The Lackses know nothing about HeLa contamination until they meet Michal Rogers, the Rolling Stone reporter. During his initial research, he gets Henrietta’sname from Walter Nelson-Rees. Soon after, Rogers is sitting in the same Baltimore hotel in which Rebecca will later find herself. Years 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.
The Lackses meeting Michael Rogers will become an important event in the book, because it will last connect them to HeLa in the public eye. Deborah’s belief that Henrietta caused Michael’s car accident, meanwhile, adds a note of foreboding to the proceedings, while also demonstrating Deborah’s deep belief in the supernatural.
Rogers tries to interview the Lackses about Henrietta, but instead they begin to ask him questions of their own. They ask Rogers what it means for them that Henrietta’s cells are stronger than normal—whether they will live longer than normal people when they get sick, or whether they’ll die of cancer. Rogers tries to explain that the cells won’t affect them at all, but he doesn’t know if the Lackses believe him.
The Lackses are so in the dark that they turn to Rogers, a reporter, for facts about their mother. His story only emphasizes how misinformed they are—although they’ve tried to learn more about Henrietta, they just can’t seem to get straight answers.
At this point in time, only Deborah is upset about HeLa. This changes when the brothers learn from Rogers’article that researchers and scientists are making money off of the cells. They become certain that George Gey and Johns Hopkins stole Henrietta’s cells for profit. Rebecca reveals that George Gey never made money off of HeLa. In the present day, however, biotech companies sell HeLa products for anywhere from $100 to $10,000. Seventeen thousand patents have involved HeLa cells. The American Type Culture Collection sells HeLa cells at $256 per vial.
This episode is at the root of the Lackses’ anger and embitterment towards the medical establishment—the belief that they have been cheated out of riches and prestige by doctors and researchers who pulled the wool over their eyes. Considering the poverty in which the Lackses live, and how misinformed they have been by Hopkins, it is easy to understand their deep anger.
Infuriated, Lawrence and Sonny begin making handouts about what the medical 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. As she painstakingly reads science textbooks, she also keeps diary entries, where she expresses despair and frustration about the terrible things that she believes happened to Henrietta.
Henrietta’s children have vastly different responses to the news about their mother—Lawrence and Sonny are far more commercial, while Deborah reacts in a deeply emotional way. Her diary entries speak to the depth of her pain, and her fears about what the scientific community did to her mother.
March 1976, when Mike Rogers’s article is published, is the first time that the general population learns about Henrietta’s identity, let alone that she was black. Many different magazines, some of them with a largely black readership, begin publishing articles about Henrietta.
Henrietta’s identity as a black woman who saved literally millions of lives was a huge news story in the 70s. She’s finally getting some credit for her contributions, and shaking up the white medical establishment.
On the scientific side of things, Victor McKusick and Susan Hsu publish their research on the Lacks family, creating a map of Henrietta’s DNA that will identify HeLa cells in culture. In the present day, Rebecca explains, a scientist would never connect a person’s identity with their genetic information, because of all the things that can be deduced from DNA.
Once again, well-meaning scientists committed a huge ethical lapse as they published the Lacks family DNA without their consent. As we see over and over again, scientists on the forefront of discovery often forget about personal issues of privacy or consent—nothing is more important than their research.
Meanwhile Deborah still thinks she is waiting to learn if she has cancer, while Sonny and Lawrence are trying to strategize ways to get money from Hopkins. Rebecca then introduces the story of John Moore, a man who sued for the profits made off of his harvested tissues.
The story of HeLa and the Lackses continues to parallel trends in the medical community—scientific advances, ideas of consent, and now the trend of monetary compensation for malpractice.