The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Questions and Answers
by Rebecca Skloot

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What is Zakariyya's opinion of doctors in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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Zakariyya, who was born Joe Lacks, has a negative opinion of doctors in general. His view is heavily influenced by how he perceived doctors treated his mother, Henrietta Lacks, as well as the rest of the family. Zakariyya feels he and the rest of the family were left in the dark while his mother’s cells were exploited for profit, and this leads to him characterizing doctors as cold and heartless profiteers.

In addition to the label of greedy profiteers, Zakariyya assigns a number of other damning characterizations to doctors. First, he calls them liars, saying, “They lied to us for twenty-five years,” referring to how they hid the truth of how they profited from his mother’s cells (Skloot 528). He continues his characterization of doctors with another label: thieves. Speaking of the HeLa cells his mother is now famous for, he says, “Them cells was stolen!” (Skloot 529) Although this theft was at the expense of his mother, Zakariyya feels, as a blood relative and heir, that he was also a victim of the doctors’ stealing.

However, Zakariyya’s feelings toward doctors seem to be somewhat mitigated by a positive interaction with a doctor named Christoph Lengauer. When he sees Lengauer’s vast collection of Zakariyya’s mother’s cells, Zakariyya is moved. In a way, Lengauer is literally helping his mother live forever, and the beauty of this revelation fills Zakariyya with awe. While he has reasons to hate doctors due to perceiving them as heartless, lying, stealing capitalists, he is able to attribute this transcendent moment to a Lengauer, a doctor, and even goes as far as thanking him. Therefore, Zakariyya’s opinion of doctors appears to be less static than it initially appears.

Skloot seems to employ the use of situational irony in her depiction of Zakariyya’s feelings. He is a man who has converted to Islam, a religion that traditionally embraces peace and forgiveness. He is reluctant, however, to extend these qualities to the doctors he has labeled. And while he accuses them of being liars and thieves, he was imprisoned for murder, a sin as bad as, if not far worse than, lying and stealing.

However, due to Skloot’s generally sympathetic portrayal of Zakariyya, these ironies are trumped. The reader is confronted with the overarching irony that a convicted killer, Zakariyya, appears to be an accurate and generally fair judge of a class of people typically admired by society: medical doctors. A man who is known for taking life is therefore comfortably positioned as a judge of those who are known for helping save life.

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