According to Rebecca Skloot's book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, how does religious faith help frame the Lackses’ response to, and interpretation of, the scientific information they...
According to Rebecca Skloot's book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, how does religious faith help frame the Lackses’ response to, and interpretation of, the scientific information they receive about HeLa?
In the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Deborah Lacks, daughter of Henrietta Lacks, is reported by Rebecca Skloot as being a "deeply religious" Southern black Christian. Deborah and her family believe in faith healing and "sometimes voo doo" (p. 12). Deborah's religion has helped her understand the immortality of her mother's cells because she is able to attribute their immortality to the fact that "Henrietta's spirit lived on in her cells" (p. 12). Due to this belief, Deborah also feels that Henrietta can control anything going on with relation to her cells. For example, Deborah believes Henrietta helped Skloot write her book by drawing her attention to the cell line and by injuring, in "a mysterious accident," a book editor who wanted Skloot to leave the Lacks family out of the book (p. 12). In other words, due to her faith, Deborah believes it is through her mother's spirit that the Lacks family learned anything at all about her mother's cells and how they still live on.
Deborah also uses her faith to help understand how her mother's cells have been used. In an interview, Deborah once stated that she mentions her mother was HeLa anytime she sees a doctor for an appointment. The doctors "get all excited, tell me stuff like how her cells helped make my blood pressure medicines and antidepression pills," plus how her cells were useful in making the nuclear bomb and polio vaccine. Though Deborah doesn't fully understand "how [her mother] did all that," her faith allows her to be "glad she did" (p. 13). Her faith allows her to see that her mother has helped billions of people and to believe her mother would like knowing how many people she has helped.
The members of the Lacks family look to their deep religious faith in order to understand scientific concepts. Over the course of the story, Deborah struggles to understand the scientific explanation for the proliferation of HeLa cells. At the start, she struggles to understand the concept of what a cell itself is. As a result, she turns to religion for understanding. For example, Henrietta's HeLa cells are "transformed" and referred to as her "resurrection body." Both of these are terms that come from Christianity.
In some ways, this use of religion parallels the greater role of religion in any society—to provide answers to unexplainable phenomena. During the Medieval Era, for example, the plague was thought to be a punishment from God, not the pestilence spread by rodents that we understand it to be today. Similarly, the Lackses' use of religion to understand science can be seen as underscoring their unfamiliarity with scientific ideas to which they have not previously had access.
It is difficult for Deborah and other members of Henrietta Lacks's family to understand the scientific implications of how Henrietta's cells have been used. As Deborah believes that the soul is immortal, she is terrified when she finds out that her mother's cells have been crossed with those of a tobacco plant. She imagines her mother as a kind of person-plant, and Deborah also believes that her mother suffers when her cells are used to study AIDS or other diseases.
Deborah, a deeply religious woman, believes that Henrietta's cells still contain Henrietta's spirit, and Deborah regards much of science as what Skloot refers to as "woo-woo stuff" (page 7). Deborah also believes that Henrietta's spirit can still control anyone who messes with the HeLa cells, including Skloot. It is therefore difficult for Deborah to stomach the investigations and experiments her mother's cells go through, and the rest of the family shares her distrust of science and of the author.