The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HELA)

The book “The Everlasting Life of Henrietta Lacks” tells the story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken and used for major medical advancement without her knowledge. Her physical health worsened, and she died despite the peculiar existence of her cells. Her children, whose lives were adversely impacted by her death, discovered the incident more than two decades later and sought compensation. The Lacks is met with backlash and poor treatment from the media that covered the story as well as the medical community. As a young student reporter, Rebecca Skloot goes on a ten-year journey in an attempt to chase down this matter and in an exciting nonfiction story; she records her journey of fact-finding and interaction with the Lacks family. Rebecca’s book project proposal is met by the different reaction from Deborah and Sonny, both of whom were Henrietta Lacks children. These responses are characterized by trust issues towards Rebecca who initially appears to be like the rest of the reporters hoping to find a few missed details about the ordeal. However, this is not the case. With time, Deborah joins Rebecca on this journey to know about her mother, a woman she had never met (Skloot 8). These two discover so much together that Rebecca quotes that: “We’d form a deep personal bond, and slowly, without knowing it, I’d become a character in her story and her in me” (Skloot 12). Sonny, on the other hand, expresses and maintains a suspicious notion towards Rebecca and offers little help except tiny pieces of information. This essay analyzes the characters of Deborah and Sonny in response to Rebecca’s proposal to write a book on their mother; Henrietta Lacks.

Rebecca Skloot who traces down Deborah receives her contact from Dr. Roland Pattilo the only African American student in George Gey’s laboratory. The first time Deborah received the first phone call from Rebecca, she was very excited and responded favourably when she learned that it was about her deceased mother. Rebecca quotes her saying; ”Everything was always about the cells and doesn’t even worry about her name as HeLa was in the cell as a person. So hallelujah! I think a book would be great!” (Skloot 42). Rebecca records complete surprise from this response and does not interrupt. As Deborah goes on to talk about her family’S history, she indicates that she is interested to know the basics about her mother. “You know what I want? I want to know, what my mom smells like the …what color she likes…did she like to dance?” (Skloot 42)

The first time Sonny discovers that Rebecca is asking to meet him, he makes five calls to Dr. Pattillo asking about her which establishes his suspicious nature. Rebecca regularly attempts to establish contact with him via his pager. When he finally speaks to Rebecca, he expresses his primary motive for establishing a connection was; “ His number got worn out from my telephone showing up on his pager” (Skloot 53). This expressed a disinterest in whatever Rebecca wished to talk about. This characteristic is proven right when he fails to call her back and does not show up for the arranged meeting.

When Rebecca talked to Deborah the second time, there was a distinct difference in tone and expression. She indicates intimidation and gives her reasons in a quiet, depressed voice. She refers Rebecca to the men of the Lack family and finalizes that she couldn’t talk to her anymore. Her initial enthusiasm is put off by her brothers who suggest that “I should write my book. But I am not a writer. I’m sorry.” She gives Rebecca three phone numbers of her Father, Lawrence her elder brother, and David Lack Jr. who everybody called “Sonny.” This was the last they communicated for almost a year. Deborah appears to hold her brothers and father with much fear and reverence, and this can perhaps be traced back to the sexual abuse she experienced when she was young and the abusive relationship she is in right now.

Rebecca was supposed to meet Sonny at a place known as David Lacks at Baltimore. When she kept calling Sonny after she arrived at Baltimore, Sonny didn’t answer until that night. “He said that he’d decided not to meet me, but he wouldn’t tell me why. When I asked him to put me in touch with his family in Clover, he told me to go there and find them myself” (Skloot 76). This quote shows the contrast between Sonny and Deborah’s attitude towards Rebecca’s book project apparently. Even when Deborah showed different attitude to Rebecca at the second call, she kindly gave her brothers’ information such as phone number so that Rebecca could reach them.

Deborah’s opinion differed from her brothers because she wanted to learn about her mother whom she never knew. Even though Deborah was very young when her mother died, her connection to Henrietta was adamant. As a child, the closest person she had as a father was Galen who abused and sexually molested her. However, Rebecca quotes; “Despite the beating and the molesting, Deborah felt closer to Galen than she ever had to Day. When he wasn’t hitting her, Galen showers her with attention and gifts…In those moments, Deborah pretended he was her father, and she felt like a regular little girl.” (Skloot 114). In the months after their first dialogue, Deborah won’t speak to Rebecca, and after consistent attempts to get her to pick the phone, she finally calls back and agrees to do it with several conditions. Deborah began by saying; “If my mother is so famous in science history, let everybody know her name. She isn’t no Helen Lane.” She then continues by saying, “everybody always says that Henrietta has children that are not right for her since she had five children before. My sister died, and there’s no leaving her out of the book” (Skloot 170). She is primarily motivated by the need to know her mother.

Contrastingly, her brothers thought that their mother was dead and there was no need to talk about her. Deborah also wanted to understand how part of her mother was still alive even after her death, while her brothers did not care about the cell’s issue. I think the contrast in their attitude toward Henrietta is because the brothers weren’t very young like Deborah when their mother died. “All the things I’m learning,’ she said, makes me notice that I did have a mom, who went through a lot of tragedy and all the tragedy she went through. It hurts, but I want to know more, just like I want to know about my sister. It makes me feel closer to them, but I do miss them. I wish they were here” (Skloot 211). She helps most in the writing of the book, and the process uncovers some of the most important factors relating to her mother’s time in the hospital and about her life before then. Later on, even Sonny realizes that Rebecca is on a legitimate mission to write the truth about their mother and he takes her to Lawrence, their eldest brother who remembers their mother best and could greatly assist in getting details about Henrietta. He has even gained interest in the knowledge that is unfolding about his mother. “Her cells have been blown up in nuclear bombs. From her cells came all these creations-medical miracles like polio vaccines, some cure for cancer and other things, even AIDS.” (Skloot 116).

The reactions of Deborah and Sonny to Rebecca’s inquiries and proposal to write a book about their mother; Henrietta Lack is marked by swaying opinions and different influences. Deborah at first is blatantly excited to start off, but her brothers and father restrict further communication with the reporter. Sonny seems ignorant of Rebecca’s mission and treats it arrogantly and casually dismisses her. Rebecca’s persistence is remarkable, and this works in her favor as the Lack family finally agrees to the writing of the book, committing all possible resources to the recording of accurate information about the life of Henrietta Lacks.

Works cited

Devine, Claire. Tissue Rights and Ownership: Is a Cell line a Research Tool or a Person? P.1-18, 2010. Retrieved on 31st March 2017 from

https://www.stlr.org/2010/03/09/tissue-rights-and-ownership-is-a-cell-line-a-research-tool-or-a-person/

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishing Group, 2010.

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