Throughout their various trials, the Lacks siblings manage to stick together, bonded by their love for each other and their shared anger and grief over what happened to their mother. As the narrative opens, they even express a great deal of suspicion towards the author of the book, believing that they can only trust one another after the many betrayals that they’ve experienced. The siblings are also, of course, tied together genetically by the very same genes that compose the HeLa cell line. Throughout the book the author, Rebecca Skloot (a white journalist) takes care to mention even the extended family—cousins, stepmothers, distant ancestors, etc.—by name, emphasizing the largeness and complexity of the Lacks clan. While before the world didn’t even know Henrietta Lacks’ name, Rebecca makes sure that her readers will know the names of everyone from the white Lacks family patriarch to Henrietta’s youngest great-grandchild. Just as the HeLa cell line spreads all over the world, so the Lacks family constantly expands and shifts, even further enhancing the reach of Henrietta’s genes.
Within the Lacks family, the idea of faith is a vital means of holding the clan together. Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter and one of the main characters in the book, believes deeply in Christianity, and even prays to God for Rebecca to take the burden of her mother’s memory away from her. Deborah’s brother, Zakariyya, turns to Islam in prison, attempting to use faith to stay sane while behind bars. For the Lackses, faith means family. One of the climactic scenes in the book comes when Deborah’s husband at the time, Reverend James Pullum, calls the author onstage to tell his congregation about the book she’s working on. An outsider for much of the narrative, Rebecca feels momentarily accepted and included in this scene. Despite being an atheist herself, she understands the power that religion has for the Lacks family, and the deep meaning that it gives to their lives.
Family and Faith ThemeTracker
Family and Faith Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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.
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.
Lord…Henrietta rose up out that bed wailin like she been possessed by the devil of pain itself.
Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies…
It sound strange…but her cells done lived longer than her memory.
The white Lackses know their kin all buried in here with ours cause they family. They know it, but they’ll never admit it. They just say, “Them Black Lackses, they ain’t kin!”
Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?...I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.
John Hopkin didn’t give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I don’t know if they didn’t give us information because they was making money out of it or if they was just wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling her cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars.
Henrietta’s doctor and his colleagues forever linked Henrietta, Lawrence, Sonny, Deborah, Zakariyya, their children, and all future generations of Lackses to the HeLa cells, and the DNA inside them. And Henrietta’s identity would soon spread from lab to lab as quickly as her cells.
They said they been doin experiments on her and they wanted to come test my children to see if they got that cancer killed their mother.
Deborah couldn’t stop worrying. She was terrified that she might have cancer, and consumed with the idea that researchers had done—and were perhaps still doing—horrible things to her mother…[she] imagined her mother on the moon and being blown up by bombs. She…couldn’t stop wondering if the parts of her mother they were using in research could actually feel the things scientists were doing to them.
I want to tell them a little what HeLa means to me as a young cancer researcher, and how grateful I am for their donation years ago…I do not represent Hopkins, but I am a part of it. In a way I might even want to apologize.
[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.
Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cells—they get rich off our mother and we got nothing…All those damn people didn’t deserve her help as far as I’m concerned.
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.
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.”
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.
In that moment…I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they’d led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. The Bible tells us so.
This child will someday know that her great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world!...So will that child…and that child…and that child. This is their story now. They need to take hold of it and let it teach them they can change the world too.
People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime. I used to get so mad about that to where it made me sick and I had to take pills. But I don’t got it in me no more to fight. I just want to know who my mother was.