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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What does Elie Wiesel's quote mean in the context of this book?

"We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of human triumph."

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Elie Wiesel says that we must see humans not as an abstraction because, having lived through the Holocaust, he learned what it means to treat people as something other than human. It lets others manipulate, exploit, injure, and even kill them. When you see someone as less human or real than yourself, it's easier to do things that take advantage of that person. In the case of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Lacks herself is the person being exploited first by her doctors and later by the larger medical community.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who was treated for cervical cancer. Without asking her—and without telling her what they were doing—the doctors used her tissue to create a line of cells called HeLa cells. They're used in labs to this day. Until Rebecca Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and spoke to Lacks's family, they didn't understand the significance of their relative's cells that are still being used to aid scientific progress in labs all over the world.

The doctors didn't see Lacks as a person. Instead, they saw her as an abstraction. She was a means to an end rather than an individual with rights, family, and friends. Wiesel's quote is used to illustrate how dangerous and negative that mindset is. When people have that mindset, it can affect the people they're thinking of in a negative, dehumanizing way.

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For far too long, Henrietta Lacks was seen as an abstraction, as Elie Wiesel describes in his quote. Her cells were harvested, likely without her knowledge, to create the HeLa line of cells. While HeLa was well known in the scientific community for allowing researchers to make medical breakthroughs that helped countless people, very little to nothing was widely known about Henrietta Lacks herself until Skloot's book was published.

As stated in Wiesel's quote, Skloot's book turned Henrietta Lacks from an abstraction into a person with a touching story that had both anguish and triumph. While one of Henrietta's daughters had to be confined to a psychiatric institution (where she died in a fire), and Henrietta was the victim of poverty and racism, she also clearly had a personal warmth that lived on in her other children. Her story is not just the story of the cells she unknowingly bequeathed to medical science when she was dying of cancer, but also the story of an African-American family that has had its share of triumphs and tragedies. Skloot's book restores Henrietta Lack's humanity to her.

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Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust, wrote the books Night and Dawn which detailed what he went through, and has served as the conscience of many in this world who know about the  horror of the Holocaust.  In this quote, he is saying that individuals must be seen as a person, not a number or an experiment.  Each person in this world has worth with their own sadness and their own successes.  Henrietta was used as an experiment without being told, from which many profited millions of dollars. Never was Henrietta seen as a person who had her own rights, who was entitled to know that she was being used for the benefit of others, and as Elie saw it, treated much like the Jews of the Holocaust as a number and a non-person. Her life and her legacy should have been celebrated WITH her, not without her even knowing about her legacy. 

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