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 happens at the end of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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In chapter 38 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot recounts her visit to Clover and discovery that it had been largely demolished. She reveals that after she finished the book, she learned from Sonny that Deborah had died. The chapter includes updates on Henrietta’s other descendants. In the afterword, Skloot compares contemporary standards on collection of biological materials with those of Henrietta’s time. As of 2009, the Lacks descendants were not intending to pursue legal action.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks concludes with chapter 38 and an afterword. In the last chapter, author Rebecca Skloot reviews developments between the time she completed the book manuscript in 1999 and her return to Clover ten years later. Upon arriving in town, she found that most of it had been demolished.

Skloot shares the conversations she had with Sonny after a period of failed efforts to communicate with Deborah. He informed her that his mother had died. He also told her about some health problems he experienced and related financial difficulties, primarily a necessary but very expensive surgical procedure. Skloot also provides updates on several grandchildren, including Davon’s and Erika’s educational aspirations.

The afterword moves away from the Lacks family’s personal story to consider the broader changes in medical ethics and related legal issues in the years since Henrietta’s death. She explains the recent reconceptualization of informed consent and ownership of tissue and other biological materials. Skloot also reviews the widely varied approaches and related difficulties of retroactive action, as several families attempted to recover relatives’ materials from research institutions. As of 2009, the Lacks family generally experienced pride in the impact of their relative’s contribution but were not planning to pursue legal action against Johns Hopkins.

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What is the climax in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

I'm not sure that there is a climax in the book. It is a biography of Henrietta Lacks, so it deals with her life, her family and the contributions her cells have made to science. The book is actually as much about Henrietta Lacks as it is Rebecca Skloot's pursuit of information on Henrietta. If you want to consider a turning point, I would suggest the moments when Skloot uncovers more of Henrietta's life and certainly the moments when Henrietta's impact on cancer research becomes more publicly known and acknowledged. One such moment occurs in Chapter 28, when a medical conference was held in Henrietta's honor and the Lackses were invited. In addition, the BBC began filming a documentary about her. 

In Chapter 32, Rebecca accompanies Zakarryia and Deborah to Johns Hopkins where they actually witness one of Henrietta's cells dividing. They are surprised to hear Christopher Lengauer admit that Johns Hopkins "screwed up" by never communicating with the Lacks family. Uncharacteristically, Zakarryia is silent on the way home, prompting Deborah to tell Rebecca that she just witnessed a miracle. This is a defining moment in the biography because they actually see Henrietta's cells and they get some acknowledgment from Johns Hopkins that they had not properly handled the acknowledgement of Henrietta's and her family's contribution. 

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What happens at the end of the book in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

Until the book was published, no one knew much about Henrietta Lacks.  Her family did not and does not benefit financially from the HeLa line of cells.

The book travels back and forth in time as it explores the author’s research into genetic research and the Lacks family.  Going chronologically, one thing is clear. The family really never benefitted from the commercialization of Henrietta Lacks’s genetic material.  In fact, the afterward notes that at the time the book was published there were still few laws regarding ownership of human cells.

As Skoot acknowledges, there are “important issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class” raised in Henrietta’s story.  In the introduction, she explains how she tried to address them fully.

…I’ve done my best to present them clearly within the narrative of Lacks’s story, and I’ve included an afterward addressing the current legal and ethical debate surrounding tissue ownership and research. (p. xiv)

The main point is that after Henrietta’s death, many people made a lot of money off of her cancer cells.  She never consented to have these cells removed and used as scientific research, let alone being branded and sold.  Although the name of the cell line, HeLa, does seem to acknowledge the cells’ origin, clearly most researchers were not aware.  This was what interested Skoot enough to write the book in the first place.

Yes, Henrietta is immortal in a way.  Her cells can exist without her, and have for decades.  Yet her family still lives in poverty.

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