Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Family

By Rebecca Skloot

Family

Tommy lived in what everyone called the home-house—a four-room log cabin that once served as slave quarters, with plank floors, gas lanterns, and water Henrietta hauled up a long hill from the creek [...]. The air inside stayed so cool that when relatives died, the family kept their corpses in the front hallway for days so people could visit and pay respects. Then they buried them in the cemetery out back. (18-19)

Skloot describes the house where Henrietta grew up, started her family and where she was buried. We get a strong sense of family cohesion here just by the description of this communal home. It speaks volumes that this house falls apart after Henrietta's death. Shmoop loves the cold-storage feature of the house.

Each night, piles of cousins packed into the crawl space above a little wooden kitchen house just a few feet from the home-house. They lay one next to the other—telling stories about the headless tobacco farmer who roamed the streets at night, or the man with no eyes who lived by the creek—then slept until their grandmother Chloe fired up the woodstove below and woke them to the smell of fresh biscuits. (20)

Though we know that the Lacks family suffered from poverty, abuse, and lack of education, Skloot doesn't leave out the good memories. This recollection of childhood times sounds like the best memories of summer camp. It's important for us to see the life that Henrietta valued and loved, to keep her humanity front and center.

[...] Henrietta and Day had been sharing a bedroom since she was four, so what happened next didn't surprise anyone: they started having children together. (23)

Here's the darker side of living in the home-house: Henrietta may or may not have had much choice in starting a family with her first cousin. Though her family was precious to her, there's little doubt that this beginning caused a great deal of physical and psychological suffering for the children born to Day and Henrietta.

When most Lackses talked about Henrietta and Day and their early life in Clover, it sounded as idyllic as a fairy tale. But not Gladys. No one knew why she was so against the marriage [...] but Gladys always insisted Day would be a no-good husband. (24)

Henrietta's sister Gladys seemed to be the only one who disapproved of Day and Henrietta hooking up; maybe she understood something more about Day's character than she could articulate or was willing to tell. We learn later that Henrietta suffers from very serious sexually transmitted diseases brought to her by her husband, which were the cause of her cancer (HPV) and her daughter's disabilities (syphilis) as well.

Henrietta seemed relieved, almost desperate, to see Elsie looking okay. That was the last time she would see her daughter—Emmett figures she knew she was saying goodbye. What she didn't know was that no one would ever visit Elsie again. (84)

Henrietta took great care of her older daughter and didn't want to place her in an institution. But as Elsie's condition worsens, Henrietta has no choice but to see it as a good thing. The loss of her mother probably sealed a horrific fate for Elsie, since the family then left her at the mercy of Crownsville doctors. No one ever came to visit her again, and patients without family are always the most vulnerable.

Gladys had come from Clover by Greyhound as soon as she got word Henrietta was in the hospital. The two had never been close, and people still teased Gladys, saying she was too mean and ugly to be Henrietta's sister. But Henrietta was family, so Gladys sat beside her, clutching a pillow in her lap. (84)

So despite the endless teasing about her inferior personality and looks, Gladys knows what it means to be family. This seems to be a theme for the Lacks family: despite the all the serious hurts, they stay together through the years. The exception may be Zakariyya and Day. We guess some things just can't be forgiven.

The Lacks children had to work from sunup to sundown; they weren't allowed to take breaks, and they got no food or water until nightfall, even when the summer heat burned. Ethel would watch them from the couch or a window, and if one of them stopped working before she told them to, she'd beat them all bloody. (112)

Henrietta's children are left at the mercy of Ethel, a cousin by marriage, who takes out her hatred for Henrietta on her children. It's this unchecked abuse that ultimately shapes Deborah's life and sets Zakariyya on a destructive and violent path.

Bobbette had told Deborah that maybe she and her siblings had hearing problems because their parents were first cousins. Deborah knew other cousins had children who were dwarves, or whose minds never developed. She wondered if that had something to do with what happened to Elsie. (116)

Although Deborah doesn't fully understand the science behind it, she's beginning to understand more about her family than she ever really wanted to know. Bobbette has to educate her on this basic facet of biology (first cousins have a higher likelihood of producing children with disabilities) so that she knows to resist the advances of her boy cousins.

Deborah and Zakariyya stared at the screen like they'd gone into a trance, mouths open, cheeks sagging. It was the closest they'd come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies. (265)

This tear-jerking moment in Christoph Lengauer's lab at Hopkins highlights the purpose of Deborah's quest: to find out about her mother and be closer to her. This moment also makes us stop and think about just how profoundly the loss of a mother can affect her young children, something that researchers never considered when they left the Lacks family out of the equation. Holding that vial meant a lot to Deborah.

Deborah ran her finger across Elsie's face in the Crownsville photo. "She looks like she wonderin where I'm at," she said. "She look like she needs her sister." (273)

Can you imagine—knowing your sister was abused and probably tortured in an institution and not even knowing that sister existed? Deborah's devastated when she learns that her sister most likely died from the horrific abuse (and possibly from scientific experimentation) at Crownsville. She feels responsible, even though she didn't even know about her. The loss of her mother and sister, both situations entirely out of her control, tear Deborah apart.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...