I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever—bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world.

Skloot writes this in the introduction as part of her explanation of how she first encountered the story of Henrietta Lacks and why it made her so curious. This comment defines her motivation for writing the book, her questions about the contrast between the living person and the living legacy. She wonders what Henrietta might think of her cells being sold and shipped, putting the ethical question and Henrietta’s stolen autonomy front and center.

While I was on the road, I’d leave messages for Deborah every few days, hoping to convince her that if she talked to me, we could learn about Henrietta together. 

Skloot writes this quote in Chapter 29 in describing how she worked to persuade Deborah to talk to her. Although this quote characterizes her as a persistent journalist, her pitch to Deborah involves openness. She emphasizes that she will bring Deborah on board with her learning and backs up this promise by telling Deborah things she has already learned. This transparency and desire to work with Deborah, as opposed to merely interviewing her for a story, separates Skloot from previous journalistic work on Henrietta Lacks.

With each packet, I sent notes explaining what each thing meant, clearly labeling what was fiction and what wasn’t, and warning her about anything that might upset her.

Skloot writes this in Chapter 31, when Skloot and Deborah are in the thick of their research into Henrietta. Unlike other people who have talked with Deborah about HeLa cells, Skloot actively works to help Deborah understand the science. Her use of content warnings further works to protect Deborah by allowing her to decide what she can emotionally handle at any given moment. Skloot does not allow her understanding of the science to distract her from the reality that Henrietta’s story is personal and intimate for Deborah, involving not just scientific achievement, but also callous violations of privacy and injustice.

Then he raised his arms above Deborah’s head and yelled, “LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS!” He thrust his arms toward me, hands pointed at either side of my head. “GIVE THEM TO HER!”

Gary says these words during the soul cleansing ceremony in Chapter 35. At this climactic moment, Skloot symbolically takes on the burden of Henrietta’s story. This responsibility means that Gary and Deborah expect Skloot to tell the story accurately, in all its injustice, and not create a situation that puts Deborah in more pain. This moment is also when Skloot truly internalizes the catastrophic effect worrying about Henrietta and Elsie has had on Deborah’s health. Not only does this moment solidify Skloot having full permission to write the story, but it also emphasizes that she understands its full weight.

“I was very angry with Sister Rebecca when she started calling us,” he said. “So was my wife. Then finally we said okay, but we told her, ‘You need to talk to us like we’re regular folk. You need to tell us what’s goin on.’” 

Deborah’s then husband, Pullum, makes this statement in front of the congregation he leads during a Sunday service. Here he sums up neatly how Skloot earned the trust of Deborah and other members of the Lacks family. She was willing to talk to them like people and made them active participants in her research. Pullum’s sermon adds legitimacy to Skloot’s research, emphasizing that members of the family stand behind her work and methods.