The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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Teaching Approaches

Characterizing Henrietta Lacks: Skloot’s impetus for writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was to discover the true story behind the woman at the source of HeLa cells. But very little direct evidence of Henrietta exists: medical records and a few scant memories handed down by deceased relatives. Understanding Henrietta requires great empathy and inference on the part of students, but the task is key to a deep reading of the book.

  • For discussion: Describe Henrietta’s childhood. What are her joys, and what challenges does she face?
  • For discussion: Describe Henrietta’s relationship with her husband. How does it develop over the course of her life? To what extent are they partners, and to what extent is Day an antagonist?
  • For discussion: What is Henrietta’s attitude toward motherhood? How does being a mother impact her decision to move to Baltimore and her response to her cancer diagnosis?
  • For discussion: How does Henrietta feel about the medical professionals she interacts with? What individual and social dynamics impact her behavior in the hospital setting?
  • For discussion: How does Skloot gather information about Henrietta? What tools and devices does she use to present Henrietta in the text?

Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks as Parallel Characters: Though they come from radically different backgrounds, both Skloot and Deborah embark on an exploration of the Lacks family history and the science of HeLa cells. The relationship between the two women shapes and gives meaning to many of the events of the book, and thus their rapport is important to analyze.

  • For discussion: What are Skloot’s and Deborah’s childhoods like? Consider their cultural heritages, socio-economic backgrounds, and geographical locations. Why do they undertake this research project?
  • For discussion: What challenges do Skloot and Deborah face in grasping the science involved in HeLa cell research? What do they teach each other?
  • For discussion: After learning about Elsie’s death, both women have an epiphany. What does each woman learn? How do their realizations impact their respective attitudes going forward?
  • For discussion: How does Skloot and Deborah’s relationship develop over the course of the book? How does their relationship develop themes in the story?

Considering the Ethics of Scientific Research: The story of the Lacks family intersects with many pressing issues in biomedical research and healthcare: patient consent, patient privacy, distribution of the profits that derive from biomedical research, and access to healthcare for sample donors and their families. The book invites readers into a discussion of these issues.

  • For discussion: When and where are Henrietta’s rights compromised in the story? What ethical compromises do researchers make when handling HeLa cells?
  • For discussion: Which ethical codes, from governments or biomedical organizations, govern research on human samples? How do these codes develop over the course of the story? Which expectations govern research today?
  • For discussion: To what extent do donors have the right to the profits that come from human tissue samples? Should the Lacks family be compensated by the private corporations that have profited from HeLa cells?

Understanding the Role of the Supernatural: One critical difference between Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot can be found in their respective attitudes toward religious and supernatural matters. This difference reflects the broader cultural divide between scientific and religious communities in the United States.

  • For discussion: What is Skloot’s attitude toward religion and the supernatural? How does her attitude develop over the course of the text? How does Gary Lacks impact her beliefs?
  • For discussion: Describe the role religion plays in the lives of the Lacks family. To what extent does religious belief help or hurt them? How does it affect their interaction with the scientific community?
  • For discussion: How does religion impact Deborah’s worldview, particularly in relation to her...

(The entire section is 1,343 words.)