This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Who was the middle son of Henrietta Lacks’ children? What was David Lacks, Jr. like after his mother passed? How did the man also known as Sonny Lacks feel about the use of HeLa cells?
David Lacks, Jr. is better known as Sonny. He is the third of five children Henrietta Lacks had before she died in 1951.
Learn about the life of Sonny Lacks, including why he finally gave in and agreed to meet Rebecca Skloot to talk about his mother.
Loretta Pleasant, called Henrietta, was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, and raised in a small town in Virginia called Clover. At fourteen, she gave birth to her first child, a son named Lawrence; the father was her cousin, David “Day” Lacks. Four years later, she had a second child by him named Lucile Elsie, whom everyone called Elsie and who evidenced traits of a developmental disability. (Elsie would later be institutionalized.)
Day and Henrietta were married in 1941, and shortly thereafter, they moved to Turner Station, a booming industrial neighborhood in Baltimore. They had three more children—David Lacks, Jr. (Sonny), Deborah, and Joe (later Zakariyya)—the last in 1950.
David Lacks, Jr. and His Brothers
Lawrence, the eldest Lacks child, had a convenience store, and Sonny Lacks had joined the Air Force—they were thriving. Joe, however, the youngest, was struggling. The abuse Ethel had heaped on him had caused him to develop severe anger management issues. His tendency to pick fights resulted in his dropping out of high school and, later, getting thrown out of the army.
Learning about HeLa
It wasn’t until a Rolling Stone reporter named Michael Rogers visited the family in 1975 that the Lackses finally understood the full significance of their mother’s cells. At the time, no one besides Deborah was too disturbed by their mother’s cells’ wide spread. This revelation caused Sonny and Lawrence to believe that Hopkins and George Gey had gotten rich selling their mother’s cells.
The Lackses Struggle
In the 1980s, Sonny was in jail for selling drugs. In 1999, Skloot got in touch with Deborah who was extremely enthusiastic. The second time they spoke, Deborah was reticent. Deborah told Skloot that she couldn’t continue talking to her unless Skloot spoke to the men in the family: Day, Lawrence, and David Lacks, Jr.
Skloot Visits Turner Station and Clover
For days Skloot couldn’t get in touch with any of them. Finally, when she reached Day, he told her to leave him alone and hung up.
Tired of seeing Skloot’s number on his pager, Sonny finally agreed to meet her. He’d spoken to Pattillo—although Skloot didn’t know this at the time—to ask about Skloot, and he promised to take Skloot to meet Lawrence, Day, and, possibly, Deborah, when they met up.
Skloot travelled to Baltimore from Pittsburgh. Unable to get in touch with Sonny upon her arrival, she decided to visit Turner Station and see if she could locate the Lackses’ old house (she’d come across the address in an old newspaper article).
Meeting the Lackses
On New Year’s Day 2000, two months after Skloot initially went to Baltimore to meet Sonny Lacks and he turned her down, Skloot was finally able to meet the Lacks men.
The first Lacks she met was Sonny, who picked her up at her hotel to bring her to Lawrence’s. He was about 5’9”, with a manicured mustache and a kind affect.
In the car, Sonny told Skloot that he didn’t remember his mother; everything he knew he’d learned second-hand. He’d been told she was “nice” and attractive and a good cook. And he knew that her cells had played a role in medical advances like the vaccine for polio.
Sonny Lacks brought Skloot to Lawrence’s but didn’t come inside—he drove off immediately after Skloot exited the car. Inside Lawrence’s, Skloot found Lawrence cooking pork chops. He was six feet tall and close to 300 pounds.
Later Years of David Lacks, Jr.
By 2009, David Lacks, Jr. was $125,000 in debt after having a quintuple bypass without insurance. When she couldn’t reach Deborah, Skloot called Sonny. She announced herself, and Sonny said that he’d been searching for her phone number. Immediately Skloot knew that Deborah had died. Sonny told her the story. About a week before, Sonny had gone over to check on Deborah when she didn’t answer a call from Davon. He’d found her in bed, smiling, dead from a heart attack. It was just a few days after Mother’s Day.
After his sister’s passing, David Lacks, Jr. took over Deborah’s quest to raise people’s awareness of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summary:
- How Henrietta's cells became used in thousands of labs worldwide
- The complications of Henrietta's lack of consent
- How the Lacks family is coping with the impact of Henrietta's legacy