portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, how was Henrietta Lacks sexually abused?

Quick answer:

The text does not explicitly state that Henrietta was the victim of rape or other forms of abuse, but the way in which doctors took a sample of her tissue without her consent is viewed by some as a form of abuse.

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The main occurrence of sexual abuse in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks occurs after Henrietta's death from cervical cancer, which results in her children being placed in the care of Ethel and Galen, a couple who was acquainted with the Lacks family and who took advantage of the children in horrific ways.

The book describes how Henrietta's daughter Deborah was sexually abused by Galen, who was violating his role as a parental figure, and how nothing was done to stop this horrific treatment:

She tried to tell Day when Galen touched her in ways she didn't think he was supposed to, but Day never believed her. And Ethel just called Deborah words she’d never heard, like bitch and slut. In the car with Day driving and Ethel in the passenger seat, and everybody drinking except her, Deborah would sit in the back pressed against the car door to get as far away from Galen as she could. But he’d just slide closer. As Day drove with his arm around Ethel in the front, Galen would grab Deborah in the back seat, forcing his hands under her shirt, in her pants, between her legs. After the first time he touched her, Deborah swore she’d never wear another pair of jeans with snaps instead of zippers again, but zippers didn't stop him; neither did tight belts. So Deborah would just stare out the window, praying for Day to drive faster as she pushed Galen’s hands away again and again.

As the previous educator who answered this question has mentioned, the book does not directly reference Henrietta being sexually abused. However, the fact that Henrietta and Day were cousins and grew up sharing a room together—which certainly led to her impregnation and the birth of her first child when Henrietta was merely fourteen years-old—also indicates that things were significantly awry with Henrietta's home life. Henrietta was certainly younger than the age of consent; could this have been forced sexual conduct? The book declines to say, and yet, from the impression we get of Day throughout the narrative, we can certainly draw our own conclusions.

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The text nowhere makes any mention of Henrietta Lacks being sexually abused. However, through Deborah's experience in Clover and with her uncle Galen, who molests her and tries to sleep with her, it is clear that abuse and rape were commonplace, even amongst cousins, and that this is something that Henrietta would probably have seen, if not experienced herself, when she was growing up. As regards her own sexual experience, Chapter Two gives the reader some background to Henrietta's life that shows how this part of her life started much earlier than the reader might imagine:

But Henrietta and Day had been sharing a bedroom since she was four, so what happened next didn't surprise anyone: they started having children together. Their son Lawrence was born just months after Henrietta's fourteenth birthday; his sister Lucile Elsie Pleasant came along four years later.

Thus, although the text makes no direct reference to Henrietta being raped or abused, it is clear that this was very much a part of the upbringing she would have experienced at Clover. She grew up at a time when women had very few rights and very little protection, and were seen as sexual targets by even men who were related to them.

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In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, discuss the abuse that Henrietta faced.

This question seems to imply that Henrietta was the victim of rape or some other abuse. In fact, the text does not clearly state that this was the case at all. Although in Chapter Two, which describes Henrietta's early life and background, it is clear that her relationship with Day, her cousin, started in part because they shared a bedroom together from their early years, no specific mention is made of rape or abuse.

However, the text does raise the interesting issue of what counts as abuse. One of the biggest abuses, it suggests, is the way in which a sample of Henrietta's tumour was taken from her without her consent. This occurs at the time of her first cancer treatment in Chapter Three, when Dr. Wharton, before beginning the radium treatment that was used in those days to treat cancer, takes a sample without Henrietta's knowledge:

But first--though no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor--Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta's cervix...

Arguably, this is the biggest abuse that Henrietta faces, both during her life and after, as her family's anger amply demonstrates. The way in which others were allowed to prosper on the sale of HeLa when Henrietta herself and her family lived lives shaped by poverty is the biggest abuse in this text.

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