Study Guide

Deborah "Dale" Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

Deborah "Dale" Lacks

Look at Little Sister

While big bro Lawrence may be the "Big Kahuna" of the Lacks family, the will and power to uncover Henrietta's story lies with Deborah. The only surviving daughter and fourth child of Day and Henrietta, Deborah spends most of her early life wondering what happened to her beautiful mother and worrying about what it could mean for her own life and identity.

Skloot learns early on that Deborah is the key to Henrietta's story. She is the child that wants to know more, no matter what the consequences. And the waters are deep: when Deborah tries to learn about HeLa cells and what they really are, she's moving through a world that's completely alien and often hostile to her.

She needs a guide, but that guide has to work hard to gain Deborah's trust after an early life of familial abuse followed by disregard from the scientific community.

Mama's Girl

Deborah's connection to the mother she lost may seem surprisingly strong, especially since she never had the chance to know her. Her need to connect is intensified by her difficult childhood and a non-existent relationship with her father, whose lack of attention has disastrous effects on her emotional life:

Despite the beating and the molesting, Deborah felt closer to Galen than she ever had to Day. When he wasn't hitting her, Galen showered her with attention and gifts. He bought her pretty clothes, and took her for ice cream. In those moments, Deborah pretended he was her father, and she felt like a regular little girl. (114)

Her need to know more about Henrietta and Elsie, despite the potential for serious heartache, is a continuation of her search for intimacy. It's also a search for the right people to love. As she sifts through materials with Skloot, Deborah's happiest when she finds information about her birth on her mother's medical records.

She wonders aloud if her mother breastfed her—and then feels sure that she must have. When she sees the picture of Elsie at Crownsville, she enters her sister's world of suffering, saying "she look like she needs her sister" (273). Deborah's observations are wish fulfillment, the desire to know that she made a mark on the heart of someone who once lived and loved her back.

Tough Lady

Deborah's the real surprise in this book—and not just for us. Skloot often wonders how Deborah can carry on and process the information they're finding in their search for Henrietta and Elsie. And sometimes she really can't take it (i.e. her hives and the stroke).

But she plows on, reading articles about HeLa cells with a dictionary in hand and learning to use the Internet to make sense of her mother's immortal life. Her brothers don't understand her need to pursue something that has been so hurtful to them. Deborah is quite clear in her mission:

"All this stuff I'm learning,' she said, 'it make me realize that I did have a mother, and all the tragedy she went through. It hurts but I wanna know more, just like I wanna know about my sister. It make me feel closer to them, but I do miss them. I wish they were here." (288)

The need to know and to be in control of her past is always stronger for Deborah than the need to forget her past and protect herself from future harm.

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