The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover
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At a Glance

  • Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cancerous cervical cells gave birth to the immortal line of HeLa cells.
  • Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
  • Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's second daughter, who aided Skloot in her research.
  • George Gey, the scientist who successfully grew Henrietta's cells in the lab, creating the HeLa line of cells.
  • Day Lacks, Henrietta's husband.
  • Lawrence, Henrietta's oldest son, a Vietnam War veteran and shop owner.
  • Elsie Lacks, Henrietta's oldest daughter, born epileptic and mentally handicapped.
  • Sonny Lacks, Henrietta's second son, who underwent a quintuple bypass late in life.
  • Joe Lacks, who converted to Islam in prison and changed his name Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman. 

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Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, the eighth of ten children. Henrietta's mother died in 1924, when Henrietta was just four. Her father moved the family to Clover, Virginia and split them up between a bunch of relatives. Henrietta went to live with Tommy Lacks, his grandfather, in a four-room cabin, which they affectionately called "home-house." Henrietta shared a bed with her cousin David "Day" Lacks, whom she married. She had five children: Lawrence, Lucile a.k.a. Elsie, David a.k.a. Sonny, Deborah, and Joe a.k.a. Zakariyya. Shortly after Deborah's birth, Henrietta complained of pain in her womb. Her family urged her to see a doctor, but she didn't heed their advice. Henrietta hated doctors and only visited them as a last resort. After Joe was born, Henrietta felt a lump next to her cervix. It was cancer. Later, scientists learned that her cancer was caused by the HPV virus. Her doctors took samples of healthy and cancerous cervical tissue to study. These samples gave birth to the HeLa line of immortal cells. Henrietta never gave consent for the samples to be collected, and she died without learning of their existence.

Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot is a freelance science writer and editor best known for this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot first became interested in the HeLa line of cells in high school, when she enrolled in a biology class at Portland Community College to fulfill her science requirements. Years later, while studying toward her MFA in Nonfiction writing, Skloot began research for a book about Henrietta and HeLa cells. She spent the next ten years gathering information, conducting interviews with Henrietta's family and striking up a friendship with Henrietta's daughter Deborah. In 2010, the book was published to great acclaim and became a big bestseller.

Deborah Lacks

Deborah Lacks is Henrietta's second daughter. Following her mother's death, Deborah lived with her father and siblings under Ethel and Galen's care. Ethel tortured Deborah, and Galen sexually abused her, once even punching her in the face when he saw her with another boy. After Lawrence took the children away from Ethel, Deborah grew angry about the abuse and started fighting back against her abusers, taking no glib from men. Deborah got pregnant at sixteen, but this complication didn't stop her from getting her high school diploma. A few years later, she married her boyfriend Cheetah and had a second child. Unfortunately, Cheetah became addicted to drugs and started abusing Deborah. Deborah fought right back, once even planning to kill Cheetah. Instead, she divorced him and took the children, working two jobs to support her family. Deborah was the first Lacks Skloot was able to reach. After their initial phone conversation, however, Deborah got spooked and refused to grant her more interviews for another year. Eventually, Deborah opened up again, giving Skloot permission to write her book on two conditions. First, she had to get Henrietta's name right. Second, she had to tell Elsie's story. From then on, Deborah was involved in Skloot's research, sometimes too involved. She found the research stressful, and she suffered many stress-related illnesses, including hives and very erratic...

(The entire section is 2,865 words.)