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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta directed by George C. Wolf (2017)
Henrietta Lacks is a black woman in the early 50’s who has cervical cancer. When she was alive, as well as after death, her cancer cells were taken and biologist George Gey was able to grow them. They were the first cells to continue living and growing and have impacting the science in medical world in ways we have all benefited from.
Her family was not told they took her cells, and they had no idea her cells were alive and being sold around the world. This book tells the story of Henrietta, seeing her as the human being she was. As well as learning about the impact that her death and her cells had on her family as well as a the world.
Thoughts on the book
My first time reading this book, I was instantly captivated by the story. Skloot is an amazing writer. She talks a lot about the science that went on with the HeLa cells and other stories, yet she tells it in a way that someone with no science or medical background (like myself) can understand.
She first heard of Henrietta Lacks when she was 16, and from there went on to go to school to become a vet, which is what she had been planning on doing since she was a kid. Then, in an interview she did she says,
“More than a decade later, while working my way through a biology degree, I took my first creative writing class as an elective…At the start of that class, the teacher gave us this writing prompt: “Write…about something someone forgot.” I scribbled, “Henrietta Lacks” at the top of my page, then wrote an essay about how the whole world seemed to have forgotten about Henrietta, but I couldn’t—I was weirdly obsessed with her, and still wanting answers to those questions I’d asked my biology teacher so many years earlier.
Then one day, when I was getting ready to submit my applications for vet school, my writing teacher pulled me aside and said, Do you realize you’re a writer? And do you know there’s such a thing as a science writer? I didn’t. He told me he thought the world needed more people who understood science and could convey it to the public. You know, he said, you don’t have to go to vet school just because that’s what you always planned to do—you could go to graduate school in writing instead. I told him I couldn’t imagine giving up on my dream of becoming a vet. Then he said these essential words: Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you’ve failed, as long as you have a new goal in its place. That’s not giving up, it’s changing directions, which can be one of the most important things you do in life. The next day I started researching MFA programs in creative nonfiction writing. The rest, as they say, is history.”
As someone who believes in God, I believe God inspired Skloot to tell Henrietta’s story. Deborah says it was Henrietta leading Rebecca along, and I believe that as well. There’s a reason why she couldn’t let go of the woman behind the HeLa cells, and a reason why events in Skloot’s life happened the way they did to lead her to tell the story of the Lacks family.
My first time reading this, I was kind of annoying how much Rebecca put herself in the story. My second time around though, I appreciated that she included herself, and realized how could she not? On Rebecca’s website she talks about how for a long time she refused the idea of putting herself in the book. She said that Deborah would say to her, “Don’t you make me be in that book by myself! You’re part of the story now too—Henrietta’s gonna get mad and come get you if you try to leave yourself out of there!”
I don’t recall this being said in the book, but the movie does show Deborah telling Rebecca this.
I thought the movie was really well done and the acting by everyone was incredible. The scenes where they were gathered together, sharing stories, laughing, bonding, ect, felt really genuine to me. The emotional scenes were also powerful. The scenes that made me get teary in particular were any time people talked about what Henrietta was like as a person or the flashbacks that showed her. I wish the movie would have spent more time on Henrietta’s life, but the scenes they did have were very potent.
Oprah Winfrey plays Deborah
Rose Byrne is Rebecca Skloot
Renee Elise Goldberry as Henrietta Lacks
Rocky Carroll plays Sonny
John Douglas Thompson isLawerence
Adriane Lenox as Barbara
Reg E. Cathey asZakariyya
Skloot has a degree in Creative Nonfiction, which is basically telling a true story, but it’s written almost like a novel. She tells us about Henrietta’s childhood and adulthood in a way that truly brings it all to life and you can see it so vividly.
As I said above, the scenes in the movie about Henrietta as a person were powerful. For me, and many others, putting myself in Henrietta’s shoes and the pain she was feeling both physically and emotionally is so heartbreaking. Knowing she wouldn’t get to see her children grow up, not continue seeing Elsie, and seeing Deborah grow up, not to mention her three sons! Then the story of Deborah growing up without her mother and this hole that it left in her and Zakariyya.
“Her cells have been blowed up in nuclear bombs. From her cells came all these different creations—medical miracles like polio vaccines, some cure for cancer and other things, even AIDS. She liked takin care of people, so it make sense what she did with them cells. I mean, people always say she was really just hospitality, you know, fixing everything up nice, make a good place, get up, cook breakfast for everybody, even if it’s twenty of them.”
Polio vaccine, aids, that cigarettes caused lung cancer; how X-rays and certain chemicals transformed normal cells into malignant
HeLa is still one of the most commonly used cell lines in laboratories around the world. When this book went to press in 2009, more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on HeLa, and that number was increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month. HeLa cells are still contaminating other cultures and causing an estimated several million dollars in damage each year.
Tangents the Book Goes on
The book goes on a lot of side tangents about the HeLa cells, and about stories that may not have been about Henrietta but involved the science and the medical laws of the time. Each of these stories was so fascinating and I loved that she included them all! She also goes in detail about the many people in Henrietta’s life and the many people who worked with the cells in in a big way.
Some side stories I found particularly interesting, that don’t really relate directly to the Lacks family are Alexis Carrel and his immortal chicken heart, John Moore who had his spleen removed and it ended up being worth billions. In the court case for this the book reads, “Ultimately the judge threw Moore’s suit out of court, saying he had no case. Ironically, in his decision, the judge cited the HeLa cell line as a precedent for what happened with the Mo cell line. The fact that no one had sued over the growth or ownership of the HeLa cell line, he said, illustrated that patients didn’t mind when doctors took their cells and turned them into commercial products…The judge believed Moore was unusual in his objections. But in fact, he was simply the first to realize there was something potentially objectionable going on.” The book also talks about radium which was used as a “cure all” but turned out it caused cancer; prisoners volunteering to have cancer injected into them. In the book she talks about reporters asking the inmates why they were okay with having the cancer injections and then goes on to say, ‘The prisoners’ replies were like a refrain: ‘I done a girl a great injustice, and I think it’ll pay back a little bit what I did to her.’ ‘I believe the wrong that I have done, in the eyes of society, this might make a right on it.’” I thought was really touching and sad, the need for redemption and forgiveness.
The movie does a decent job getting all these side stories into the movie. The beginning is like this ten minute intro quickly going through the history of HeLa and its impact on the world. Then there’s scenes in the movie where something will come up in conversation to inform us of other things the cells helped with and what has been done with them.
“If the whole profession is doing it, how can you call it ‘unprofessional conduct’?”
“Michael Rogers, a young reporter for Rolling Stone, showed up at their house with long hair and rock-and-roll clothes …clinics for black people in local parks and protesting what they saw as a racist health-care system; and the racial story behind HeLa was impossible to ignore. Henrietta was a black woman born of slavery and sharecropping who fled north for prosperity, only to have her cells used as tools by white scientists without her consent. It was a story of white selling black, of black cultures “contaminating” white ones with a single cell in an era when a person with “one drop” of black blood had only recently gained the legal right to marry a white person. It was also the story of cells from an uncredited black woman becoming one of the most important tools in medicine. This was big news.”
“It was like a nightmare. She’d read in the paper about the syphilis study at Tuskegee, which had just been stopped by the government after forty years, and now here was Gardenia’s brother-in-law, saying Hopkins had part of Henrietta alive and scientists everywhere were doing research on her and the family had no idea. It was like all those terrifying stories she’d heard about Hopkins her whole life were suddenly true, and happening to her. If they’re doing research on Henrietta, she thought, it’s only a matter of time before they come for Henrietta’s children, and maybe her grandchildren.”
“But night doctors weren’t just fictions conjured as scare tactics. Many doctors tested drugs on slaves and operated on them to develop new surgical techniques, often without using anesthesia. Fear of night doctors only increased in the early 1900s, as black people migrated north to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and news spread that medical schools there were offering money in exchange for bodies. Black corpses were routinely exhumed from graves for research, and an underground shipping industry kept schools in the North supplied with black bodies from the South for anatomy courses. The bodies sometimes arrived, a dozen or so at a time, in barrels labeled turpentine.”
The research was part of a study examining lead abatement methods, and all families involved were black. The researchers had treated several homes to varying degrees, then encouraged landlords to rent those homes to families with children so they could then monitor the children’s lead levels.
Those children were all Deborah had, and she wasn’t going to let anything happen to them. So, when her father called saying Hopkins wanted to test to see if she had her mother’s cancer, Deborah sobbed, saying, “Lord don’t take me away from my babies, not now, not after everything we been through.”
George Gey never claimed to have spoken to Henrietta, telling her her cells would be immortal the way the movie shows.
For the most part, I liked Gey. He seemed like a mad scientist in a way. He was a hard worker and was dedicated to his work. Though I think this also caused him to view Henrietta’s cells, and any other ones he worked with, just as cells and not think of the person behind them who was suffering.
He also viewed himself in this way. When he was older, he got cancer and was determined to get a GeGe cell line similar to Henrietta’s. He also offered himself up for various testing before his death. “Gey went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for a week of treatments with an experimental Japanese drug that made him violently ill… After leaving the Mayo Clinic, Gey spent several days in New York City at Sloan-Kettering for another study, and he underwent chemotherapy at Hopkins using a drug not yet approved for use in humans.”
Knowing he viewed himself as a “specimen” helped me appreciate him a bit more. It wasn’t just other people he viewed in this way, but himself as well.
However, it does seem odd that he was so adamant that Henrietta’s name not be used. I would assume he didn’t want her family getting upset, or maybe legal reason. Whatever the reason was though, it seems he was inconsiderate.
Patience when talking to the family
Rebecca talks with Dr. Patillo about the Lacks family; he tells her rules she needs to follow when talking to them. One of which is to have a lot of patience.
Then, perhaps as an explanation for what just happened, she finally told me about Cofield. “He was a good pretender,” she said. “I told him I would walk through fire alive before I would let him take my mother medical records. I don’t want nobody else to have them. Everybody in the world got her cells, only thing we got of our mother is just them records and her Bible. That’s why I get so upset about
Cofield. He was trying to take one of the only things I really got from my mother.”
Keenan Kester Cofield wasn’t a doctor or lawyer at all. In fact, Cofield had served years in various prisons for fraud, much of it involving bad checks, and he’d spent his jail time taking law courses and launching what one judge called “frivolous” lawsuits.
Between trips, Deborah and I would spend hours each week talking over the phone. Occasionally someone would convince her she couldn’t trust a white person to tell her mother’s story, and she’d call me in a panic, demanding to know whether Hopkins was paying me to get information from her like people said. Other times she’d get suspicious about money, like when a genetics textbook publisher called offering her $300 for permission to print the photo of Henrietta. When Deborah said they had to give her $25,000 and they said no, she called me demanding to know who was paying me to write my book, and how much I was going to give her. Each time I told her the same thing: I hadn’t sold the book yet, so at that point I was paying for my research with student loans and credit cards.
I was stunned. The woman I’d been lying next to for days—laughing, elbowing, consoling—was now running from me like I was out to get her.
Seeing their mothers’ cells
The movie shows Rebecca giving Deborah a framed photo of Henrietta’s cells in beautiful colors thanks to a scientist at Johns Hopkins named Christoph. The books reads, “As a Ph.D. student, he’d used HeLa to help develop something called fluorescence in situ hybridization, otherwise known as FISH…[he wrote] ‘I want to tell them a little what HeLa means to me as a young cancer researcher, and how grateful I am for their donation years ago. I do not represent Hopkins, but I am part of it. In a way I might even want to apologize.’”
She and Zakariyya are later able to go to his lab at Hopkins and see their mothers’ cells for themselves. I loved this scene in the book and was definitely one of the highlights. All her life, Deborah had been trying to get answers about her mother and her cells, but doctors never offered answers or explanations. They just continued to exploit the family by taking their blood for more research. Christoph is a scientist who finally spends the time to explain the science of the HeLa cells. He also told them that the cancer Henrietta had isn’t one that is genetic. Deborah replied, “’So we don’t have the thing that made her cells grow forever?’ Deborah asked. Christoph shook his head. ‘Now you tell me after all these years!’ Deborah yelled. ‘Thank God, cause I was wonderin!’” All these years no one even told her she didn’t need to worry about getting that same cancer.
He also shows them the cells to which Deborah reacts saying, “’They’re beautiful’ she whispered, then went back to staring at the slide in silence. Eventually, without looking away from the cells, she said, ‘God, I never thought I’d see my mother under a microscope—I never dreamed this day would ever come.’”
Then as they leave the lab it reads, “As we walked toward the elevator, Zakariyya reached up and touched Christoph on the back and said thank you. Outside, he did the same to me, then turned to catch the bus home. Deborah and I stood in silence, watching him walk away. Then she put her arm around me and said, ‘Girl, you just witnessed a miracle.’”
I really wish this last part with Zakariyya had been in the movie.
“The worst thing you can do to a sick person is close the door and forget about him.” When I read that line out loud, Deborah whispered, “We didn’t forget about her. My mother died … nobody told me she was here. I would have got her out.”
Henrietta had to put Elise in an institution after having Deborah and Zakariyya. She just had too many young kids to look after. Putting Elise there was the hardest thing Henrietta had done and would go visit Elise every week. After Henrietta died, no one ever went to see Elsie again.
Finding out what happened to Elsie was as big of a priority to Deborah as finding out about her mother.
When they get to the hospital to read Elise’s medical records, the man helping them says, “Sometimes learning can be just as painful as not knowing.” The book then reads,
“The Crownsville that Elsie died in was far worse than anything Deborah had imagined…In 1955, the year Elsie died, the population of Crownsville was at a record high of more than 2,700 patients, nearly eight hundred above maximum capacity. In 1948, the only year figures were available, Crownsville averaged one doctor for every 225 patients, and its death rate was far higher than its discharge rate. Patients were locked in poorly ventilated cell blocks with drains on the floors instead of toilets.” Elise was mentally handicapped and suffered from epilepsy. They read that Crownsville did tests on patients with epilepsy and did something to them called
pneumoencephalography. “Pneumoencephalography involved drilling holes into the skulls of research subjects, draining the fluid surrounding their brains, and pumping air or helium into the skull in place of the fluid to allow crisp X-rays of the brain through the skull. The side effects—crippling headaches, dizziness, seizures, vomiting—lasted until the body naturally refilled the skull with spinal fluid, which usually took two to three months.”
Reading what happened to Elise was so devastating. Despite how bad it was, Deborah seemed grateful to at least know what had happened to her sister.
This story is as much about Deborah as it is about Henrietta. The movie focuses on Deborah even more so than the book which is a bit more balanced.
There were so many heartbreaking moments when Deborah shared her emotions on how much she missed her mother and thought about both her and her sister Elsie.
When at a conference honoring Henrietta, Deborah spoke and said, “’When Dr. Pattillo called me, it all became real. For years, it seem to be a dream. Not knowing what was going on all these years. Didn’t know how to even talk about it. Can this about our mother be true? Not knowing who to go to for understanding. No one from the medical field took the time.’ Then, without so much as a pause, she began talking directly to her mother: ‘We miss you, Mama. … I think of you all the time and wish I could see and hold you in my arms, like I know you held me. My father said that you told him on your dying bed to take care of Deborah. Thank you, Ma, we will see you again someday. We read what we can and try to understand. My mind often wonder how things might would be if God had you stay here with me. … I keep with me all I know about you deep in my soul, because I am part of you, and you are me. We love you, Mama.’”
When reading, this is one of the moments that got me choked up. The movie doesn’t have this scene, but they do a good job showing how all this has affected Deborah and the love she had for her mom and sister. The movie does show how she would buy birthday cards and Mother’s Day cards and would address them to her mom (it doesn’t mention of she also did this with Elsie) and write a note in it.
The movie and book have the scene where Deborah gets really worked up after learning about Elsie and nearly has a stroke. “Sometimes we care about stuff too much. We worry when there’s nothing to worry about.” In a moment of clarity, Deborah nodded, saying, “And we bring our own body down by doing it.”
The older brothers, Sonny and Lawrence seemed more interested in getting compensation. Deborah was more focused on just wanting to know the truth and learn about her mom. She told Rebecca early on, “We ain’t gonna get rich about any of this stuff on my mother cells. She out there helpin people in medicine and that’s good, I just want the history to come out to where people know my mother, HeLa, was Henrietta Lacks. And I would like to find 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. It’s like the two of them never born.”
IT would be hard to want to know about your own mother, but the people who remembered her wouldn’t talk about her and answer your questions! That’s one of the things I love most about Rebecca’s part in the story, she helped Deborah get those answers she had been waiting so long to learn.
In some cases, when it comes to doctors or other people in charge like that, it’s unfortunate that when Deborah asked questions no one cared and it took an educated white woman for her to finally be noticed and get answers.
Deborah died before the book was published, but she and Rebecca maintained a relationship the last ten years of her life. In a video documentary that was done about Henrietta a while before Rebecca met the Lacks’, it shows Deborah be interviewed. We read, “The younger Deborah said she was glad that when she died, she wouldn’t have to tell her mother the story of everything that happened with the cells and the family, because Henrietta already knew. ‘She’s been watching us and seeing all that’s going on down here,’ Deborah said. ‘She’s waiting patiently for us. There won’t be any words, just a lot of hugging and crying. I really believe she’s up in heaven, and she’s doin okay, because she did enough suffering for everyone down here. On the other side, they say there’s no pain or suffering. … I want to be there with my mother.’”
Relationship with their mother
In the movie there is a scene where the siblings are telling Deborah she needs to stop with all this and she replies that she must know and doesn’t get why they don’t care. Lawrence says that Deborah doesn’t understand because she was too young to see how sick their mom gets. I’m glad they included this, because as said earlier in the book and movie, Lawrence basically blocked out a lot of his memories about his mom because it was so painful and sad. He had the benefit of having his mom in his life till he was 15, but at the same time, he had to see her deteriorate firsthand. To him, researching into all this just brings up that pain for him. Seeing things firsthand also made him not trust Johns Hopkins even more, because Henrietta had seemed from the outside prior to going to Hopkins.
The movie leaves out that Day and Henrietta were first cousins, and they think that’s why so many of their kids had heath problems. Day also slept around a lot and gave Henrietta HPV and syphilis which made the cancer worse. Then he allowed Zakariyya and Deborah to be taken by Galen and Ethel who were both very abusive. I know he was dealing with the death of his wife, and now had four kids to take care of, but it seems he just let go of those responsibilities in some ways. And he or anyone else ever went to see Elsie.
She is called Bobette in the book, but Barbara in the movie. Anyway, she saves Deborah and Zakariyya and has them live with her and Lawrence. Deborah got pregnant at 16, but Barbara made sure she stayed in school and helped look after the baby.
Zakariyya’s story was one that was difficult to read. He and Deborah were both abused as kids, and he struggled a lot as an adult. He was discharged from the military for being “unable to mentally adjust to military life”, he went to jail for murder, and he was homeless. Not to mention his medical issues, both mental and physical. In the book we read, “He couldn’t afford rent, so he slept most nights on a bench on Federal Hill in downtown Baltimore, or on the steps of a church across the street from his father’s house. Day would sometimes look out his bedroom window and see his son lying on the concrete, but when he invited him in, Zakariyya snarled and said the ground was better. Zakariyya blamed his father for Henrietta’s death, hated him for burying her in an unmarked grave, and never forgave him for leaving the children with Ethel.”
He was born “joseph” but it jail he converted to Islam. In some ways he got healthier as the years went on, but he still had some big outburst even later in life resulting in him getting kicked out of places. The relationship he and Deborah had was really touching though. The bond they shared because they experienced traumas at the same time, and neither of them knew their mother at all.
The movie does a good job portraying the anger and resentments he carried inside him, and we have the scene in the lab when they see the cells which was beautiful. As said above though, I don’t think the moment is captured as well as it was in the book.
At the end of the book, it gives an update on Zakariyya saying, “Zakariyya stopped drinking and began studying the lives of yogis and others who’d achieved inner peace. He started spending more time with his family, including his many nieces and nephews, who hug and kiss him on a regular basis. He smiles often.” I especially like that last line.
Something bigger than us causing this to happen
Science still doesn’t totally know why Henrietta’s cells just kept living and growing. In the book and movie there is the part where she is talking to Gary, who is the preacher who helped calm Deborah when she nearly had a stroke. He tells Rebecca that God chose Henrietta and He is the reason why her cells are immortal. He says, “Henrietta was chosen. And when the Lord chooses an angel to do his work, you never know what they going to come back looking like.”
I think this is beautiful. As someone who believes in God, I do think there is a scientific explanation to why her cells didn’t die. I think God uses science to make miracles happen. People seem to think that if you believe in science, then you don’t believe in God. I couldn’t disagree more. God can’t make something that is literally impossible happen. There are things that are beyond our understanding as humans, but there is still a rhyme and reason to how things happen. Science leads to miracles. God has to follow the rules of the universe. Just like everything within our universe also has to follow them.
Book or Movie
The movie is a great adaptation, though they didn’t go into Henrietta’s life as much as I wish they would have. The book is just so chaulkfull of information and interesting stories, so much more than the movie could possibly include. While also making these complicated things digestible to the average reader. She also brings the stories and people to life and really pulls you into the story. The book is by far the winner, but don’t let that deter you from the movie because it is well done and has exceptional acting!