Chapter 29 Summary

2000

Rebecca Skloot obtained Deborah’s phone number from Roland Pattillo just a few weeks after Deborah’s panic attack. Deborah spoke with Rebecca once on the phone, then got spooked and refused to do an interview for almost a year. During that time, Rebecca pursued interviews with other family members but kept trying to get through to Deborah.

About ten months after the two women first spoke, Deborah called Rebecca and said she would do an interview under two conditions. First, Rebecca had to promise she would get Henrietta’s name right in her book. Second, Rebecca must research Elsie Lacks and include Elsie’s story in her book. When Rebecca agreed to both conditions, Deborah said, “Get ready, girl…You got no idea what you gettin yourself into.”

Eventually the two women met at a bed and breakfast where Rebecca was staying in Baltimore. Rebecca began by giving Deborah a framed photograph of one of Henrietta’s cells, a gift from Christoph Lengauer, a Johns Hopkins researcher who had been taking pictures of the cells using dyes and ultraviolet light. Scientists stained the cells with dyes to gather information, but to a non-scientist, the picture simply looked beautiful. Deborah was thrilled, but she also said:

You know what’s weird? The world got more pictures of my mother cells than it do of her. I guess that’s why nobody knows who she is. Only thing left of her is them cells.

Deborah showed Rebecca all of the information she had gathered about Henrietta, and Rebecca soon realized that Deborah had misunderstood a great deal. When Deborah read about HeLa cell cloning, she concluded that scientists had made women that looked like Henrietta. She showed Rebecca video tapes of The Clone and Jurassic Park, which she had watched partly because she wanted to understand cloning better. She knew these movies were fiction, but she did not have a firm grasp on what was and was not possible.

For three days, Deborah and Rebecca talked constantly. Deborah told Rebecca everything that was on her mind, whether it had to do with Henrietta or not, and Rebecca listened and took notes. One day Rebecca found a manila envelope among Deborah's things and picked it up casually. “Are these your mother’s medical records?” she asked.

Without warning, Deborah freaked out and snatched the envelope away. She scooped everything she had brought into a bag and rushed to the door. Rebecca asked Deborah to wait, saying that she only wanted to learn Henrietta’s story. But Deborah would not listen. She said, “I don’t know who to trust!” and left.