Why does Skloot include her journalistic process throughout the biography?

Skloot reveals her journalistic process in order to demonstrate her awareness of the potential harm she could cause to the Lacks family by writing this book and the steps she took to minimize that harm. By including Pattillo quizzing her on science’s racist history, she shows the reader her credentials and reveals that she is aware of the trauma and emotions this story evokes. This section also adds context for the reader, so that we understand the stakes of the story and why Henrietta’s cells have caused problems for the family.

Skloot also acknowledges places where her words and actions upset the family, such as the first time she tried to look at Henrietta’s medical records, and how she recovered from these missteps. Her transparency with regards to her mistakes shows her willingness to learn from and actively listen to members of the Lacks family. In addition, Skloot allowed Deborah to decide the parameters of their interactions, including driving in a separate car for Deborah’s comfort. Skloot’s respectful approach meant that instead of placing herself in a position of authority over the family, she allowed their input and desires to inform and shape the direction of the book.

What purpose do the chapters on Lacks family history serve?

The sections on Lacks family history add nuance and context to the biography, and also work to repair the ways in which Henrietta’s life story has historically been removed from the discussion of HeLa cells. Skloot notes that in Michael Gold’s book and the BBC documentary, Henrietta and the Lacks family served as a human interest hook to a story about science, removing her from her own story. This sidelining of Henrietta mirrors the way Gey and other researchers ignored the fact that HeLa cells came from a person.

By devoting space to discuss Henrietta’s childhood, her love of dancing, and the way she downplayed her illness, Skloot puts Henrietta back in her own story. The sections describing how the Lacks family came to own Lacks town demonstrates how slavery’s legacy continues to affect generations of Black families, specifically through poverty and a lack of education, healthcare, and employment. The Lacks family suffered from a combination of generational poverty and racial segregation that made Henrietta’s medical care inaccessible. In addition, the medical care she had access to came with the risk of being used in research without consent, as was common in public wards.

What does Elsie’s story reveal about the intersections of race, class, and disability in this book?

The mistreatment Elsie suffered demonstrates the way the effects of racial discrimination, poverty, and disability compound upon each other. The Lacks family’s poverty lead to Elsie’s institutionalization. Although Henrietta wanted to continue caring for Elsie, she didn’t have the resources to provide the extra care Elsie’s disability required, resulting in Elsie being separated from a loving mother. Deborah establishes that no one attempted to teach Elsie sign language, which meant she had no means to communicate her needs and boundaries to others except those that would attract negative attention, like crying.

These factors combined with the way Crownsville hospital didn’t value the lives of their Black, disabled patients. The horrific overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that were a result of this dehumanization likely worsened Elsie’s health issues. Because Elsie was in the hands of professionals who viewed her as disposable, the hospital felt they could include her in a painful experiment without repercussions. Society’s devaluation of Black lives, the disabled, and the poor therefore led the hospital to completely dehumanize her.