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Last Updated on August 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1343

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.

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  • 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 understanding of her mother’s life and HeLa cells?

Describing the Facts and Legacy of Racism: The story of Henrietta Lacks and her family puts a human face on the effects of the racism—both overtly institutionalized and subtly imbued in American culture—that impacts medical research, healthcare, and everyday life in the United States. Analyzing the story in the context of American racism will illuminate the lives of Henrietta and her descendants, the state of American medicine, and the ongoing effects of racism in American society.

  • For discussion: Deborah claims that her mother’s story isn’t about “white or black.” Is she correct? When and how does racism affect Henrietta’s life?
  • For discussion: Describe the relationship between the medical community and the black community in the text. How has this relationship shifted through time?
  • For discussion: What examples of institutionalized racism are depicted in the book? How are minority communities still affected by institutionalized racism?

Additional Discussion Questions:

  • Consider the titles used for the three sections of the book. How does the title of each section develop the themes within?
  • Do the medical advances brought about by HeLa cells justify the circumstances in which the original sample was taken?
  • How has healthcare for underprivileged populations changed in the US since the 1950s?
  • How does Elsie’s experience develop themes in the story?


Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Racism is Difficult to Discuss: Racism can be an intimidating topic to approach for both teachers and students. But in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—and in American culture in general—it’s a critical subject to learn to discuss.

  • What to do: Explicitly teach how to communicate about race. Provide examples of appropriate vocabulary as well as sentence frames that students can use to question and clarify each others’ ideas.
  • What to do: Be clear when the goal is to hear other people’s points of view, as opposed to arguing to a point of agreement. 
  • What to do: Warn students to be careful with overgeneralizing or assuming that an individual has had a given experience due to their identity. Prompt students to support their general claims with responsibly gathered data.

The Scientific Material May Prove Challenging: Because The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks covers the nature and medical significance of HeLa cells in great detail, there are many sections that contain scientifically dense material. Skloot presents the subject matter in clear, precise prose, but it may nonetheless present a challenge to some students.

  • What to do: Invite students to draw attention to difficult passages. As a class, discuss and clarify the material in these passages.
  • What to do: Encourage students to conduct extratextual research as they read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Direct students towards resources—in print, online, or both—that will assist in their understanding of the book’s scientific subjects.


Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the text.

  • Focus on how poverty affects the Lacks family. Henrietta and her descendants struggle with poverty for generations. How does a lack of financial resources affect their lives? How do their struggles represent larger patterns of poverty in the United States?
  • Focus on family dynamics. Skloot has a difficult time navigating the Lacks family’s politics. How do opinions within the Lacks family—about HeLa cells, race, Skloot, each other—differ? Who has power in the family and why?
  • Focus on the impact of HeLa cells. HeLa cells have had a profound impact on medical science and popular culture. What areas of human life have they affected? (How) Have students in your classroom benefited from HeLa cells?
  • Focus on the topic of communication. The importance and difficulty of communicating is a central subject of the book. The individuals in the story struggle to understand one another, the Lacks family comes to grasp the science of HeLa cells, and, through the book’s very form, Skloot attempts to communicate the scientific and emotional nuances of Henrietta Lacks’s legacy. How do misunderstandings develop due to linguistic differences? Where does language fail? Where does it succeed?

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