Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Language and Communication

By Rebecca Skloot

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Language and Communication

If you attended a talk about, say, simulation of nanostructures for optoelectronic interfaces, you'd probably feel pretty stupid even though you simply never studied this stuff. Science has its own language, and the friction between the Lacks family and the researchers at Johns Hopkins is really a problem of translation. Throw in a research assistant who speaks English as a second language, and you've got total confusion. The problem is, it's always the Lacks family who come off looking stupid, when they're actually just unlearned.

The basic language barriers, however, are rooted in something deeper: a cultural gulf between the two groups that neither can bridge. So, as told in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, when scientists tell Deborah how great it is that her mother is immortal, she totally freaks out. Her understanding of immortality is completely different than theirs. (The same thing goes for cloning).

Researchers aren't able to meet the Lacks family's need to understand until people like Skloot and Lengauer come along to mediate. They earn the family's trust because they have the patience and empathy to listen and explain, and the common sense to know that the Lackses need someone to respect their ordeal. In the passage when Lengauer shows Deborah and Zakariyya the cells and clearly explains their origin and function, you can almost see the barriers falling.

Questions About Language and Communication

  • In what ways does language present difficulties for Deborah? How about Day?
  • What kinds of misunderstandings crop up between the scientific community and the Lacks family? How about between Skloot and the Lacks family?
  • In what ways are the scientific community's attempts to communicate with the Lacks family a failure? Are there any successes?
  • Why is Skloot successful in her quest to tell Henrietta's story?

Chew on This

You can't expect medical professionals to be able to communicate effectively with folks with little education.

The failure of the scientific community to communicate effectively with the Lacks family is a breach of medical ethics.

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