Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Language and Communication

By Rebecca Skloot

Language and Communication

Bobbette excused herself and ran home, bursting through the screen door into the kitchen, yelling for Lawrence, "Part of your mother, it's alive!" Lawrence called his father to tell him what Bobbette had heard, and Day didn't know what to think. "Henrietta's alive?!" he thought. It didn't make any sense. (181)

Info about HeLa was characterized by miscommunication and wild ideas from the very start, including wild media speculations that HeLa-monsters would soon be populating the earth. Most members of the Lacks family didn't know much about science, so it's easy to see how explanations of Henrietta's cellular "immortality" turns into "Henrietta's ALIVE?!" Skloot wants us to understand that Henrietta's daughter-in-law, son and husband are not stupid: they just don't have the context to make sense of these claims.

When Hsu got home from the conference, she called Day to ask if she could draw blood from his family. "They said they got my wife and she part alive," he told me years later. "They said they been doin experiments on her and they wanted to come test my children see if they got that cancer killed their mother." (182)

There's a lot getting lost in the translation here, so to speak. Hsu, Victor McKusick's assistant, speaks heavily accented English, and Day really has no idea what she's saying. He attempts to piece her conversation together with his understanding of Henrietta's death, and a result is a classic failure to communicate. Neither side realizes there's a problem until the whole Lacks family is in an uproar about the blood draws.

Hsu's accent was strong, and so was Day's—he spoke with a Southern country drawl so thick his own children often had a hard time understanding him. But language wasn't their only barrier. Day wouldn't have understood the concept of immortal cells or HLA markers coming from anyone, accent or not—he'd only gone to school for four years of his life, and he never studied science. The only kind of cell he'd heard of was the kind Zakariyya was living in out at Hagerstown. (183)

Skloot reminds us time and again that a lot of the Lacks family's heartache and anxiety could have been alleviated if only one person in the scientific community had taken an hour to explain the situation to them in ways they could understand. When Hsu shows up to draw blood from the Lackses, she just makes the situation a whole lot worse.

When she asked McKusick to explain more about the cells, he gave her a book he'd edited called Medical Genetics, which would become one of the most important textbooks in the field. He said it would tell her everything she needed to know, then autographed the inside front cover. (188)

For a brilliant guy, McKusick certainly comes off as clueless in this scenario. He assumes that Deborah has the education and background knowledge to understand a genetics textbook used in med school. He also feels like he's doing Deborah a favor (notice how he magnanimously signs the book). This is yet another instance of the scientific community totally missing what the Lacks family is asking of them, and then failing to deliver.

The more Deborah struggled to understand her mother's cells, the more HeLa research terrified her. When she saw a Newsweek article called PEOPLE-PLANTS that said scientists had crossed Henrietta Lacks's cells with tobacco cells, Deborah thought they'd created a human-plant monster that was half her mother, half tobacco. When she found out scientists had been using HeLa cells to study viruses like AIDS and Ebola, Deborah imagined her mother eternally suffering the symptoms of each disease […]. (196)

Skloot tells us that Deborah has difficulty handling both spoken and written language, so you can imagine how she felt whenever her mother's name appeared in the media in relation to some strange story about "people-plants." It's terrifying for her to think that somehow her mother is still suffering.

She held up an article from The Independent in London and pointed at a circled paragraph: "Henrietta Lacks's cell thrived. In weight, they now far surpassed the person of their origin and there would probably be more than sufficient to populate a village of Henriettas." (237)

This is perhaps the funniest—and most heartbreaking—moment between Skloot and Deborah. She explains to Skloot that she's afraid of running into a clone of Henrietta on the street. Skloot has to explain to her that this isn't even scientifically possible. We learn that some of Deborah's deepest anxieties about her mother happen because she has no way of understanding the researchers' metaphors or the sensational claims of the media.

Deborah realized these movies were fiction, but for her the line between sci-fi and reality had blurred years earlier, when her father got that first call saying Henrietta's cells were still alive. Deborah knew her mother's cells had grown like the Blob until there were so many of them they could wrap around the Earth several times. It sounded crazy, but it was true. (237-38)

Skloot wants us to understand that Deborah's belief in some of the more far-fetched theories about Henrietta's cells (i.e. that hybrids of the cells are full-fledged monsters) start out as some version of reality. Most people—admit it, you probably believe that you're either alive or you're dead, no in-between—wouldn't know what to make of this unusual situation with a dead Henrietta and her living cells. And you have the benefit of the Shmoop science learning guides.

He grabbed a piece of scrap paper and spent nearly a half-hour drawing diagrams and explaining the basic biology of cells as Deborah asked questions. Zakariyya turned up his hearing aid and leaned close to Christoph and his paper. (264)

Finally—a doctor who gets it. Christoph Lengauer not only agrees to meet with the Lacks family to show them the HeLa cells in his lab at Hopkins, he takes the time to explain things in a way that Zakariyya and Deborah can understand. And he does it with enthusiasm, compassion, and respect for the family's intelligence. And Deborah and Zakariyya respond. It's a transformative moment for them. This guy's a hero in our book.

She sat down next to me and pointed to a different word in her sister's autopsy report. "What does this word mean?" she asked, and I told her. Then her face fell, her jaw slack, and she whispered, "I don't want you putting that word in the book." "I won't," I said, and then I made a mistake. I smiled. Not because I thought it was funny, but because I thought it was sweet that she was protective of her sister. (282-83)

Here we have two failures to communicate: first, the unknowable and unutterable word on Elsie's autopsy report, which we don't know because Skloot kept her promise. Then, Deborah's sorrow and mistrust cloud her ability to read Skloot's non-verbal cues: that approving smile gets read as mockery or sneakiness. This moment certainly highlights the importance of context and emotional state in any interaction.

In that moment, reading those 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. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta's cells makes perfect sense. (296)

When cousin Gary shows Skloot some biblical passages that speak of the resurrection of the body promised by Jesus, she finally gets it: the Lacks family has a totally different social and spiritual context for understanding what happened to Henrietta at Hopkins. This moment of clarity is crucial for Skloot as she interacts with the family and tries to make sense of what they went through in the decades since they lost Henrietta.

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