The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Imagery

Discovering the Tumor

Since the tumor that eventually claimed Henrietta’s life is the major source of conflict in Henrietta’s life, much attention is paid to its discovery. There are two different discovery scenes described in Skloot’s book. The imagery in these scenes serve as foils to one another and make clear the yawning gap between the average person and their doctors. When Henrietta first discovers her tumor, she lacks the vocabulary to describe it as a tumor, and instead calls it a “knot.” She uses her bare fingers to probe inside her body until she feels the knot at the opening of her womb. The “home remedy” and “amateur medical care” feel of Henrietta’s discovery is juxtaposed with the clinical and scientific discovery of the John Hopkins doctor. He uses terms like “mass,” “cervix,” and “lesion” to describe Henrietta’s knot, and documents his findings. Even the scenes of the discoveries, the hominess of Henrietta’s bathroom versus the starkness of the John Hopkins examination room, contribute to the differences between the two scenes.

Henrietta’s Early Life

Although Henrietta’s relatives describe her early life in Clover as idyllic and halcyon, it is clear that the adjectives humble and impoverished could also be applied to Henrietta’s childhood days. Words like “shack,” “slave quarters,” and “cracks in the walls” are used to describe the various places Henrietta lived in her youth (Pg. 33). From an early age, Henrietta was expected to labor and contribute to the family livelihood by taking care of farm animals and tending to crops. The highlight of each month was a trip to southern Virginia to sell the family’s crops. These descriptions of Henrietta’s living conditions, how she had to wake up early to milk cows, and looked forward to the monthly outings to the market, showcase Henrietta’s humble life. It also makes Henrietta’s medical legacy all the more incredible and awe-inspiring.

Downtown Clover

Skloot provides a thick description of the modern day Downtown Clover in chapter 10. The description includes comparisons to how bustling and busy the main street used to be, and how dilapidated and abandoned it is now. For example, the depot where Henrietta caught her train to Baltimore for her trips to John Hopkins is now an empty lot (Pg. 124). The movie theater where Henrietta and her cousins used to spend their meager pocket money now has a caved in roof, its screen laying flat and abandoned in a field of weeds. In addition to effective then versus now comparisons, Skloot also uses similes to explain how deserted Downtown Clover is now. For example, she compares the empty businesses on the main drag to people who had “left for lunch decades earlier and never bothered coming back” (Skloot 124). The purpose of illustrating the present day Downtown Clover is to show how forgotten it is, similar to how forgotten Henrietta and her family was at the beginning of Skloot’s research.

Henrietta Lacks

As the titular character of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Henrietta is described and characterized throughout the novel. At first, Skloot describes Henrietta’s physical appearance so readers can put a face and figure to the larger than life woman behind the HeLa cell line. Because Henrietta is shrouded in mystery, and only a handful of pictures of her exist today, Skloot correctly assumes that many people don’t know what Henrietta looks like, or what her personality was like. At first, Skloot simply describes in detail the only picture she has of Henrietta, the infamous photo of Henrietta with her hands on her hips (Pg. 13). As the book progresses and Skloot connects with friends and family of Henrietta, she fills in her initial description with details of Henrietta’s fun-loving and generous personality.