Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 6

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 6

"Lady's On the Phone" (1999)

  • Pay attention Shmoopers, because we're fast-forwarding several decades to the moment when reporter Rebecca Skloot learns about "The HeLa Cancer Control Symposium."
  • It's hosted by Roland Pattillo, who was one of George Gey's students and is now a professor of gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine.
  • Skloot's excited: after all, she wants to write a book about Henrietta and this seems like a good place to start.
  • But Pattillo isn't excited to hear about her intentions. He knows that the family's been through some bad times because of Henrietta's cells and he wants to protect them.
  • Pattillo grills Skloot on her understanding of African Americans and science. Skloot tells him what she knows about the disastrous Tuskegee Institute syphilis study and the "Mississippi Appendectomies." Those were hysterectomies done on black women without their knowledge.
  • Pattillo tells Skloot about Deborah Lacks ("Dale"), Henrietta's younger daughter, and that her husband, Day, is still alive. He also tells her about Elsie. But he doesn't give contact info.
  • He spends three days thinking about Skloot's request to be introduced to Deborah, and then gives up the phone number.
  • But before letting her loose, Pattillo coaches Skloot on how to talk to the family, with the warning to be compassionate, because the family was traumatized by people trying to get their story.
  • Skloot's awkward first call to Deborah (who was somewhat deaf) actually yields a lot of information. Deborah seems enthusiastic about Skloot's project.
  • During Deborah's non-stop narrative, Skloot understands a very important thing: Henrietta's family doesn't understand what happened to their mother or Hopkins' role in it.
  • In the end, Deborah promises to chat with Skloot soon and Skloot's left to sort through a very confusing narrative.
  • But when Skloot calls Deborah back as scheduled, she doesn't want to speak with Skloot.
  • Deborah had spoken to her brothers and father after Skloot's first phone call, and they told her not to cooperate on a book.
  • So if Skloot wanted any information, Deborah said, she'd have to go through the men of the family. She gives Skloot some phone numbers, but she doesn't speak to her again for a year.
  • After many unsuccessful calls to Deborah and her brothers Lawrence and Sonny, Skloot finally gets through to Day.
  • But there's some confusion: Day thinks Skloot has Henrietta's cells, and tells her to shove off. He doesn't want to talk about it anymore.

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