Doctors knew best, and most patients didn’t question that. Especially black patients in public wards. This was 1951 in Baltimore, segregation was law, and it was understood that black people didn’t question white people’s professional judgment.

This quotation comes from Chapter 8, when Skloot describes how Henrietta’s doctors insisted her cancer had not returned when Henrietta came in complaining of more pain. Henrietta would likely have felt that there was no reason to question her doctor because she would have assumed the doctor understood her condition better than she did. In addition, even if Henrietta doubted her doctors, because of the racist society she lived in, questioning her doctors could have been socially or physically dangerous.

Back then, the rule in the house was, Do what adults say—otherwise you’ll get hurt.

This quotation comes from Chapter 15, as Skloot describes how the adult Lackses do not tell Henrietta’s children the details of what happened to her. This moment illustrates how systems of unquestionable authority worsen already difficult situations. The silence around Henrietta means Deborah and her siblings never get a real chance to grieve her. The fear around challenging adult authority means that they have no ability to pursue more knowledge and understanding of what happened to Henrietta until decades later.

But they’d been taught to keep quiet with adults, so they never told their teachers how much they were missing.

This quotation appears in Chapter 15, when Skloot describes how Deborah and her siblings struggle in school because they have undiagnosed hearing issues. As Deborah and her siblings were taught not to speak up for themselves to an authority figure when things were challenging or unfair to them, they have been actively discouraged from seeking help from their teachers. The learned fear of self-advocacy thus perpetuates the Lacks family’s lack of education. 

All they told me was they wanted to do a topsy see if they could help my children. And I’ve always just knowed this much: they is the doctor, and you got to go by what they say. 

Day makes this comment in Chapter 21, when he describes his experience with doctors at Hopkins around Henrietta’s death. Despite Day’s reluctance to allow an autopsy on Henrietta, he ultimately agrees because the doctors say it could help Henrietta’s children someday, which is a distortion of the truth. Studying Henrietta’s body did lead to scientific advancements in general, which benefits everyone, including the Lacks children. However, the autopsy was never for their direct benefit. Day, pressured by societal norms of not questioning medical professionals, doesn’t ask further questions, allowing the doctors to pressure him into allowing something he didn’t feel comfortable with.

You don’t want to rock the boat. You think maybe this guy will cut you off, and you’re going to die or something.

Skloot includes this quotation from an interview with John Moore in Discovery Magazine when she describes how Moore attempted to sue for patent rights to his cells in Chapter 25. Moore describes why he signed a consent form that allowed the University of California to own and profit any cell line that comes from his body. Moore notes that because his doctor held power over his life, he did not feel comfortable declining out of fear that the standard of treatment might drop. Deferring to authority doesn’t happen out of ignorance or insecurity, but out of real, structural dangers.