Ethel Lacks and Galen Lacks: Henrietta’s Sexual Abusers

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What happened to the Lacks children after their mother died? Why did Ethel Lacks and Galen Lacks move in? How did their presence change the lives of the Lacks children?

Ethel Lacks was the wife of Galen Lacks. The two of them moved in with the Lacks family after Henrietta died. Galen was Henrietta’s cousin.

Read more about Ethel Lacks and her husband, including their abuse of the children.

Abuse by Galen and Ethel Lacks

Perhaps the most destructive outcome of Henrietta’s death was that Henrietta’s adult cousin, Galen, and his wife, Ethel, moved into the Lacks house in Turner Station to help take care of the children. Deborah, only ten years old, was physically abused and pursued sexually by Galen, and all the children, but especially Joe, were beaten by Ethel Lacks. Ethel’s abuse of Joe would cause permanent emotional damage: Joe, who would later change his name to Zakariyya in jail after being found guilty of murder, would struggle with anger his entire life.

At the time of Henrietta’s death, there were three children under the age of four—Sonny, Deborah, and Joe—and Lawrence, who was a teenager. (There was also Elsie, Lawrence’s younger sister, who had been institutionalized.) 

Ethel Lacks’ Jealousy of Henrietta

It was known among the Lacks cousins that Ethel was jealous of Henrietta—Galen reportedly had much preferred Henrietta to Ethel—and Ethel Lacks proceeded to take out her anger at Henrietta on Henrietta’s children. Ethel’s abuse took many forms: She starved them, forced them to perform hard labor, and beat them with whatever was at hand—extension cords, shoes, or her fists. Joe, the youngest, received the worst of it. Ethel would tie him up and leave him in the basement for hours on end, even overnight, with instructions to stand on one foot. If she came downstairs and one foot wasn’t in the air, she would whip him.

Deborah Was Abused by Galen Lacks

Galen Lacks had begun touching her inappropriately. Deborah was only ten years old at the time, and she saw Galen as a surrogate father (Day was working two jobs, and Deborah felt closer to Galen than Day). 

One day, when Deborah was 12, she was walking with a friend named Alfred “Cheetah” Carter when Galen pulled up in his car. He demanded that she get in the car with him. When she refused, he sped off. Soon he returned with Day in the passenger seat. Galen got out of the car, calling Deborah a “whore,” and threw her in the back seat of the car. Once she was in, he punched her in the face, splitting her eyebrow. Day just sat there.

When Deborah got back to Bobbette and Lawrence’s, Bobbette forced Deborah to tell her what had happened. Deborah told Bobbette that Galen had hit her and that he said inappropriate things to her, but she omitted the fact that he had molested her (she feared that Bobbette would kill Galen if she knew). Bobbette immediately went to Galen and Ethel’s house and threatened to kill them if either of them touched a Lacks child again.

Deborah Moves Out

Having escaped Galen and Ethel Lacks by moving in with her brother Lawrence, Deborah had her first child at 16 and married the father when she was 18. After the birth of their second child, Deborah’s husband began using drugs and physically abusing her. When she started to contemplate killing him, she knew she had to leave; she took her children and moved back in with her father.

Ethel Lacks and Galen Lacks: Henrietta’s Sexual Abusers

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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

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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