Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks:  An Unlikely Friendship

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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How did a science journalist from Illinois and a poor woman from Baltimore become friends? How did Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks meet? What was the relationship between the two women like?

Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks met while Skloot was researching Deborah’s mother, Henrietta Lacks. The two women became friends, despite an age gap of more than 20 years.

Read about their relationship, including some paranoia that made things tense at times.

Among Henrietta’s family, one person stood out to Skloot as she performed her research: Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, whose voice was curiously absent from interviews and articles about the Lacks family. Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks needed to meet.

The Two Women Meet

Deborah finally agreed to meet Skloot in 2000. They bonded almost immediately. Even as Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks became friends, though, Deborah would occasionally become paranoid, accusing Skloot of working for Hopkins or trying to benefit financially off the family. Although Deborah shared with Skloot most of the materials she’d accumulated on her mother, she refused to show Skloot her mother’s medical records

Researching Henrietta Lacks Together

In an attempt to allay Deborah’s fears, Skloot began inviting her on reporting trips. Skloot took Deborah (and Zakariyya) to see their mother’s cells at a Hopkins lab; and, in 2001, Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks traveled together to Crownsville, Maryland, where Elsie, Deborah’s older sister, had lived most of her life in what was then called the Hospital for the Negro Insane. (Deborah only knew the slightest details about her older sister.) 

At a hotel between Crownsville and Clover, Deborah finally allowed Skloot to look at her mother’s medical records. The records were in total disarray, and Skloot set to organizing them. At a certain point in the night, after having stared at Elsie’s picture for hours, Deborah asked about a word in Elsie’s autopsy report. When Skloot defined it, Deborah said she didn’t want the word to appear in Skloot’s book. Skloot smiled at Deborah’s protectiveness and agreed, but Deborah misunderstood. She accused Skloot of lying and shoved her up against a wall. Skloot, losing her patience, cursed at Deborah. They made up almost immediately, but Skloot was on her guard.

Deborah’s Stroke

Shortly thereafter, and five days after 9/11, Deborah suffered a stroke during a church service. She survived and recovered fully. Eight years later, in 2009, Deborah died in her sleep. 

The Last Meeting Between Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks

The last time Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks were together, she’d made her grandson Davon and Skloot watch Roots and Spirit, an animated film about a wild horse, back to back. She wanted them to see the similarities between Kunta Kinte and Spirit, how they both fought for their freedom.

When the films were done, Deborah played one of the tapes of unaired footage from the BBC documentary on her mother. Watching the screen, Deborah wondered aloud to Skloot and Davon whether, when she died, she would come back as some HeLa cells, so she and her mother could help people in the world together.

Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks: An Unlikely Friendship

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" at Shortform.

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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