The Lacks No Longer Lack Knowledge

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.

Kofi Annan, “‘If Information and Knowledge are Central’”

Seven o’clock on a Saturday evening, and I am sprawled out on my couch with a cup of steaming, black tea and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. As the pages of my book swish to the tempo of my pounding heart, my labored breaths and occasional gasps reveal the shocking details of patient care during the mid to late 1900s. Between the horrific gore and scientific language, glimpses of my heroine peak through; however, I am not satisfied.

Based on the title, I yearned to devour a tale of how one woman’s cells revolutionized the medical field and saved millions of lives. To my surprise, the first two thirds of this creative nonfiction text unfold in a nonlinear fashion, entwining the history of Henrietta Lacks with the interviews between Skloot and Henrietta’s family and the medical research of the time period. 

Initially feeling as though the nonlinearity diminished Henrietta’s personal story and the accomplishments made with her cells, my viewpoint shifted once Skloot meets Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and the book moves forward chronologically. The interwoven details that honor Henrietta’s legacy coalesce in the last portion of the book, accentuating Skloot’s ability to weave multiple viewpoints and historical accounts into one narrative. The story, functioning like the monuments, museums, and other memory-markers in collective memory, moves “seamlessly between celebrating triumphs and achievements and recalling sacrifice and tragedy” (Murray 19). In the end, I received exactly what I had wanted all along: the veneration of Henrietta Lacks. And yet, the overarching thread of education and the power of storytelling fascinated me most.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot depicts herself as a life-long learner and establishes her credibility—trust, competence, dynamism, and immediacy—as a teacher (“Master the Classroom”). She uncovers the hidden figure behind the HeLa cells, reveals the Lacks’ story, and guides Deborah’s enlightenment. In doing so, Skloot educates herself, the Lacks family, and the reader. Most importantly, Skloot and Deborah’s paralleling journeys advocate that education fosters empowerment and is a vehicle to overcome hardship.

From the onset, Skloot reveals her passion for learning. As an impressionable teenager in a college-level class, she first learns about HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks from Mr. Defler, her professor. During this same time period, Skloot’s father receives experimental treatment for brain damage caused by a virus. Trying to make sense of her dad’s experiences and the hopes and realities of scientific research, she longs to know more about Henrietta Lacks (“Rebecca Skloot Journalist”). After Defler’s lecture, Skloot follows him back to his office, wanting to know more, yet he is unable to provide her with further information. Afterward, she runs home to read about Henrietta in her biology textbook, parent’s encyclopedia, and the dictionary, but, to her disappointment, the history is incomplete with little to no information on Henrietta. Inspired and intrigued, Skloot begins her quest, regarding the mysterious woman whose “cells were one of the most important things to medicine in the last one hundred years” (Skloot 4). Throughout high school, during her undergraduate career as a biology student, and studying writing in graduate school, Skloot’s fixation with the woman behind the immortal cell line never falters. Her interest in the truth—and the lengths she is willing to go to have her questions answered—invites the reader to thirst for this same information. 

After depicting herself as an inquisitive, young person, Skloot transforms from student to investigator. To solidify her changing role and prove herself as an educated writer, experienced researcher, and reliable source, she includes her conversations with Ronald Patillo, a confidant of the Lacks family and “professor of gynecology at Morehouse who’d been one of George Gey’s [(the researcher who developed HeLa cells)] only African American students” (Skloot 49). Patillo, who grills Skloot for three days, determines that she is sincere and qualified to tell Henrietta Lacks’ story and agrees to give her Deborah Lacks’ phone number. Moreover, Patillo states, “‘It’s interesting you called when you did. . . . When the phone rang, I’d just sat down at my desk and typed the words Henrietta Lacks on my screen.’ We both laughed. It must be a sign, we said; perhaps Henrietta wanted us to talk” (Skloot 50-1). Skloot highlights this serendipitous moment to further cement herself as the right journalist for the job. She embeds the rhetorical device, ethos, to help the reader see her as a dependable teacher: If the individuals closest to Henrietta Lacks’ family trust Rebecca Skloot, then the reader can trust her too; if Henrietta is guiding Skloot and the information she finds, then Skloot can teach Deborah and the reader.

As Skloot’s research approaches its zenith, Deborah’s is only beginning. Before the two women meet, Deborah has been through her own precarious journey to learn about her mother. First, Victor McKusick, a Hopkins geneticist studying HeLa, asks his postdoctoral fellow Susan Hsu to take blood samples from the Lacks children; the family believes the hospital is checking them for the cancer-causing virus that killed Henrietta, so they agree to the procedure (Skloot 182). After the blood samples are drawn, Deborah’s fears escalate. She worries that she might also carry the cancerous cells, but no one answers her questions or explains the science behind HeLa (Skloot 184-85). In addition to Hopkins’ misleading information, a con by the name of Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield pretends to be a lawyer, offering to help the family sue Hopkins “for a cut of all the money Henrietta’s cells had earned since the fifties” (Skloot 226). Instead, he ends up suing the Lacks family when they refuse to give him Henrietta’s medical files (Skloot 228). Cofield’s deception only intensifies Deborah’s distrust of individuals interested in her mother and her mother’s cells and leads her into a depressive state (Skloot 230). Coping with Cofield, she begins learning more about her mother, reading and watching everything that mentions her and her cells. Deborah even studies science; Skloot writes, “She got herself some basic science textbooks, a good dictionary, and a journal she’d use to copy and paste passage after passage from biology textbooks” (195); however, “the more Deborah struggled to understand her mother’s cells, the more HeLa research terrified her” (196). At one point, Deborah even believes her mother is a half-plant and half-human monster; science and science fiction become a blurred reality (Skloot 196). Furthermore, she discovers the unsettling fact that Elsie, her older sister, died in a mental institution (Skloot 230-1). Although Deborah wants to uncover the truth, these experiences leave her unsettled and with more questions than answers.  

Without a guide to help her patch missing information and assemble the bits of knowledge she already possesses, Deborah finds herself sick with hives and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Caring most to learn about her mother and sister, Deborah agrees to meet Skloot. The significance of their meeting—and the magnitude of Deborah’s desire to learn—is emphasized when she makes the following statements during her and Skloot’s initial meeting:

I want to go to research labs and seminars to learn what my mother cells did, talk to people that been cured of cancer. . . . I just want the history to come out to where people know my mother, HeLa, was Henrietta Lacks. And I would like to find out some information about my mother. I’m quite sure she breastfed me, but I never knew for sure. People won’t talk about my mother or my sister. (Skloot 235)

Deborah trusts that Skloot will help her learn the truth about her family and the HeLa cells, and Skloot believes Deborah is the missing link to compiling a collective memory of Henrietta Lacks. Ultimately, their research illuminates the importance of education for the reader. During their time together, Deborah makes sense of her ancestral past, various scientific facts, and her meeting with Christoph Lengauer, a researcher at Hopkins; meanwhile, Skloot assembles her own qualitative data from Deborah, the immediate Lacks family, and the many people she meets along the way. This collection of memories and experiences provides the reader with straightforward “scenes, events, persons, and actions that were [previously] ambiguous or inconsistent in historical accounts” (Murray 12).

At the height of Deborah and Skloot’s knowledge acquisition, Skloot’s pedagogic role evolves further, moving her from the outside observer-researcher to the fundamental storyteller. While Deborah achieves her mission to learn about her mother and sister, she can no longer solely carry the emotional strain of the cells’ stories and the tragedies of her ancestors without having panic attacks, high blood pressure, red hives, and what appear to be manic symptoms (Skloot 297). Deborah’s reaction comes to a breaking point when she and Skloot are at the house of Gary Lacks, Deborah’s cousin. Gary performs a faith-based ceremony on Deborah to ease her suffering which simultaneously endorses Skloot as the official memory keeper of the cells. During the healing process, Gary yells, “LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS! . . . GIVE THEM TO HER! . . . LET HER CARRY THEM” (Skloot 293). In this moment, Skloot’s role as the griot in African American storytelling is authenticated; she becomes “the oral historian and educator . . . responsible for maintaining the connection between the cultural or historical past and the present” (Banks-Wallace 412). Gary confirms that Skloot will communicate the story of Henrietta Lacks, the Lacks family, and the HeLa cells to the public. More importantly, Deborah accepts this transference of power, placing “her arm tight around [Skloot’s] shoulders” (Skloot 293); Deborah is thankful that she now knows the truth and is relieved that Skloot will be able to honor her mother by publishing the book. Skloot will “transform the specific experiences [of the Lacks family] into wisdom stories that can be shared for the sustenance of [their family and other] individuals and cultures” (Banks-Wallace 422). Through her teachings, Skloot will ask the reader to question the implications of science, medicine, informed consent, race, socio-economics, and access to education as well as empower people to take control of their destinies. 

While Skloot finishes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks herself, Deborah’s quest does not stop after visiting Gary Lacks. She continues to promote the significance of education by wanting to return to school—a quality stemming from her upbringing. As a young child, Deborah’s older sister-in-law, Bobette, will not let Deborah quit school, exclaiming “sit up front if you can’t hear. I don’t care what you do, but you get an education, cause that’s your only hope” (Skloot 116). Bobette, an outsider to the Lacks family until marrying Deborah’s brother Lawrence, understands school’s crucial role; she believes an education will enable Deborah to have a better life and escape the beatings and molestation she faces from her adult cousin, Galen. Even after Deborah becomes pregnant by Cheetah, a neighborhood boy, and has his baby, Bobette helps her graduate from high school by taking care of the baby during the “day and most of the night so Deborah [can] go to class and study” (Skloot 144). Having a high school education enables Deborah to create a better life for herself and her family when she leaves her first, abusive husband and raises her children on her own as a single mother.

Now as an adult, Deborah longs to enroll in classes, hoping to further understand science so “the story about [her] mother and sister [won’t] scare [her] so much” (Skloot 298). She even considers “becoming a dental assistant . . . [or] radiation technologist” (Skloot 298) to help other people, but before Deborah can fulfill these dreams, she suffers from a stroke (Skloot 301). Surprisingly, her health condition does not deter her learning. Instead, she signs up for classes on diabetes and strokes to learn more (Skloot 301). She believes this direction is most important after speaking with her doctor, who stresses the need for her “to educate herself, learn the warning signs, know how to bring down her blood pressure and control her blood sugar” (Skloot 301). Deborah hopes that by learning more about her condition she can help herself. She connects her own experience to her mother and sister: Had the family known more about Henrietta’s illness and Elsie’s whereabouts, perhaps, this would have helped save them or ease their suffering. The act of “storytelling empowers [Deborah] by unshrouding the lives of those who [came] before [her], thus enabling [her] to have a clearer picture of [her] situation and the options available” (Banks-Wallace 412). Skloot’s research answers Deborah’s initial questions regarding her mother and sister and inspires Deborah to search for additional knowledge, thereby affirming the importance of passing on stories and information within the personal and public spheres to improve one’s life.

Even though a lack of funds prevents Deborah from completing the courses, she still values education, connecting her past to the present. Evoking the wisdom from Bobette and the knowledge gained during her time with Skloot, Deborah focuses on her family. As the wise elder, she wants to make “sure her grandchildren and grandnieces and grandnephews [get] educated” (Skloot 302). For Deborah, going to school will enable the Lacks descendants to obtain better jobs, afford healthcare, and prevent the scientific community from further exploiting their family. Before she passes away in 2009, she witnesses the first steps of the Lacks future generations changing their worlds. Skloot writes:

[Deborah’s] grandson Little Alfred was now twelve, headed into the eighth grade, and doing well in school. Lawrence and Bobette’s granddaughter Erika had gotten into Penn State after writing her admissions essay about how her great-grandmother Henrietta’s story had inspired her to study science. After transferring to the University of Maryland, she earned her bachelor’s degree and entered a master’s program in psychology, becoming the first of Henrietta’s descendants to attend graduate school. At seventeen, Deborah’s grandson Davon was about to graduate high school. He’d promised Deborah that he’d go to college and continue learning about Henrietta until he knew everything there was to know about her. (308)

By Deborah emphasizing the importance of education to the Lacks future generations—through her actions and words—she positively impacts her family. In her own way, she acts as the family griot (Wallace-Banks 412), passing on the wisdom stories that Bobette had passed on to her. In these tales, education promises to restore and rebuild.

Deborah’s guidance in conjunction with Skloot revealing the true story of Henrietta Lacks and establishing The Henrietta Lacks Foundation empowers the Lacks family, ultimately leaving an indelible imprint on their learning and leading to their academic accomplishments. The foundation provides grants for education and healthcare to individuals “and their families who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions” (“About The Foundation”). In the years since Deborah’s death, the foundation has provided financial assistance to Henrietta’s family. Because of the foundation, Davon Meade (Henrietta’s great grandson) completed his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) training and certification in 2013, owns his own trucking company, and hopes to go to college with the foundation’s assistance. Additionally, Victoria Baptiste (Henrietta’s great granddaughter) graduated from nursing school and works as a nurse, and Alfred Carter Jr. (Henrietta’s grandson) finished college courses due to the funds (“Testimonies”). These Lacks’ success stories suggest the correlation between education and progress, serving as proof of the many people who have benefited from Deborah and Skloot’s work. Not only do these women guarantee that Henrietta Lacks’ memory lives on, but also they ensure the advancement of her descendants.

Through the narrative (re)telling of the HeLa cell line, the importance of education becomes omnipresent. By writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot teaches us this almost forgotten story and encourages individuals to seek their own truths and realize their own academic pursuits. Education is the great equalizer. Skloot reminds us that knowledge is power. In looking ahead, we must seek every opportunity to educate ourselves, the society in which we live in, and the future generations that will rule the world once we are gone. 

Works Cited

“About The Foundation.” The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, 2017, http://henriettalacksfoundation.org/about/. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.

Banks-Wallace, JoAnne. “Talk That Talk: Storytelling and Analysis Rooted in African American Oral Tradition.” Qualitative Health Research, vol. 12, no. 3, Mar. 2002, pp. 410-26. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/104973202129119892. Accessed 19 Sept. 2017.

“‘If Information and Knowledge are Central to Democracy, They are Conditions for Development,’ Says Secretary-General | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.” United Nations, 2014, http://www.un.org/press/en/1997/19970623.sgsm6268.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.

“Master the Classroom: The Power of Teacher Credibility.” BBC Active, 2010, http://www.bbcactive.com/BBCActiveIdeasandResources/ThePowerofTeacherCredibility.aspx. Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.

Murray, Martin J. “The Power of Collective Memory.” Commemorating and Forgetting: Challenges for the New South Africa, U of Minnesota P, 2013, pp. 11–28. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt32bck0.5. Accessed 19 Sept. 2017.

“Rebecca Skloot Journalist, Teacher, Author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Rebecca Skloot FAQ Comments, 2017, http://rebeccaskloot.com/faq/#questions-writingimmortal. Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Broadway Books, 2017.

“Testimonies.” The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, 2017, http://henriettalacksfoundation.org/testimonials/. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.

Works Consulted

“2010 Texas Book Festival, Saturday.” C-SPAN, National Cable Satellite Corporation, 16 Oct. 2010, www.c-span.org/video/?295989-1%2F2010-texas-book-festival-saturday. Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.