The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 33 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Rebecca explains that she has promised to help Deborah find out what happened to Elsie. After visiting Christoph’slab, the two women travel to Crownsville. They plan to stop at Clover and Roanoke on the way back.
Rebecca has essentially promised to take a journey through the past with Deborah, visiting both Elsie’s and Henrietta’s final resting places.
Themes
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The two arrive at Crownsville, which has a beautiful, 1200-acre campus. The main office is abandoned, and Rebecca feels that the place is ominous. Eventually they find an old man named Paul Lurz, who is the hospital’s director of performance and improvement, but also has a passion for history. He asks Deborah to tell him about Elsie, and she shows him her sister’s death certificate. Lurz takes the women to a room full of records, although most have been destroyed. He eventually finds documentation from 1955, the year that Elsie died, and even—to his surprise—discovers a photo of Elsie in the pages. She is in terrible physical condition, and looks desperately unhappy. The hands of a white woman are holding her head.
The entire journey to Crownsville has an eerie and ominous feel—appropriate, given the ghosts of Elsie and Henrietta that haunt this passage, as well as the terrible history of Crownsville as an institution. That Paul Lurz is even able to find Elsie’s records, let alone a picture, is something of a miracle; but it’s also not a very happy miracle, as it only confirms Deborah’s fears about her sister’s misery.
Themes
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Along with the picture, the group also finds Elsie’s autopsy report, which states that her mental challenges most likely were due to syphilis, and that she had been vomiting up blood for six months before her death. As they read, an administrator storms into the room and questions what the women are doing there. Lurz states that they are Elsie’s family. He offers to give Deborah a copy of the autopsy report, and of Elsie’s picture. He also gives her the two newspaper clippings about the terrible conditions at Crownsville during the time that Elsie lived there.
Even in the 21st century, medical officials are still trying to keep information away from the Lackses. This passage also offers confirmation that Elsie, as well as Henrietta, was mistreated by the medical establishment. As is often the case, the most vulnerable patients—a mentally challenged black girl—were also the most taken advantage of.
Themes
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Rebecca describes the nightmare of 1950s Crownsville, which was packed full of black patients, who were kept in tiny, filthy cells. Violence and sexual abuse was rampant, and scientists often conducted experiments on inmates without consent. Deborah, meanwhile, worries that Elsie believed herself forgotten by her own family.
Sklootemphasizes how horrifically Elsie was treated in Crownsvilleso we can better understand the full Lacks family saga, and the trauma that they have endured, from multiple fronts. Crownsville itself is also compared as an institution to Hopkins—the one for black patients having terrible facilities, and the one for primarily white patients being a state-of-the-art hospital.
Themes
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Deborah thanks Paul Lurz before she and Rebecca leave. The pair decide to go to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis to find more records, although Rebecca worries that Deborah needs a break. They arrive to learn that the archives have no record of Elsie. They then move on to Clover, where an excited Deborah repeatedly shows passersby her new picture of Elsie. She grows increasingly distraught about her sister’s fate, to Rebecca’s dismay.
Deborah seems to be in a kind of shock as the two women leave Crownsville, and doesn’t have time to process what she has just learned. For readers who are themselves horrified by Elsie’s treatment there, it is nearly unthinkable to imagine the pain that Deborah is facing.
Themes
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Deborah begins telling Rebecca repeatedly that when they stop for the night, the reporter may finally look at Henrietta’s medical records. That night, she drops the records off in Rebecca’s hotel room, adding, “Knock yourself out.”
After a fairly traumatic day, it seems that the bond between Deborah and Rebecca has at last been cemented, and that Deborah finally believes that Rebecca is not trying to steal from her.
Themes
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Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon