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 did Henrietta's daughter feel about her mother's cells being used and how did she react ?   

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When Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, first found out about her mother's cells being cultured without her mother's permission and then used in research, she was in a state of discomfort and surprise. She wrote in her diary, "I was in shock. Ask, and no one answers me. I was brought up to be quiet, no talking, just listen" (page 195). She imagined her mother feeling alone in the hospital in the segregated black ward as she died, and she thought that her mother had been "robbed of her cells and Johns Hopkins Hospital learned of those cells and kept it to themselfs [sic]" (page 196). Deborah used the word "robbed" several times in the journal she kept to express the idea that her mother's cells had been taken without her consent and that the knowledge of the HeLa cell line created from her mother's cells had been kept from her family for over 20 years. Skloot writes, the "HeLa research terrified her" (page 196). Deborah didn't understand how her mother's cells had been used in research over the years, and she hated that journalists called her mother "Helen Lane," which they thought was Henrietta's real life.

As time went on, Deborah came to trust the author, Rebecca Skloot, and to discover more about her mother and her sister, who died years before in an institution for children with disabilities. She also went with Skloot to see HeLa cells. As Deborah read over her mother's medical records and learned more about her mother and her sister, she maintained her anger at Johns Hopkins for harvesting her mother's cells without telling her mother. She wrote, "mad yes I am mad...Johns Hopkins Hospital and all other places, that has my mother cells, don't give her Nothing" (page 280).  She felt that Johns Hopkins had never repaid what Henrietta had given them and the larger scientific community. 

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