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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What happens to the family of Henrietta Lacks at the end of Rebecca Skloot’s book? Is there some recognition for Henrietta or compensation for her family? What happens to Deborah, who is a large focus of Skloots storytelling in the Henrietta Lacks book?
Rebecca Skloot first became interested in HeLa in high school. Her research her brought her to Deborah Lacks. Over the course of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book, Deborah’s struggles are a key feature.
Read about how The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book ends for Rebecca and Deborah.
The Henrietta Lacks book discusses the health challenges of Deborah Lacks. Deborah suffers from breakdowns and even a stroke shortly after 9/11.
Shortly after Deborah’s discharge from the hospital after her stroke, Skloot joined her at her church to watch the baptism of Sonny’s nine-month-old granddaughter. Pullum was the preacher that day, and almost as soon as the service began, he called Skloot to the pulpit. Surprised and nervous, Skloot resisted, but Pullum compelled her to join him.
Once she stood beside him, Pullum announced that Skloot was going to tell the congregation what happened with Henrietta, Johns Hopkins, and Henrietta’s children. She was sharing what she had learned researching the Henrietta Lacks book. Skloot did just that, gaining confidence as the congregation answered her speech with “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” When Pullum took back the microphone, he said that Henrietta’s story was no longer about her children, but her children’s children—the baby being baptized that day, Davon, and the rest of Henrietta’s grandchildren. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book tells the story that touches all of them.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Book: Deborah’s Final Days
In 2009, eight years after Deborah’s stroke, Skloot drove to Clover. When she got there, she found she was disoriented—the road into town seemed longer than it had the last time she visited. All of a sudden she realized what had happened: The town had been razed. She collected some of the debris from the vanished houses to give to Deborah.
Skloot hadn’t been in touch with Deborah for months, though Skloot had called her a number of times. In the years since the baptism, the Lackses had endured considerable hardship: Sonny had a quintuple bypass without insurance, a surgery that landed him $125,000 in debt; Zakariyya had been expelled from his assisted-living facility and a Section Eight housing project, the latter because he struck a woman with a forty-ounce beer bottle; and Deborah had divorced Pullum and moved into an assisted-living facility herself. In 2006, when Deborah’s divorce was finalized, she had no money in her checking account, and her entire monthly income was $742: $732 from social security and $10 in food stamps.
When Skloot returned from Clover, she called Deborah again and found her voicemail box full. Clover’s disappearance was too important to wait, so 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.
Henrietta Lacks Book Author Remembers Last Seeing Deborah
The last time Skloot had seen Deborah, she’d made Skloot and Davon 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. A much younger Deborah appeared on the TV screen with her mother’s bible in her lap. Deborah kept a long lock of her mother’s hair in the bible—the lock of hair and the bible were all Deborah had of her mother—and Deborah stroked it as she spoke into the camera. The young Deborah on screen said that Henrietta had been watching all that had happened with her cells, so that when Deborah died, she wouldn’t need to fill her in on anything.
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.
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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