Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks The Supernatural

By Rebecca Skloot

The Supernatural

Sometimes Elsie raced through the fields, chasing wild turkeys or grabbing the family mule by the tail and thrashing against him until Lawrence pulled her off. Henrietta's cousin Peter always said God had that child from the moment she was born, because that mule never hurt her. (44)

There's a sense in Lacks Town that Elsie's been "touched" by a higher power. Her disabilities weren't understood in scientific or medical terms, so her unique condition had to be articulated in terms familiar to a God-fearing people. The Lackses see the world in terms of wonders and signs: God working through everyday occurrences to make himself known to them.

Henrietta made Day drive her and Elsie to revival meetings so preachers in tents could lay hands on Elsie to heal her, but it never worked. (44-45)

The Lackses used the channels most familiar to them to seek help for Elsie. Henrietta and her family were perhaps hoping for a miracle, which was about as likely as them getting proper help from the medical community.

Carrel was a mystic who believed in telepathy and clairvoyance, and thought it was possible for humans to live several centuries through the use of suspended animation. (60)

Skloot is speaking here of French surgeon Alexis Carrel, the Nobel Prize winning Nazi-sympathizer who pioneered vascular surgery and supported Hitler's version of eugenics. Though his scientific discoveries were groundbreaking, it's clear that Carrel's mystical beliefs bordered on the bizarre.

"Voodoo," [Cootie] whispered. "Some peoples sayin Henrietta's sickness and them cells was man- or woman-made, others say it was doctor-made." (82)

Skloot gets a real sense of how the Lackses thought about illness when she speaks with Henrietta's cousin Cootie for the first time. Knowing that the Lackses believed that darker forces were at work in Henrietta's devastating illness helped Skloot understand what they needed to be at peace with HeLa: a basic scientific explanation of what happened to her and how the cells were developed.

As Cliff and Fred lowered Henrietta's coffin into her grave and began covering her with handfuls of dirt, the sky turned black as strap molasses. The rain fell thick and fast. Then came long rumbling thunder, screams from the babies, and a blast of wind so strong it tore the metal roof off the barn below the cemetery and sent it flying through the air above Henrietta's grave […]. (92)

The Lacks family believes in "wonders and signs"—and we have to say, this incident at Henrietta's burial was pretty convincing. The wicked storm that blew up at her funeral sure convinced her family that Henrietta was trying to tell them something.

"Scientists are using technology her cells helped to develop to grow other people's corneas."

"That's a miracle," Sonny said. "I didn't know about that, but the other day President Clinton said the polio vaccine is one of the most important things that happened in the twentieth century, and her cells involved with that too."

"That's a miracle," Lawrence said. (162)

While Skloot attempts to explain the science behind HeLa cells and how they help in research, Henrietta's sons fall back on an explanation that's truer to them: all the scientific advances are heaven-sent. Skloot will eventually understand that this more religious approach to understanding science feels more concrete to Henrietta's family, and may give more meaning to Henrietta's story than dry facts about DNA or telomeres. She can't offer them any spiritual guidance, though. She's not really a believer from what the reader can tell, but she tries to be open-minded about it.

Finally the cells popped into view for Deborah. And through that microscope, for that moment, all she could see was an ocean of her mother's cells, stained an ethereal fluorescent green. (266)

Deborah and her brother Zakariyya are struggling to understand the biology of their mother's cells and how they've been helping in scientific research. But the thing that really touches them is this near religious experience of seeing their mother's cells alive in Christoph Lengauer's lab. For them, HeLa cells seem to embody their mother's spirit, as though she'd been brought back to life in those living, dividing cells.

"LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS!" He thrust his arms toward me, hands pointed at either side of my head. "GIVE THEM TO HER!" he yelled. "LET HER CARRY THEM." (293)

Deborah has just learned that her sister Elsie died a lonely and horrible death at Crownsville, and she just can't handle it. The revelations that she and Skloot have been uncovering about her mother's life and death have been too overwhelming, so cousin Gary comforts her through prayer. Skloot finds herself implicated in this "divine cure" and is not so sure she can handle the psychological burden of making things right for the Lackses. But Deborah feels much better after this soul cleansing.

When Christoph projected Henrietta's cells on the monitor in his lab a few days earlier, Deborah said, "They're beautiful." She was right. Beautiful and otherworldly—glowing green and moving like water, calm and ethereal, looking precisely like heavenly bodies might look. They could even float through the air. (295)

Cousin Gary has just shown Skloot passages in the bible that explain why the Lacks family thinks that HeLa cells really ARE their mother come back to life. Deborah's encouraged in this belief by having seen the beautiful cells dancing across Lengauer's screen at Hopkins. Although not scientific at all, this belief gives Deborah and Zakariyya the most comfort: that their mother had been chosen by God to return to earth to help humankind.

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. The idea that God chose Henrietta as an angel who would be reborn as immortal cells made a lot more sense to them than the explanation Deborah had read earlier in Victor McKusick's genetics book […]. (296)

Skloot finally gets it: no amount of scientific explanation will make Deborah and the Lacks family more at peace than their own spiritual understanding of their mother's purpose on earth. However, the science does help them know that HeLa cells, even taken without consent, have made the world a better place. That makes Henrietta an agent of God in their eyes.

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