The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary and Analysis of Chapter 27-31


Chapter 27. The Secret of Immortality … 1984–1995

Henrietta's cells proved extremely important for research on HPV, a sexually transmitted infection. HPV was one of the primary causes of cervical cancer, and researchers found that the virus had inserted itself into Henrietta's eleventh chromosome and turned off a gene that suppresses tumor growth.

This still didn't explain why Henrietta's cells became immortal. While scientists struggling to identify a causal agent, Henrietta's family developed their own theories. Henrietta's sister Gladys believed it was punishment for leaving behind their father; Henrietta's nephew believed it was original sin; her cousin Cootie said it was disease-causing spirits. Sadie, Henrietta's close friend, though a malignant entity must have crawled up inside her.

HeLa cells were indispensable in AIDS research, and a researcher named Richard Axel infected HeLa cells with HIV to identify the mechanism by which the virus pierced a cell. However, his research was derailed when an activist named Jeremy Rifkin, who was deeply suspicious of genetic engineering. Rifkin believed that HIV-contaminated HeLa cells might make the virus transmissible by air, though leading scientists dismissed this idea.

Researchers realized that HeLa cells had become almost a separate species; because cells undergo small mutations every time they're placed in culture, the HeLa cells used in research were now very different from those that had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Some scientists claim that this means the cells are no longer human, but other dismiss this idea.

Scientists also discovered why HeLa cells were apparently immortal. At the end of each string of DNA is a telomere, which is shorted a bit each time a cell divides. When the telomeres are gone, the cell dies. However, HeLa cells contain an enzyme called telomerase, which renews their telomeres so that the cells never die.

Chapter 28. After London … 1996–1999

A BBC producer named Adam Curtis decided to make a documentary about Henrietta Lacks. Eventually, this would be the same documentary that Courtney Speed would show Rebecca Skloot. Deborah is excited about this opportunity and happily collaborates with the director, though she does not always stay on track during interviews.

Around the same time, Roland Pattillo organizes a conference on Henrietta Lacks and invited the Lacks family, who happily attend. Despite some rough spots (Zakariyya drinks heavily, Sonny gets sick, and Deborah is afraid someone will assassinate her), the family is honored to be recognized for their connection to Henrietta Lacks. Deborah gives a moving speech in which she tells her mother how much she loves and misses her. Other organizations, such as the Smithsonian, start to recognize the Lacks family as well.

Courtney Speed and her partner Barbara Wyche begin to develop plans for a Henrietta Lacks museum. Courtney sees Henrietta as an important symbol for the struggles and triumphs of Black Americans, and begins raising money for the project. However, Deborah is insulted when they ask for a donation of her mother's bible and a lock of her hair, and becomes even angrier when she learns that the other two women have been raising money for the museum - Deborah thinks that the money should go to Henrietta's living relatives.

A man named Keenan Kester Cofield, who claimed to be a distant relation as well as a doctor and a lawyer, offered to help the Lacks family sue Hopkins for their misuse of her mother's cells. Cofield did help the family gain access to Henrietta's medical records, but he was also revealed to be a scam artist who filed numerous frivolous lawsuits. When the Lacks family signed documents barring Cofield from accessing Henrietta's information, he goes ballistic and threatens to sue the Lacks family as well as a number of people at Hopkins.

Cofield sends Deborah a vast number of legal documents and subpoenas that she barely understands. Deborah takes out her fear and anger on Courtney Speed, who is also being sued by Cofield, insisting that she stop her plans for the Henrietta Lacks museum.

An attorney from Hopkins manages to have the Cofield case dismissed, but Deborah is deeply paranoid. She rarely goes outside and refuses to answer the phone. Around this time, she's involved in a freak accident in which a random teenager attacked her during her work driving a school bus. She tries to find her sister Elsie's medical records, but she is told that the records were destroyed when Crownsville burned down. Deborah wonders if her sister was used in medical experiments like her mother's cells.

Deborah begins to suffer serious health problems. She bursts out in hives and develops dangerously high blood pressure. It's around this time that Rebecca first tries to get in contact with Deborah.

Chapter 29. A Village of Henriettas … 2000

Deborah refuses to talk to Rebecca for nearly a year after their first contact. Rebecca updates her about her trips to Clover and her conversations with Henrietta's cousins, but Deborah never replies.

One time, Deborah's husband calls Rebecca to yell at her for being just another white person trying to take advantage of the family. However, Deborah calls Rebecca a few days later and tells her that she has her permission to write the book, but she has to tell it right.

The two meet for the first time at a B&B in Baltimore. This is the first time Rebecca meets Deborah in person; she is a substantial woman, and seems both younger and older than her fifty years of age. Rebecca gives Deborah a gift: it's a photo of Henrietta's chromosomes painted with multicolored fluorescent dyes. The gift is originally from a researcher named Christoph Langauer, who has a great deal of sympathy for the Lacks family. Langauer also offers to let the Lackses visit his lab to see Henrietta's cells, but Deborah says she's not ready yet.

Deborah is delighted by this gift, and talks to Deborah freely. She isn't as angry as her brothers about the fact that the family has received no financial compensation for their mother's cells, she just wants to learn more about her mother. She shows Deborah all the material she has collected over the years: the BBC documentary, mother's day cards for Henrietta, scientific journal articles, and clippings from tabloids. Deborah has a hard time understanding what was done with her mother's cells, and can't help but fear that her mother was experimented on like other Black people. Deborah relays a story told by her stepmother about ending up in the basement of Hopkins and seeing man-sized rabbits in cages.

One article says that if all the HeLa cells were gathered together, they could populate a village of Henriettas. Deborah imagines this to mean that there might be clones of her mother walking around, and Rebecca tries to explain the science to her more clearly. Most of what Deborah knows about science has come from movies like Jurassic Park; though Deborah knows these films are fictional, she has no way of understanding what has happened to her mother.

The two women begin to become friends. Rebecca explains that the blood tests administered by McKusick's team were not cancer tests, which makes Deborah both relieved and frustrated. However, their blossoming friendship is shaken when Rebecca reaches for Henrietta's medical records, which panics Deborah. Deborah grabs the files and rushes out, saying she doesn't know who she can trust.

Chapter 30. Zakariyya … 2000

Deborah quickly forgives Rebecca for reaching for her mother's files, and the next day tells her that she should meet Zakariyya, the youngest of the Lacks siblings. Rebecca is nervous about this, because she has heard the other members of the Lacks family discuss Zakariyya's anger issues and his hatred of white people.

The two women head over in a car with Deborah's grandsons, Davon and Alfred. The two little boys are adorable and mischievous, but they're very friendly to Rebecca. When Rebecca mentions Zakariyya, Davon imitates him about pretending to shout and yell.

Zakariyya lives in an assisted-living facility, and is irritable from the moment the group arrives. Deborah takes the children outside to play so that they don't annoy Zakariyya more. He tells Deborah that he believes his birth was a miracle—how else could he have been born healthy when his mother was so ill with cancer? Zakariyya is also enraged at the many people who have taken advantage of the family, taking blood samples from them without any recognition or compensation. Zakariyya is particularly furious at George Gey for taking Henrietta's cells without her consent. Most of all, he is angry that no one has consulted the family about the types of research conducted on Henrietta's cells, and that he and his family have such a hard time affording medical care even though their mother's cells revolutionized medicine.

The group heads to Zakariyya's small apartment, which is barren except for some basic furniture and photos of Henrietta and Elsie. Zakariyya says that he's so angry because of his mother's cancer—he had to fight to survive when he wasn't even born yet. Deborah thinks his anger comes from the way Ethel treated him, and Zakariyya says he never wants to see Ethel or her husband ever again.

Deborah says it's important for him to talk, and Zakariyya calms down a little. He says he's happy that HeLa cells have done good for so many people, but he just wishes he had his mother growing up. He might have been a better person than he is now if he'd had her.

Deborah gives Zakariyya the photograph of Henrietta's chromosomes, and his eyes fill with tears. Deborah also says that Christoph Lengauer, the scientist who gave them that picture, has invited them to visit his lab. Zakariyya says he would like to do that.

Chapter 31. Hela, Goddess of Death … 2000–2001

Rebecca and Deborah's friendship has its ups and downs. Occasionally, a member of the Black community will tell Deborah she can't trust a white person, and Deborah will tell Rebecca she can't call her anymore. But Deborah always calms down and eventually contacts Rebecca again.

Rebecca says that she will set up a scholarship fund for members of the Lacks family if her book sells, and explains difficult scientific concepts to Deborah. She promises not to hide anything from Deborah, and sends her any articles or informational material she finds about HeLa. Deborah begins to trust her even more deeply when she realizes that Rebecca is the same age as her daughter, even calling her "boo" and insisting she carry a cell phone during her interstate trips.

Deborah gets a computer, and begins to conduct internet searches for HeLa and Henrietta Lacks. She also starts taking Ambien, which often makes her drowsy but does not always put her to sleep, so she often wakes up at her desk surrounded by articles about HeLa or Henrietta.

An internet search for "HeLa" yields a variety of results; it is the native name for Sri Lanka, the name of a shih-tzu dog, a Swiss advertising firm, and a Marvel comic book character who is immortal and immune to plagues and sickness. The character is based on the Norse goddess of death Hela, but Deborah thinks she resembles her mother.

Deborah has a number of health problems, including mental illnesses and high blood pressure, and needs to spend about $150 a month for all her medications, which she often cannot afford. Still, she is happy that her mother's cells have contributed to science, and she beings to get better at using the internet to research HeLa.

Deborah also gets an invitation to the conference of the National Foundation for Cancer Research; they want to give her a plaque in her mother's honor. Deborah is a little worried about her safety, but Rebecca assures her that this is an honor. Deborah also tells Rebecca that she is ready to see Lengauer's lab. However, a crisis happens - Deborah's son Alfred is arrested for armed robbery.


Rebecca Skloot engages in a bit of hyperbole when she says that Henrietta's cells are no longer human. All cells (even those in living beings) undergo small mutations every time they divide, yet no one argues that these cells are still human. Another scientist, Rob Stevenson, vigorously dismisses this idea and says it's just a way to distance the legacy of the cells from living members of the Lacks family.

In Chapter 27, the people around the HeLa cell line struggle to identify causal agents for the immortality of Henrietta's cells. Scientists finally identify the fact that the cells regenerate their own telomeres, but Henrietta's family also has a number of theories as well; they suggest that disease-causing spirits or divine vengeance might have caused this unusual phenomenon. Henrietta's cousin Sadie even goes so far as to say an entity from outside of each may have caused the disease.

Beginning in Chapter 29, the unusual friendship between Rebecca and Deborah begins to develop. The two women are very different: one is young and white, the other middle-aged and Black; one is well-educated, while the other scarcely finished high school. However, they are united in their quest to learn more about Henrietta. They also make efforts to meet each other halfway: Deborah has to find the strength to share her family's fractured history with a stranger, and Rebecca must act with integrity and honesty in order to deserve Deborah's respect.

Unlike most people who have interacted with the Lacks family, Rebecca also tries to give back: she offers to establish a scholarship for members of the family, which would mark the first time any of them have received financial compensation for the contributions of their mother's cells to science.

The scientist Lengauer serves as a foil to the other white scientists and professionals who have taken advantage of the Lacks family. Unlike them, he makes efforts to reach out to the Lacks family and provide them with relevant gifts and services (offering them a beautifully painted picture of their mother's cells and inviting them to tour his lab). He is careful not to talk down to the Lacks family, but also does not assume that they understand the complex scientific language and techniques that he is using; he is careful to explain everything to them in language that they understand. He also vociferously argues that they should receive financial compensation, which no one outside the Lacks family has ever stated.