Study Guide

Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joe Lacks) in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joe Lacks)

Lost Mother, Lost Child

Zakariyya is the fifth and youngest of Henrietta's children. After the death of his mother, Baby Joe nearly dies of tuberculosis and soon finds himself in the care of a cousin who loves to abuse him.

Zakariyya's anger at this treatment is mythical—kind of like Henrietta's aggressive cells. And it wasn't long before people were making the comparison:

Joe grew into the meanest, angriest child any Lacks had ever known, and the family started saying something must have happened to his brain while he was growing inside Henrietta alongside that cancer. (112)

Zakariyya believes this too. He thinks he learned to fight while fighting off the cancer cells growing all around him. His anger was directed everywhere: to passersby on the street, who he shot at with a BB gun; to his fellow soldiers; and especially to his father, Day. Zakariyya may not have understood exactly what made him so mean, but he did know that his own father should have protected him. He drinks and can't hold a job.

Different Name, Same Man

Though Joe converts to Islam while in prison for murder (hence the name change), it's a lot harder for him to change who he is. The lingering anger from past abuse adds to his feeling that his family's been exploited by those with more power. It makes it really hard for him to be at peace and move forward in his life.

No on in the family knows quite what to do with Zakariyya, but an important moment takes in Christoph Lengauer's lab at Hopkins. Awestruck by the beauty and sheer number of his mother's cells all around him, he's calm and reflective He even thanks Lengauer, a white doctor like all the ones who've exploited the cells in the past. Can this simple act of common sense and compassion on Lengauer's part really be all that Zakariyya needs to heal?

Well, no. But his ability to thank the doctor and understand for the first time what HeLa really is shows a small dent in a lifetime of hurt. Deborah calls it a "miracle."

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