells Skloot that she wants to read Henrietta's medical records. Skloot says that she can get them for Deborah through John Sampson (husband of Elsie) because he had worked at Hopkins for many years as an orderly.

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In Chapter 6 , Lady's On The Phone, Roland Pattillo tells Rebecca Skloot that Deborah is almost fifty years old and that she still lives in Baltimore. Also, everyone in the Lacks family calls Deborah, Dale. When the chapter begins, Skloot wants to know if Pattillo can put her in touch with the Lacks family.

Pattillo is initially wary about helping Skloot, as Deborah has suffered much emotional pain in regards to the HeLa cell fiasco. He tells Skloot to call him back the next day, which she does. Then, after extensive conversation, Pattillo finally provides Skloot with the relevant information she needs, with the caveat that she deals patiently and compassionately with Deborah.

When Skloot makes the call, she is surprised by Deborah's reaction. Deborah is more than happy for Skloot to write a book about her mother; in fact, she welcomes the telling of her mother's story because she feels that her mother has been unfairly reduced to some sort of biological anomaly by indifferent scientists. Deborah confides to Skloot that she almost suffered two strokes in two weeks due to the debatable stories she has been told in regards to her mother.

Deborah's initial exuberance and positive reaction does not last long. The next phone call between Skloot and Deborah finds that Deborah has changed her mind. The men in her family are not convinced that a book should be written about Henrietta Lacks. Obviously distressed, Deborah tells Skloot that it will be up to her to convince her father and her two brothers. After this exchange, Skloot does not hear Deborah's voice again for another year.


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