Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Suffering

By Rebecca Skloot

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We know what you're thinking: you don't need a guide on suffering for a book about a woman who died from cervical cancer and had her tissues co-opted by for-profit biotech companies. Good point. However, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is more than just a sad story of one person dying young. Skloot deals with some of the worst kinds of misery we can imagine. There's the fallout of slavery and the consequences of institutionalized racism. There's the potentially eternal cycle of poverty and abuse, and the lack of a formal education and lack of opportunity that goes with it. All these things conspire to crush many members of the Lacks family. The revelation of their mother's HeLa cells comes in the context of these struggles; nothing came easy for this family.

Questions About Suffering

  • In what ways do HeLa cells cause suffering rather than mitigate it, according to Skloot's story?
  • What's the most difficult thing for the Lacks family to accept about HeLa?
  • Why does Deborah worry about her mother throughout her own life?
  • What other types of struggle or suffering occur in this work, aside from that of the Lacks family coping with the HeLa legacy?

Chew on This

If the Lacks family hadn't been subjected to so much suffering in their lives, they would have dealt differently with revelations about their mother and HeLa.

Poverty is the root cause of much of the suffering that Skloot describes in the book.

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