The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 21 Summary
by Rebecca Skloot

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Chapter 21 Summary


Rebecca Skloot returned to the Holiday Inn in Baltimore on New Year’s Day in 2000. Sonny Lacks had promised to meet her, so she awaited him in the hotel lobby. He was two hours late, but he showed up. When he arrived, he grinned and joked about how persistent she was.

Sonny took Rebecca to see the person he called “the Big Kahuna”—Henrietta’s first-born son, Lawrence. When they arrived at a red brick house, Sonny laughed and said:

This is where we take scientists and reporters wanting to know about our mother. It’s where the family gangs up on them.

When Rebecca got out of the car, Sonny drove away. She hesitated on the doorstep, her mind lingering on the vague impressions she had of the Lacks men. She did not know much about them yet, but Deborah had mentioned that one of them was a murderer. Rebecca gathered her courage and knocked. When there was no answer, she simply opened the door and went in.

Inside Lawrence’s house, Rebecca found pork chops cooking on the kitchen stove. Lawrence, a huge grinning black man, appeared and asked if she was hungry. She did not ordinarily eat pork, but she said yes anyway. Lawrence seemed pleased.

For a while, Lawrence cooked and told Rebecca about his childhood. His memories were very detailed, and he told her all about tobacco farming and life in Clover, Virginia. However, he fell silent or changed the subject every time she brought up Henrietta. After a while, he admitted that he had blocked out most of his memories of his mother because they were too painful.

As Lawrence and Rebecca ate pork chops together, he recited some little facts he had heard about his mother’s cells. Then he said:

Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did? I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.

Rebecca asked if Lawrence understood what a cell was. Lawrence admitted that he did not, so she drew some diagrams and explained. Then she told him about some of the latest research scientists had completed, which allowed them to grow and replace damaged corneas so that blind people would be able to see again.

Moments later, Sonny arrived with Day, whom he had brought to introduce to Rebecca. Lawrence asked, “Did you know mama’s cells gonna make Stevie Wonder see?” Neither Day nor Sonny had heard this, but neither seemed particularly surprised.

As the conversation continued, all of the Lackses resisted talking about Henrietta’s life. Day would only discuss her cancer. He also talked about his anger at her doctors for taking her cells and for misleading him about the autopsy after her death:

Them doctors never said nuthin about keepin...

(The entire section is 700 words.)