We move to 1999, eleven years after Rebecca learned about Henrietta’s existence. Rebecca has found a collection of papers from “The HeLa Cancer Control Symposium” at Morehouse College, a distinguished and historically black college. A professor at Morehouse named Roland Pattillo created the symposium—he is one of the few African Americans who studied with George Gey.When Rebecca calls Pattillo, he tells her that Henrietta’s family will never speak to her. Rebecca, however, spends an hour convincing Pattillo to put her in touch with the family.
Another important theme comes up in this passage: the deep distrust that the Lacks family has for the white medical and journalistic establishment that has taken advantage of them over the years. Their suspicions are justified, as we’ll see, and even Roland Pattillo, who ismore educated and worldly than Deborah Lacks and her brothers, initially does not believe that Skloot has good intentions.
On the phone with Pattillo, Rebecca displays her knowledge of the mistreatment of African Americans by the scientific establishment. She fills readers in about the Tuskegee Institute scandal, in which U.S. Public Health officials watched black men die of syphilis. They used black men because they believed that “black people were ‘a notoriously syphilis-soaked race.’” Rebecca next discusses the “Mississippi Appendectomies,” in which doctors performed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor black women so that inexperienced doctors could practice the surgery. She next moves on talk about the lack of funding for sickle-cell anemia research—a disease that almost entirely affects African Americans.
Skloot uses the story of her quest for Henrietta’s family to fill us in on a crucial reason for the black community’s mistrust of the medical establishment: the successive abuses of African-American patients by white researchers. Henrietta, too, fits into this category, giving us further proof that the doctors and researchers responsible for some of science’s greatest advances all too often did so through dehumanization, lies, and arrogance.
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 on to Elsie, whom he reveals died at fifteen. Deborah, he explains, recently had a stroke because of the stress of her mother’s fame.
We begin to learn the costs of Henrietta’s death, including Elsie’s demise and Deborah’s later-in-life health problems. Clearly, Skloot means to explore every part of Henrietta’s story.
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 be honest without being aggressive, she must not be condescending, and she must be understanding of the family’s trauma. Most of all, she must be patient.
Roland Pattillo helps provide a journalistic template that Skloot will follow for the rest of the book. As she learns more and more about the Lackses, she is also becoming more and more confident and skilled as a journalist.
Rebecca calls Deborah and tells her that she wants to write a book about Henrietta. Deborah is cautious but polite, until Rebecca comments how important Henrietta’s cells were to science. Deborah is thrilled that her mother will be getting the recognition she deserves. Deborah despairs over having no one to trust, and begs Rebecca to help her learn about her mother.
Deborah eventually gets off the phone but first makes Rebecca promise to call her on Monday. When Rebecca calls back, however, Deborah seems drugged and confused, saying that the men don’t want her to talk to Rebecca. She gives Rebecca three numbers: those of her father Day, her brother Lawrence, and her brother David (called Sonny) before hanging up.
We now reach another pattern within the book: Skloot’s near-constant struggle to gain the trust of the Lacks family. Although Deborah is an extraordinary person, she is also emotionally unstable, making her both a helper and a hurdle in Skloot’s quest.
The persistent Rebecca begins calling Deborah every day, as well as her brothers and father. After several days, two boys answer the phone at Day’s house. Upon hearing Rebecca’s voice, they immediately know that she wants to learn about Henrietta’s cells. Later, Rebecca comments, she would realize that “the only time white people called Day was when they wanted something having to do with HeLa cells.” Eventually a woman answers the phone, and she connects Rebecca with a confused and elderly Day. He asks her if she’s “got” Henrietta’s cells, and when Rebecca replies that she does, he tells her that she should talk to the cells and not him—then he hangs up.
Here we begin to learn more about the character of Rebecca Skloot herself—particularly her stubbornness. Skloot is aware of her own role as a white woman telling the story of a black family, partly contributing to the same racial divide her book details. We also begin to get sense of how deeply traumatized the Lackses still are by all the controversy surrounding the use of Henrietta’s cells—and the fact that, despite HeLa being famous, Henrietta’s family still doesn’t really understand why.