The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The eccentric but devoted daughter of Henrietta, Deborah proves to be invaluable in helping Rebecca learn more about Henrietta. Although she is paranoid and highly emotional, Deborah also proves to be fiercely loyal to Rebecca, and to believe wholly in her mission to revive Henrietta’s reputation in medical history. The narrative eventually becomes as much her story as it is Henrietta’s, as Deborah finds out truths both joyful and devastating about her mother and her family. She also suffers from health issues of her own, and is very anxious.

Deborah (Dale) Lacks Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quotes below are all either spoken by Deborah (Dale) Lacks or refer to Deborah (Dale) Lacks. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Random House edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks published in 2010.
Prologue Quotes

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

As she begins her story, the narrator--journalist Rebecca Skloot--reflects on its significance, and its personal effect on her. She emphasizes to her readers that this narrative is not simply about HeLa, the cells that revolutionized cellular biology, but about the human beings behind those cells.

Making clear that this will be a story of faith and family as well as science, Rebecca takes care to credit Henrietta's relatives--the very people who feel forgotten by history and by the medical establishment that profited off of her immortal cancer cells.

In so doing, Rebecca firmly states that her allegiance is to the descendants and their narrative, and that she means to harshly critique the medical establishment for the way it treated them. Although she by no means diminishes the scientific wonders achieved with Henrietta's cells, nor does she let doctors, researchers, and institutions off the hook for the bigoted and arrogant way that they treated both Henrietta and her relatives.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

Everything always just about the cells and don’t even worry about her name and was HeLa even a person…You know what I really want? I want to know, what did my mother smell like? For all my life I just don’t know anything, not even little common little things, like what color did she like? Did she like to dance? Did she breastfeed me? Lord, I’d like to know that. But nobody ever say nothing.

Related Characters: Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Reflecting on her mother's legacy, Deborah expresses anger and confusion, still incredulous that people can benefit from her mother's cells without even knowing her name. She emphasizes that Henrietta was a person, and should be remembered for her human qualities rather than for her (unknowing) scientific contribution.

What also comes through in this passage is Deborah's continuing feelings of loss and grief, despite the many decades since Henrietta's death. She longs to know how her mother smelled, her favorite color, and if she liked to dance. In short, she still yearns for a childhood, and a mother, whom she never had.

Without ever saying it, Rebecca makes clear how damaging the continuing controversy around HeLa has been to Deborah. Having lost her mother many years ago, the wound is constantly reopened by insensitive researchers and journalists who think of Henrietta as a resource rather than a human, and who fail to understand Deborah's longing for her mother.

Chapter 29 Quotes

[Deborah] and I spent the day and night together as I soaked up as much of her story as I could, constantly worried she’d change her mind and stop talking to me. But in reality, it seemed now that Deborah had started talking, she might never stop again.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

After months of attempting to gain Deborah's trust, Rebecca at last gains access. She is surprised to find a talkative and excitable woman, who--at first--seems more than willing to share the story of her family, herself, and her mother.

Although it might seem strange that Deborah would be so excited and eager to trust a stranger (especially a reporter), her willingness to speak is in fact completely understandable. Although the Lackses have been caught up in the narrative of HeLa for decades, they have never actually been able to make their voices heard. Now, at last, Rebecca is offering Deborah the chance to tell her story.

By simply treating her like a person who deserves to be heard, Rebecca has done more for Deborah than almost all the researchers and reporters who came before her.

Chapter 31 Quotes

Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nothing bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

Deborah reflects on her mother's death, stating that she can't be "mad at science," because of how much it has benefited people in the twenty-first century, herself included. At the same time, though, Deborah wishes that she could have "health insurance" so that she could afford the drugs that Henrietta's cells "probably helped make."

Although Deborah is uneducated and speaks plainly, she has here highlighted a tragic irony in the Lacks family's lives: that although their mother's cells helped to catapult modern medicine forward, they are too poor to benefit from many of those same advances.

At the same time, though, Deborah articulates an astounding amount of forgiveness and understanding. While Zakariyya and Sonny hate the medical establishment for supposedly cheating them out of HeLa profits, Deborah refuses to be "mad." She sees the bigger picture, realizing how much better off the world is due to HeLa.

Chapter 32 Quotes

Deborah and Zakariyya stared at the screen like they’d gone into a trance, mouths open, cheeks sagging. It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.
[Deborah] raised the vial and touched it to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispered, “Just nobody knows it.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks, Joe Lacks (Zakariyya)
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

Within Christoph Lengauer's lab, Deborah and Zakariyya are able to look at a living sample of HeLa under a microscope. Rebecca reflects that they haven't come so close to "seeing their mother alive" in decades.

In this passage, Rebecca perfectly marries the blend of personal and scientific that defines her narrative. Together, she and Lengauer have used the science of microscopes and cell replication to bring two adult children close to what they consider the spirit of their mother. By acknowledging the humanity of Zakariyya and Deborah, the reporter and the scientist have used science for a moment of emotional healing and connection.

Equally poignant and moving is Deborah's decision to tell her mother--through a vial of HeLa--that she is famous, although "nobody knows it." Clearly, Deborah believes that she is in the presence of her mother. Her first impulse, in this deeply profound moment, is to tell her mother about all the good she has done, and how she has changed the world. Unselfish and limitlessly giving, Deborah wishes above all that her mother--a poor, uneducated, black woman--could realize her staggering importance.

Chapter 35 Quotes

Take one of me and my sister by her and my mother grave…It’ll be the only picture in the world with the three of us almost together.

Related Characters: Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Related Symbols: Clover and Lacks Town, Crownsville State Hospital
Page Number: 327
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of a road trip with Rebecca (and having found a photograph of her long lost sister), Deborah requests that the reporter take a picture of herself, the photo, and Henrietta's grave.

In this moment, it becomes clear to both the reader and to Rebecca just how much Deborah has lost. Although she barely knew her mother or her sister, the adult woman still longs for them, yearning for a childhood of which she was robbed.

It is a mark of the humane nature of Rebecca's storytelling that this quiet moment of grief is treated with as much importance and significance as the famous scientific discoveries that she recounts. This passage, and others like it, make clear that Rebecca considers the story of Henrietta to be one of people, not of research subjects.

LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS…GIVE THEM TO HER!...LET HER CARRY THEM.

Related Characters: Gary (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 335
Explanation and Analysis:

In a small house with a Lacks cousin named Gary, along with Deborah, Rebecca has an unsettling experience, as Gary fervently prays (along with Deborah) for God to give the "burden" of HeLa to Rebecca, removing it from the Lacks family.

Although Rebecca is a woman of science rather than faith, she is deeply moved by this experience, feeling that the responsibility of Henrietta's legacy has indeed been transferred to her in some way. Always respectful of others' beliefs, Rebecca here finds herself thrown into a world about which she knows and understands very little--yet despite her distance from religion, the prayer affects her deeply.

It is also important to remember how "heavy" the burden of HeLa has been on the Lacks family. It has made them victims of an unfeeling medical establishment and a rapacious news media; it has exposed their genetic material for the world to see; and it has never allowed them to truly mourn or move on from their mother's death.

Chapter 38 Quotes

Heaven looks just like Clover, Virginia. My mother and I always loved it down there more than anywhere else in the world.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: Clover and Lacks Town
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

Always nostalgic for her childhood, Deborah wonders what Heaven looks like, deciding that it must resemble "Clover, Virginia" where her family grew up. Even when imagining the afterlife, Deborah still clings fiercely to what she has lost, identifying herself closely with her mother, and yearning for an idyllic childhood that never actually occurred.

By the book's end, Deborah has died, and has not seen the publication of Rebecca's book. Yet rather than express regret or sadness over Deborah's death, Rebecca instead chooses to share Deborah's simple, generous, innocent vision of what Heaven must be like. At once lovely and deeply sad, this picture of Heaven as a quiet country town is the perfect illustration of Deborah's openness and optimism.

Although she lived an immensely difficult life, Deborah never lost her capacity for wonder, or her belief in better times to come. It is clear that Rebecca deeply admires this quality, and so chooses to celebrate it as she brings her narrative to a close.

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Deborah (Dale) Lacks Character Timeline in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The timeline below shows where the character Deborah (Dale) Lacks appears in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue: The Woman in the Photograph
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...describes different pictures of Henrietta’s family: of Henrietta’s sons, a grandchild, and of Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The articles all say that researchers have experimented on the family’s cells, although the Lackses... (full context)
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...adventure.” Rebecca describes the mistrust and obstacles that she faced, before turning her attention to Deborah, whom she calls “one of the strongest and most resilient women I’d ever known.” (full context)
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The author details the many differences between herself and Deborah. Rebecca is white and from the Pacific Northwest, while Deborah “was a deeply religious black... (full context)
Chapter 1: The Exam
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...husband. At first, she believes that it has to do with having given birth to Deborah a few weeks earlier, or to the STIs that David Lacks has given her in... (full context)
Chapter 6: “Lady’s on the Phone”
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Pattillo informs Rebecca that he’s organizing the next HeLa conference. He mentions that Deborah Lacks lives in Baltimore, and that Day is still alive at eighty-four. He then moves... (full context)
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After three days of phone calls, Roland Pattillo at last gives Deborah’sphone number to Rebecca. He tells her the “do’s and don’ts” for their conversation: she must... (full context)
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Rebecca calls Deborah and tells her that she wants to write a book about Henrietta. Deborah is cautious... (full context)
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Deborah eventually gets off the phone but first makes Rebecca promise to call her on Monday.... (full context)
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The persistent Rebecca begins calling Deborah every day, as well as her brothers and father. After several days, two boys answer... (full context)
Chapter 9: Turner Station
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...to page Sonny, at which point he’ll take her to meet Lawrence, Day, and maybe Deborah. Yet when Rebecca checks into her hotel, Sonny doesn’t reply to her page. She then... (full context)
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...in Baltimore county.” She is still working on the museum, despite “the Cofield situation,” although Deborah is now afraid to continue. Courtney takes Rebecca into the library, and asks the librarian... (full context)
Chapter 15: “Too Young to Remember”
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Deborah, Sonny, and Joe are never told exactly what happened to their mother. In the meantime,... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Deborah begins doing chores at other people’s houses to make money, and tries to walk home... (full context)
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Deborah runs into Bobbette and Lawrence’shouse, bleeding and sobbing. When Bobbette demands to know what’s happened,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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While growing up, Deborah doesn’t even know she has a sister. When Day finally tells her, Elsie is already... (full context)
Chapter 19: “The Most Critical Time on Earth is Now”
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At age sixteen, Deborah gets pregnant. Though Bobbette is upset, she tells Deborah that she is going to have... (full context)
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As for Deborah’solder brothers, Lawrence has opened a convenience store, and Sonny has joined the air force. Joe,... (full context)
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Sonny, meanwhile, is honorably discharged, while Lawrence works on the railroad. Deborah has married Cheetah and borne him a girl named LaTonya. Cheetah becomes addicted to drugs... (full context)
Chapter 21: Night Doctors
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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... (full context)
Chapter 23: “It’s Alive”
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...to gather at the house so that Hopkins doctors can test their blood for cancer. Deborah, now twenty-four, is terrified, believing that she may die like her mother, leaving behind two... (full context)
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...later, the family allows Susan Hsu and her colleagues to draw blood from them. Afterwards, Deborah repeatedly calls Hopkins to ask about her “cancer results,” but no one knows what she... (full context)
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Deborah becomes obsessed with the idea that she has cancer, and she can’t stop picturing researchers... (full context)
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Deborah arrives in McKusick’soffice in June 1974, four days before a new federal law goes into... (full context)
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Deborah meets McKusick when she goes to Hopkins to give blood. McKusick tells her that “Henrietta... (full context)
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Deborah finds the book impossible to understand, but fixates on the photograph within it, wondering how... (full context)
Chapter 24: “Least They Can Do”
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...later, he recounts to Rebecca how he got into a car accident on the way. Deborah claims that Henrietta was acting from the grave, warning Rogers to leave. (full context)
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At this point in time, only Deborah is upset about HeLa. This changes when the brothers learn from Rogers’article that researchers and... (full context)
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...establishment owes to the Lacks family and giving them out to customers at Lawrence’s store. Deborah, meanwhile, doesn’t want to fight Hopkins; instead, she is trying to educate herself about HeLa.... (full context)
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Meanwhile Deborah still thinks she is waiting to learn if she has cancer, while Sonny and Lawrence... (full context)
Chapter 26: Breach of Privacy
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Deborah passes her thirtieth birthday with no health crisis and continues to work several jobs. In... (full context)
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...asbestos exposure at Bethlehem Steel. Awarded $12,000, Day gives $2,000 to each of his children. Deborah buys a piece of land in Clover. Sonny has fallen on hard times, and ends... (full context)
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Deborah learns that she can request Henrietta’s medical records from Hopkins, but she delays doing so... (full context)
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Deborah buys a copy of the book and begins to read about her mother. Gold has... (full context)
Chapter 28: After London
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...decides to make a documentary about Henrietta in 1996—the same documentary that Rebecca eventually watches. Deborah believes that Curtis will make the world understand what her family went through. He and... (full context)
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...conference, along with the BBC crew. When they arrive, the Lackses are “treated like celebrities.” Deborah speaks at the conference, saying that it is a dream come true, and expressing how... (full context)
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...Terry Sharrer, a Smithsonian Museum curator. The museum arranges a small event, and attendees tell Deborah “that her mother’s cells had helped them overcome cancer.” (full context)
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...Henrietta Lacks Health History Museum Foundation, Inc.,” and attempt to publicize their organization. At first, Deborah is furious, saying that the money the women are trying to raise should go to... (full context)
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...patented them. As Mary tries to respond, the crowd grows angrier, falling silent only when Deborah asks Mary to tell the story about Henrietta’stoenail polish. (full context)
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...introduces a new character into the narrative: Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield: “the cousin of Deborah’s husband’s former stepdaughter, or something like that.” Cofield contacts Deborah, asserting that she needs a... (full context)
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...and is notorious within the legal system. When Kidwell learns about Cofield’s background, he contacts Deborah and gets her to “sign a document forbidding Cofield access to her family’s records.” Cofield... (full context)
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As these events unfold, the BBC documentary comes out, and reporters begin contacting Deborah. Deborah doesn’t have answers, and decides to request a copy of Henrietta’s medical records from... (full context)
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Deborah remains deeply paranoid, convinced that Cofield is going to steal her mother’s possessions or records,... (full context)
Chapter 29: A Village of Henriettas
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For almost a year, Deborah refuses to talk to Rebecca, and so Rebecca conducts other research, periodically calling Deborah. One... (full context)
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Deborah and Rebecca meet in July 2000 in Baltimore. Rebecca shows Deborah a gift from a... (full context)
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Deborah is surprised by how beautiful the chromosomes look, and expresses a desire to learn more... (full context)
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Deborah then shows Rebecca all of the research that she’s done on Henrietta. Within the papers... (full context)
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Deborah visits Rebecca for the next three days, but Rebecca is constantly worried that Deborah is... (full context)
Chapter 30: Zakariyya
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The next day, Deborah takes the apprehensive Rebecca to meet Zakariyya. They travel to his apartment along with Deborah’s... (full context)
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...of Henrietta and Elsie. He expresses a belief that Henrietta’s cancer damaged him mentally, while Deborah holds that it was Ethel’s fault. Zakariyya wonders whether he’d be a better person if... (full context)
Chapter 31: Hela, Goddess of Death
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The day after meeting with Zakariyya, Deborah receives a mysterious call telling her not to trust any white people asking about Henrietta.... (full context)
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In an effort to gain Deborah’s trust, Rebecca begins sending Deborah every article she can find about Henrietta. Deborah begins to... (full context)
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...“HeLa” denotes, including a Marvel comic book character who is “a seven-foot-tall, half-black, half-white goddess.” Deborah believes that the character must be based on her mother. (full context)
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Rebecca lists Deborah’s various medical problems, for which she takes around fourteen pills a day. She has many... (full context)
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Deborah begins using the internet to research experiments done without patients’ consent. One day the president... (full context)
Chapter 32: “All That’s My Mother”
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When Deborah is finally ready to see Henrietta’s cells, Day is too ill to come, Sonny has... (full context)
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...moves on to an incubator where HeLa cells are growing. Using a microscope, Christoph allows Deborah and Zakariyya to look at their mother’s cells multiplying, before explaining basic cell biology to... (full context)
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...he believes Hopkins “screwed up” in the way it treated Henrietta. He tells the shocked Deborah that he believes Henrietta’s story is deeply important, and adds that he understands Zakariyya’sanger. He... (full context)
Chapter 33: The Hospital for the Negro Insane
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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.... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
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Deborah thanks Paul Lurz before she and Rebecca leave. The pair decide to go to the... (full context)
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Deborah begins telling Rebecca repeatedly that when they stop for the night, the reporter may finally... (full context)
Chapter 34: The Medical Records
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Moments later, a panicked Deborah—still clutching her photo of Elsie—knocks on Rebecca’s door and asks to read the records along... (full context)
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At last, Deborah tells Rebecca the story of Cofield, explaining how he betrayed her trust by trying to... (full context)
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Exhausted from staying up with the records, Rebecca eats breakfast with Deborah, who has painted her fingernails red (just like her mother’s). Deborah reassures Rebecca that, “We’re... (full context)
Chapter 35: Soul Cleansing
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As the day progresses, Deborah grows covered with hives, and Rebecca becomes concerned. The two finally get to Clover, where... (full context)
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Gladys’s son Gary comes in, and Deborah shows him the new picture of Elsie. He and Rebecca are both worried about the... (full context)
Chapter 36: Heavenly Bodies
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Still swollen with hives, Deborah goes home to a doctor, while Rebecca visits Gary again. Gary has her read a... (full context)
Chapter 37: “Nothing to Be Scared About”
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A doctor tells Deborah that her blood pressure and blood sugar were so high during her trip that she... (full context)
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Deborah begins spending all of her time planning her speech to the National Foundation for Cancer... (full context)
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Rebecca becomes apprehensive as the conference approaches, worried that Deborah will become ill. Deborah’s brothers, meanwhile, begin telling her not to speak at all and... (full context)
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A few days later, Deborah has a stroke while at church. Her grandson Davon is the first to notice—he starts... (full context)
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The doctors tell Deborah that she will probably recover completely, and Deborah calls Rebecca to let her know what... (full context)
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Deborah’s stroke seems “to ease tension in the family,” and her brothers begin calling her every... (full context)
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Two months after Deborah’s stroke, Rebecca goes with the Lackses to see Reverend Pullum baptize Sonny’s granddaughter, JaBrea. Pullum... (full context)
Chapter 38: The Long Road to Clover
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...months later, Fred Garret died as well. Next Day passed, and then Cootie committed suicide. Deborah calls Rebecca after every death and cries. (full context)
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...dollars in debt, Zakariyya attacks a woman and is kicked out of his housing, and Deborah leaves her husband. She works for her daughter LaTonya at an assisted-living facility, but soon... (full context)
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When Rebecca finds the remains of Clover, she has not spoken to Deborah for several months. The book is done, but Deborah has not been returning her calls.... (full context)
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Rebecca explains that at the time of her death, Deborah was happy. Her grandsons, grandnieces, and grandnephews were getting an education, even going to college... (full context)
Deborah's Voice
Rebecca includes a transcript of Deborah’s voice, as Deborah explains that her mother’s name was Henrietta Lacks, and that her cells... (full context)