The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Crownsville State Hospital Symbol Analysis

Crownsville State Hospital Symbol Icon

Elsie Lacks’ family sent her to Crownsville (formerly known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane) after it became impossible to keep her safe and healthy at home. During the 1950s, however, Crownsville was essentially a dumping ground for unwanted African Americans—the ill, the mentally impaired, and even criminals. The hospital was hugely overcrowded, and doctors often performed terrible experiments on their patients, who were unable to give consent. For Rebecca Skloot, Crownsville represents the horrors that can be inflicted on voiceless patients (especially a mentally ill black woman like Elsie) by an uncaring medical establishment. For Deborah Lacks, meanwhile, Crownsville emblemizes the breakup of her family. She mourns for Elsie has much as she does for Henrietta, and is obsessed with the horror of her sister’s fate.

Crownsville State Hospital Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quotes below all refer to the symbol of Crownsville State Hospital. 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:
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
). 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.
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. 

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Crownsville State Hospital Symbol Timeline in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The timeline below shows where the symbol Crownsville State Hospital appears in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 5: Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
...no longer care for Elsie. On the advice of doctors, they moved her to the Crownsville State Hospital, which used to be known as the “Hospital for the Negro Insane.” Cousins... (full context)
Chapter 28: After London
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
...answering the phone. She reads her mother’s records, and learns that Elsie ended up in Crownsville. Deborah is afraid that Elsie was experimented on, and grows more suspicious after learning that... (full context)
Chapter 33: The Hospital for the Negro Insane
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
The two arrive at Crownsville, which has a beautiful, 1200-acre campus. The main office is abandoned, and Rebecca feels that... (full context)
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
...Elsie’s picture. He also gives her the two newspaper clippings about the terrible conditions at Crownsville during the time that Elsie lived there. (full context)
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Rebecca describes the nightmare of 1950s Crownsville, which was packed full of black patients, who were kept in tiny, filthy cells. Violence... (full context)