Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Family

By Rebecca Skloot

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In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Lacks family has turmoil buried right into the roots of its family tree. As cousin Cliff tells Skloot, the family cemetery is filled with black Lackses buried right over the top of their white, slave-owning ancestors. There are many other "buried" dichotomies that characterize family life in Clover. While family members remember life around the "home-house" as pastoral and idyllic despite the hardship and poverty, we learn that Henrietta winds up getting pregnant with her first cousin's child at fourteen.

While Henrietta loved her life in Clover, there's the unspoken truth that her husband's infidelities caused illnesses that affected their children and ultimately led to Henrietta's death. But the idea of family is also a strong motivator in the story of Henrietta's children. They work hard to overcome poverty, fear and anxiety to learn the truth about their mother's life and what it means for them as her true legacy. They learn that while HeLa cells guarantee Henrietta a glimpse of immortality, the preservation of her memory lies with the next generation.

Questions About Family

  1. How does the Lacks family learn of Henrietta's legacy as HeLa cells?
  2. What is the most important thing for Deborah as she begins to learn about HeLa cells? What's the real purpose of her quest?
  3. What is Skloot's tone toward the Lacks family? How does she deal with some of the more difficult details about the family's past?
  4. How do Deborah and Zakariyya begin to make peace with Henrietta's fate? What, if anything, makes the difficult situation easier for them?

Chew on This

The Lacks family seems to have suffered more than most.

The Lacks family story of poverty and its consequences was an all too common one back in the Henrietta's day.

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