Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 15

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 15

"Too Young to Remember" (1951-1965)

  • Skloot brings us back to the Lacks narrative, right after Henrietta's funeral. With all the comings and goings of relatives, the younger Lacks children came down with tuberculosis.
  • Baby Joe nearly died from the illness (he was just a year old). Lawrence had been drafted (for the Korean War) at somewhat less than 18 years old, since he had a fake I.D. to get into the pool halls.
  • Ethel and her husband Galen moved into the Lacks home to take care of the children while Day works. It turns out that this was a baaaad idea.
  • Ethel had hated Henrietta and now took it out on her children. She starved them and made them work way too hard. She also beat them viciously, and Joe caught the brunt of her rage.
  • She'd confine him to the filthy basement, tie him up with a rope, and leave him there for long periods of time.
  • Sometimes, Ethel would whip him with a belt and hit him harder if he cried.
  • This affected Joe in the worst way. He grew up to be full of rage and ran into trouble with the law.
  • Lawrence, Henrietta's oldest son, hooked up with Bobbette, a young woman who decided to take on the younger Lacks siblings rather than leave them to Ethel's "care."
  • Deborah, the younger daughter, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Ethel's husband Galen, and the abuse didn't stop when she went to live with Lawrence and Bobbette.
  • Her father Day didn't believe (or maybe didn't care) that Galen was touching her inappropriately, even though Galen would assault Deborah right under Day's nose.
  • But Galen paid more attention to Deborah than Day, so Deborah (also called "Dale") was conflicted. He gave her gifts and promised that he'd wear a condom with her so she wouldn't get pregnant.
  • But Dale was so young she didn't even know what "pregnant" meant. At one point, Galen tried to get Dale into the car with him after school, but she'd had enough.
  • Deborah broke free and ran home to Bobbette. She told Bobbette everything.
  • Bobbette had it out with Galen and Ethel, telling them that she'll kill them if they didn't stop hurting the Lacks kids.
  • Then Bobbette had to have the talk with Deborah when the little girl asked what "pregnant" meant. Bobbette's talk included the helpful recommendation that cousins are not supposed to have sex with each other.
  • Deborah promised to keep fighting advances from family members and not to have babies until she grew up.
  • But Deborah didn't want to focus on school (she was partially deaf, so couldn't hear the teachers) and she wanted to marry a boy she liked so that Galen would stop touching her.
  • Bobbette told her it's no dice: she needed to have an education. Dale stayed in school, but she had to keep fighting off the sexual advances of her male family members.
  • Dale also learned that she had an older sister called Elsie. Day told her that she was deaf and dumb. It freaked her out and made her wonder if anyone tried to teach her sister sign language.
  • Dale's inability to learn anything about her sister—except that she had died at 15—distressed her throughout her life.
  • She was also tormented because she didn't know anything about her mother except her name.

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