The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Two months after unsuccessfully trying to meet with Sonny Lacks, Rebecca waits for him on New Year’s Day. Just as she begins to give up, Sonny appears. He tells her that he’s taking her to see Lawrence, who will decide whether or not to talk to Rebecca.
Skloot juxtaposes one of the largest scientific setbacks within her own book with a personal success: at last, she is beginning to make some progress with the Lackses.
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Apprehensive, Rebecca walks into the house where Lawrence appears in the kitchen and offers her a pork chop. Rebecca accepts, and Lawrence talks as he cooks, reminiscing “about life down in the country.” When Rebecca asks about Henrietta, Lawrence only says, “She was pretty,” before moving on. Rebecca asks about her several more times, until Lawrence finally admits that he doesn’t really remember his mother.
This passage reveals a tragic truth: that even Lawrence, the oldest of the Lacks siblings, does not remember his mother. Henrietta’s legacy here seems wholly defined by HeLa, since even her children have only the vaguest recollections of who she was as a person.
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Lawrence tears up as he describes Henrietta’scells growing all over the world. He asks Rebecca to explain what exactly Henrietta’s cells did: “I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.” Rebecca goes over the basics of cell culture, and shows him articles about scientists growing corneas using technology developed from HeLa.
Once again, Skloot emphasizes how in the dark the Lacks family is about why their mother’s cells are actually important. Despite the amazing contribution Henrietta made to science, they do not know that they should be proud of her; it becomes up to Rebecca to tell the Lackses the story of their own mother.
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Sonny comes back, and Lawrence tells him that Rebecca’s been explaining HeLa’s legacy. The brothers are exhilarated by a speech thatPresident Clintonhas given about the importance of the polio vaccine; they know that HeLa was involved in this too. Sonny reveals that he’s brought Day with him. At eighty-four, their father is fragile, with terrible gangrene in his feet. The doctors have recommended amputation, but Day is still spooked by the procedures that Henrietta experienced, so he’s refused. Sonny, who needs an angioplasty, feels the same.
Here the narrative juxtaposes the fierce pride the Lackses feel about Henrietta’s legacy (despite the fact that they don’t fully understand it) with the fear that her mistreatment at the hands of Hopkins physicians has instilled in them. By refusing surgery, Day and Sonny are essentially putting their lives at risk; yet after being betrayed by the medical establishment, they feel fully justified in doing so.
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Rebecca gets ready to record an interview with Day, but first asks if Deborah might want to come over. The Lacks men say that Deborah doesn’t want to talk to anyone. When the interview begins, Day only discusses Henrietta’s death, insisting that he never gave permission for doctors to keep her cells, and that doctors had promised that studying Henrietta’s tissues would help his children and grandchildren. Bobbette chimes in, asserting that Hopkins can’t be trusted when it comes to “black folks.” Sonny agrees, and the family grows more and more angry about the idea of Hopkins’ experiments on black people.
The theme of African-American mistrust in the medical system grows stronger as the Lacks family begins discussing the ways in which Hopkins has mistreated them. Their mistrust and anger expands outwards, emblematic of a deeper and broader rage at the white medical establishment as a whole. It is clear that the whole family remains traumatized by Henrietta’s treatment.
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Rebecca explains that many African Americans have believed for centuries that white scientists are kidnapping and experimenting on them, and that there are “disturbing truths behind those stories.” Doctors tested surgical procedures on slaves, and in the 1900s, medical schools would dig up black bodies for research. Black residents of Baltimore believed that Hopkins was built close to poor black families in order to have easy access to research subjects.
Skloot acknowledges that, as disturbing as the Lacks’ stories sound, there is truth behind them. She recounts the years of racist and cruel experiments that researchers performed on black subjects, taking care to remind us of why exactly racism and discrimination are such important focuses within the story of Henrietta.
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In fact, Johns Hopkins was originally founded in order to create a medical school and charity hospital “without regard to sex, age, or color.” Its founder and namesake especially hoped to help black children. Hopkins’ friends and family went on to found one of the best medical schools in the U.S., and a hospital with millions of dollars worth of free health care, much of which went to poor black residents of Baltimore.
The narrative also takes this opportunity to explore the origins of Johns Hopkins, which in fact was built on a belief in charity and equality. It is tragic, Skloot implies, that Hopkins should have become a symbol for racism to so many, considering its altruistic beginnings.
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However, Hopkins also betrayed its original mission to help black patients. In 1969, a Hopkins researcher tested the blood of 7,000 children, many of them poor and black, “to look for a genetic predisposition to criminal behavior.” In the 1990s, two women sued Hopkins because researchers had purposefully exposed their children to lead. It turned out that scientists had been testing lead exposure on black families.
Skloot then reveals that Hopkins has in fact funded and supported highly racist studies, despite the good intentions upon which it was founded. Little by little, she is showing that the Lacks family’s fear of the medical system may not be as self-destructive or paranoid as it originally appeared.
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At Lawrence’shouse, Sonny and Bobbette continue to trade conspiracy theories about Hopkins. Eventually, Sonny and Lawrence begin to complain about all the money that Hopkins has made off of them. Lawrence asks, “If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” Bobbette adds that Hopkins took Henrietta’s cells without her consent, and expresses anger at Dr. Gey.
This is one of the crucial points Skloot and the Lackses make—shouldn’t Henrietta’s family be compensated in some way for Henrietta’s contribution to science, or receive some kind of royalties from the billions of dollars made off of her still-living cells?
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