Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its path.

Skloot uses this comment about Deborah in the prologue to introduce her. The mixture between faith and science that this sentiment implies is an important part of how Deborah views the world. An awareness of cell biology has, in essence, been thrust into her life because of HeLa cells, but her upbringing and family are very spiritual people. Thus, Deborah combines these two views of the world by imbuing Henrietta’s cells with spiritual significance.

I just couldn’t take it. My speech is coming back a little better—I almost had two strokes in two weeks cause of all that stuff with my mother’s cells.

Deborah makes this comment in chapter 6 during her very first conversation with Skloot. Her nonchalant way of describing not only her ailments but also all of the hardships her family has been through suggests how normalized all of these troubles are to her. The stress she has been through over HeLa cells has been catastrophic for her health. Nevertheless, throughout this breakneck conversation, she seems eager for someone to help her find answers instead of guarded and suspicious like other members of the Lacks family.

Deborah heard those things and imagined her mother on the moon and being blown up by bombs. She was terrified and couldn’t stop wondering if the parts of her mother they were using in research could actually feel the things scientists were doing to them.

This quotation appears in chapter 23, not long after Deborah has her blood drawn by Victor McKusick. Because McKusick does not explain what he was doing or the science behind HeLa cells to Deborah, she can only piece things together with her extremely limited scientific understanding. As a result, Deborah understandably imagines the experiments on the cells as torturous to her mother. While her conclusion paints her as an empathetic and caring person, it also highlights the injustice of no one helping Deborah understand what happened to Henrietta. Instead, she is left to live in fear and anxiety.

I keep thinkin, maybe if I understood some science, then the story about my mother and sister wouldn’t scare me so much.

This quotation appears in Chapter 37, not long after Gary’s soul cleansing ceremony. From her research with Skloot, Deborah has come to realize how her scientific illiteracy has made the story of Henrietta and Elsie even more terrifying than they needed to be. While what happened to Henrietta and Elsie is terrible, Deborah realizes that being able to separate science fact from science fiction would keep her mind centered and calm. Although she ultimately cannot go through with taking classes for health and financial reasons, she passes this passion for education onto her grandchildren.

“I often visit her hair in the Bible,” Deborah said into the camera. “When I think about this hair, I’m not as lonely. I imagine, what would it be like to have a mother to go to, to laugh, cry, hug. God willing, I can be with her someday. I’m looking forward to that.” 

Skloot watches Deborah say this in footage that was cut out of the BBC documentary on Henrietta Lacks. In this tender moment, it becomes clear that at the root of this story is a woman who desperately wants to know her mother and instead is told things about her mother’s cells. Deborah’s deep faith, sense of loss, and love are an essential aspect of Henrietta’s story, one that most people attempting to tell it don’t consider important.