Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks The Supernatural

By Rebecca Skloot

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The Supernatural

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot has an epiphany when she speaks with cousin Gary in Clover: the devoutly religious Lacks family has a different way of viewing Henrietta's death and immortality. They see her illness not as the result of rampaging cancer cells, but as something "man-made" (i.e. voodoo) or "doctor-made" (i.e. deliberate harm by doctors). The communities in Lacks Town and Turner Station use their religious beliefs to explain Henrietta's astonishing "transformation" into HeLa cells. The cells become Henrietta's "resurrection body," a chance for her to return to earth and to help humankind.

The belief in the supernatural doesn't exactly contradict scientific truth. It does help the Lacks family fill gaps in knowledge so that they can build a story about Henrietta that makes sense to them. By combining bits of science with a world of faith and superstition, they compensate for the absence of usable information from the scientific community. At the same time, it comforts them and makes them feel close to Henrietta.

Questions About The Supernatural

  1. In what ways does belief in the supernatural help the Lacks family? How does it damage them?
  2. How does the Lacks family view HeLa cells? What do they think HeLa cells are?
  3. In what ways do science and the supernatural cross paths in this book?
  4. What impact does her meeting with Gary Lacks have on the author?

Chew on This

Skloot doesn't fully understand the Lacks family's fears and beliefs about HeLa until she gets some schooling on scripture from cousin Gary.

The Lacks family's belief in the supernatural complicates their understanding of disease and basic human biology in ways that the scientific community can't predict when communicating with them.

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