Study Guide

Henrietta Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks

Prettiest Girl in Town

Most of what we know about Henrietta is basic stuff. She lost her mother when she was four and grew up in extreme poverty in rural segregated Virginia. She left school in the sixth or seventh grade and spent her days picking tobacco and caring for the animals on her grandparents' farm. She had five children with her cousin Day starting when she was 14, and was by all accounts a devoted mother. At age 30, she developed an aggressive case of cervical cancer, and after a few months of treatment, died of her disease. Only her oldest child really remembers her. To get closer to Henrietta, Skloot has to reach into the memories of her closest relatives.

Despite the fact that Henrietta gained one type of immortality through her cancer cells, there's very little other physical evidence that preserves who she was. There are two photographs and one document in her medical record that holds her signature. Of her five children, only Lawrence has any direct memories of her, and they can all be boiled down to this: "She was pretty." In fact, she was so pretty that one local boy tried twice to kill himself because she wouldn't date him.

They called him Crazy Joe because he was so in love with Henrietta, he'd do anything to get her attention. She was the prettiest girl in Lacks Town, with her beautiful smile and walnut eyes. (23)

She was famously meticulous about her appearance, despite hands roughened from years of fieldwork:

Henrietta spent hours taking care of those nails, touching up chips and brushing on new coats of polish. She'd sit on her bed, polish in hand, hair high on her head in curlers, wearing the silky slip she loved so much she hand-washed it each night. She never wore pants, and rarely left the house without pulling on a carefully pressed shirt and skirt, sliding her feet into her tiny, open-toed pumps, and pinning her hair up with a little flip at the bottom, "just like it was dancing toward her face," Sadie always said. (43)

That couldn't have been easy for a woman with young children, cooking and cleaning for the family and feeding anyone who happened to drop by. It just tells you how much pride she took in her appearance.

Life of the Party

Cousin Sadie remembers her as the fun girl and a sweetheart. They'd sneak out to go dancing or play bingo in Henrietta's living room while her babies crawled on the floor. Sadie told Skloot,

"Hennie made life come alive—bein with her was like being with fun...Hennie just love peoples. She was a person that could make the good things come out of you." (43)

We also learn that she's a giver and protector. She takes care of cousin Cootie when he's recovering from polio and makes sure that no one ever goes hungry on her watch. Her generosity inspires affection and loyalty from almost everyone around her. Everyone seemed to love Henrietta. Sonny tells Skloot,

"Everybody say she was real nice and cooked good. […] She liked takin' care of people […] I mean, people always say she was really just hospitality, you know, fixin everything up nice, make a good place, get up, cook breakfast for everybody, even if it's twenty of them." (159)

Good Mom

By the time she was 30, Henrietta had five children, including one daughter, Elsie, with serious physical and mental disabilities. Henrietta doted on her, dressed her in homemade dresses and spent hours braiding her hair. She made her husband drive her and Elsie to revival meetings hoping for a cure. But no luck. When Henrietta got pregnant with her youngest child, Elsie went to live in Crownsville State Hospital, about an hour and a half away. It broke Henrietta's heart.

Henrietta's cousins always said a bit of Henrietta died the day they sent Elsie away, that losing her was worse than anything else that happened to her. Now, nearly a year later, Henrietta still had Day or a cousin take her from Turner Station to Crownsville once a week to sit with Elsie, who'd cry and cling to her as they played with each other's hair. (45)

But she could be a tough cookie with her other kids, especially her oldest, who liked to get into trouble hanging around the pier:

Henrietta had a way with children—they were always good and quiet when they were around. But whenever she left the house Lawrence stopped being good […] Anytime Henrietta got word that Lawrence was at the pier, she'd storm down there, drag him out of the water, and whip him.

"Oooh Lord," Sadie said once, "Hennie went down there with a switch. Yes, Lord. She pitched a boogie like I never seen." (45)

Henrietta had to be tough. She lost her own mother and grew up in poverty, but stayed fun-loving and hardworking; left her home and followed her husband to the city; kept returning to Hopkins because she knew something was wrong with her even though the doctors kept sending her home; and faced excruciating pain and disfiguring treatments in trying to cure her cancer.

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Deborah and her family struggle to understand what it means that their mother achieved immortality. The scientific community seems to think this is a big deal, but to Deborah and the Lacks children it means very little: their mother is still gone. While HeLa cells could never preserve the person that Henrietta was, her family creates a new story around the cells that gives more meaning to her biological legacy. Sonny says,

"Her cells have been blowed up in nuclear bombs. From her cells came all these different creations—medical miracles like polio vaccines, some cure for cancer and other things, even AIDS. She liked takin care of people, so it make sense what she did with them cells."

"HeLa?" I asked Gary. "You're saying that HeLa is her spiritual body?"

Gary smiled and nodded.

In that moment reading those [Bible] passages, I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being.

[…]

For Deborah and her family—and surely many others in the world—that answer was so much more concrete than the explanation offered by science: that the immortality of Henrietta's cells had something to do with her telomeres and how HPV interacted with her DNA. (296)

This kind of immortality is not only understandable to the family; it's heroic. As Sonny and Lawrence say time and again, the gift of HeLa cells to the world produced results that are nothing short of miraculous. Deborah comes to the conclusion that actually living forever would be selfish and dull (things that Henrietta never was), and that Henrietta's new life as HeLa is a truer reflection of who she was—and what her daughter wants to be:

"I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you...But maybe I'll come back as some HeLa cells like my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world." (310)

The fact that Henrietta was so beautiful and nurturing made it that much harder for her family to deal with her exploitation by the scientific community. Seeing her immortality in the terms they did helped them make their peace with the situation. HeLa was just an extension of all the other things that Henrietta gave when she was alive.

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