The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrative jumps back to the 1950s. After Henrietta’s funeral, cousins from Clover and Turner Station help to care for her family. While Day works two jobs, Lawrence drops out of school to care for his siblings. At sixteen, he lies about his age and goes to the pool halls, even getting himself a voter registration saying that he’s eighteen. This lie, however, results in his getting drafted for the Korean War at age sixteen.
After giving her readers a broad view of HeLa’s scientific consequences, Sklootnow moves back into the realm of the intimate and personal, allowing us to understand the very real human consequences of Henrietta’s death within the Lacks family (like Lawrence getting drafted early).
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Deborah, Sonny, and Joe are never told exactly what happened to their mother. In the meantime, their cousin Ethel comes to care for them, moving in along with her husband Galen. Many of the cousins believe that Ethel is trying to move on from Galen to Day, while others believe that she is trying to get back at Henrietta, whom she hated, by torturing her children.
Skloot notes that Henrietta’s younger children never even learn what happened to her—presumably to spare them from trauma. But keeping Henrietta’s children in the dark in fact only increases their feelings of loss and anger.
Themes
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Ethel starves Henrietta’s children, waking them at dawn and forcing them to do chores. In the summers, she sends them to Clover to pick worms off tobacco leaves. If they ever stop, Ethel beats them. She focuses most of her vitriol on Joe, hitting him for no reason, forcing him to stand in a dark basement for hours on end, and tying him up with a rope. Joe becomes incredibly angry and hostile, and the family starts wondering whether Henrietta’s cancer somehow affected his brain in the womb.
Skloot details the most terrible consequences of Henrietta’s death: her children’s near-constant abuse from Ethel. Skloot does this in order to give us a full picture of the reverberations of Henrietta’s death, and for us to understand that no matter how great the innovations of HeLa, we must always remember the human cost at the center of this story.
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In 1959, Lawrence moves into a house with his girlfriend, Bobbette, when he’s twenty-four and she’s twenty. The two have a child, and they learn about Ethel’s abuse of the other Lacks siblings. Bobbette insists that the whole family move in with her and Lawrence.
In the often tragic story of the Lackses, the introduction of Bobbette is one of the few bright spots. An immensely protective individual, she becomes a mother figure for the younger Lackses.
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At ten years old, Deborah has caught the eye of Ethel’s husband Galen, who begins to sexually abuse her. She tries to tell Day, but he doesn’t believe her. Galen chases Deborah naked and calls her a “whore,” but also gives her gifts, telling her that he will “wear a rubber” so that she doesn’t have to worry about getting pregnant. Deborah begs him to leave her alone.
Skloot now focuses more directly on the character of Deborah—unprotected, disempowered, and sexually abused. Even within her own family, Deborah still faces sexism and violence.
Themes
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Deborah begins doing chores at other people’s houses to make money, and tries to walk home after work, although Galen often tries to abuse her in his car. One day Deborah is walking home with a boy called Alfred “Cheetah” Carter, and Galen pulls up and begins screaming at her. When Deborah refuses to get in, he returns with Day. Galen throws her into the car and punches her in the face, all as Day watches.
While this episode helps us learn more about Deborah and her traumatic history, it also helps us understand Day’s deep failures as a father. Although the Lacks children still have a parent after Henrietta dies, he is entirely useless without his wife, unable to protect his children in any meaningful way.
Themes
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Deborah runs into Bobbette and Lawrence’shouse, bleeding and sobbing. When Bobbette demands to know what’s happened, Deborah tells her that Galen has been hitting her and talking dirty to her. In response, Bobbette goes over to Galenand Ethel’s house and tells them if they ever touch the Lacks children again, she will kill them.
Skloot presents another bright spot in her dark narrative: female solidarity, as Bobbette protects Deborah when her own father fails to. Female friendship will again become important when Rebecca and Deborah finally meet.
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Rebecca explains that school is difficult for all of the Lacks children; they have all inherited some kind of genetic hearing disorder. They never reveal their disability to their teachers, and so it goes untreated. When Deborah tells Bobbette about her difficulty, Bobbette tells her to sit up front. Since Bobbette has told Deborah that her hearing problems might be caused by her parents being first cousins, Deborah wonders whether Elsie’smental challenges might be due to a genetic disorder as well.
As poor, black, motherless, disabled children, it is all too easy for the Lacks children to fall through the cracks of the system. Although Skloot does not explicitly say this, it’s clear that their lives would have been utterly transformed by just a fraction of the money that HeLa has made for the research industry. Instead, they continue to struggle.
Themes
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While growing up, Deborah doesn’t even know she has a sister. When Day finally tells her, Elsie is already dead. Inconsolable, Deborah starts trying to learn about Elsie. She asks Lawrence for memories of their sister and mother until he begins sobbing. Deborah cries herself to sleep over what happened to her mother and sister, and repeatedly asks Day what happened to the two of them.
Many secrets are kept from the Lacks children—including, of course, Elsie’s death. We also gain more and more information about Deborah (a crucial character in the book), and all of the traumatic experiences that have shaped her into the woman she is when Rebecca meets her.
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