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In June of 1951, Henrietta told her doctors she thought the cancer had returned, but they found nothing wrong with her. In that era, doctors occasionally withheld basic information from patients in order not to upset or confuse them, a practice called “benevolent deception.”
Skloot doesn’t know if Henrietta’s treatment would have differed if she had been a white patient. Black patients often got treatment for cancer at a later stage than white patients, and also sometimes received fewer painkillers. Howard Jones insisted he gave Henrietta the standard treatment for the time.
A few weeks after her doctors told her she was healthy, Henrietta was in excruciating pain. Doctors found an inoperable tumor on her pelvic wall and started a course of radiation therapy to try and ease her pain. Her family thought they were still trying to cure her. Soon, Henrietta could no longer walk and checked into the hospital as an inpatient. Doctors took another cell sample for Gey, but the toxins in her blood prevented these cells from thriving. Day and the children began visiting daily, but the nurses asked Day to stop bringing the children because Henrietta would get too upset when they left.
There is no record of George Gey visiting Henrietta in the hospital or tell her about her cells. One of his colleagues claims that Gey visited Henrietta and told her that her cells would save lives.
Sonny agreed to meet with Skloot in Turner Station, but stood her up. In the hotel, Skloot began to read a 1975 article in
about the Lackses, written by a journalist named Michael Rogers, and discovered that he had stayed at the same hotel and tried to contact the Lacks family using the
. Skloot had no luck, but eventually decided to seek out a Turner Station resident named Courtney Speed, who ran a grocery store and was founding a museum dedicated to Henrietta. However, Skloot got lost driving around Turner Station, and she attracted a lot of curious stares as one of the only white people there.
Skloot found the church where community meetings about the museum had taken place, and the reverend offered to take her to Speed’s Grocery to talk to Speed. Speed said she couldn’t talk to Skloot about Henrietta until the family had given permission. Speed explained that progress on the museum had slowed because of a mess with someone named Cofield. She lent Skloot a videotape with a recording of a BBC documentary called “The Way of All Flesh.” It included interviews with some of Henrietta’s Clover relatives, which made Skloot realize she should seek the Lackses in Clover.
In 1999, Clover was full of boarded up and closed businesses. Whereas residential properties in Clover had well-kept lawns, the division between Clover and Lacks Town, the old plantation where the Lacks family lived, was marked by weeds and shacks. As Skloot drove through Lacks Town, she ran into Henrietta’s cousin Hector Henry, better known as Cootie.
Cootie showed Skloot a copy of the
article, which he couldn’t read himself because he’d never learned. Skloot explained that the article said nothing about who Henrietta was as a person. Cootie described Henrietta as loving and caring. He added that he’d heard that all of Henrietta’s cells would weigh eight hundred pounds now, which struck him as odd because Henrietta was a small woman. He believed Henrietta’s disease was caused by voodoo or doctors because no one had seen a case like her cancer before.
In September of 1951, tumors had taken over Henrietta’s body. Her kidneys couldn’t keep up with all the toxins in her blood, and so she had to get constant blood transfusions. Her cousin Emmett and his friends donated their own blood because she had often cared for them. She was in extreme pain. Henrietta told her sister Gladys to tell Day to take care of the children, especially Deborah. Henrietta died on October 4, 1951.
The doctrine of benevolent deception sets up a hierarchy between doctor and patient in which a patient cannot question a doctor’s judgement because they lack the knowledge to do so. If a patient doesn’t know the full extent of their illness, they cannot ask questions about the treatment they receive. This dynamic also means that the doctor assumes they know what will be upsetting to a patient as opposed to respecting a patient’s understanding of their own emotional limits. In addition, this power dynamic perpetuates scientific illiteracy by keeping medical knowledge the purview of doctors. When patients cannot question their doctors or learn more about their situation, they exist completely at their doctor’s mercy and have no agency in their treatment. In Henrietta’s case, she had no choice but to accept Jones’s insistence that her cancer hadn’t returned, ignoring her own intuition and pain. While the extent of Jones’s “benevolent deception” is not clear at this point, the way it places doctors in a position of unquestionable authority will come into play again throughout the book.
The difficulty Skloot has getting into contact with the members of the Lacks family suggests that terrible things have happened to the family as a result of the cells. From the
article, we know that other reporters have sought the Lackses before. However, Skloot couldn’t find any Lacks family members in the phonebook like Rogers did, implying that the Lacks had taken further steps not to be found since the 1970s. Speed’s question about whether Skloot knew someone named Cofield furthers the impression that someone must have hurt the family. At this point in the book, Skloot does not reflect on why she continued to press on despite these clear signs that someone had hurt the family. However, her inclusion of this part of her research process indicates that she wants to be transparent about how she approached Henrietta’s story and all the reasons why she had to be careful when telling it.
The depiction of Clover and Lacks Town again highlights the extreme poverty in Henrietta’s background. Although Clover itself doesn’t appear to be a wealthy community, the dividing line between most of Clover and Lacks Town shows further disrepair, signifying that the Lacks family doesn’t have the resources to maintain the property. Skloot noted that Cootie couldn’t read, and from his comment about the weight of the cells and Henrietta’s size, we can infer that he also was scientifically illiterate. This introduction of Cootie demonstrates that despite the many years in between Henrietta’s death and Skloot’s research, the family remains poor and doesn’t have easy access to education. We can infer that the Lacks family has had to face journalists asking questions about Henrietta’s cells without the benefit of an education that would help them answer those questions. Furthermore, not all of the family can read the articles written about them. Just as Henrietta was unable to question her doctors or make informed decisions about her health, the Lacks family is at a structural disadvantage when dealing with white journalists.
The chapters on Henrietta’s treatment in part one offer all we can glean about who Henrietta was as a person, and they characterize her as extremely giving and motherly. Earlier chapters showed her devotion to her role as a mother even at the expense of herself, and her strong emotions over her children’s visits support this reading. Her cousins’ desire to donate blood for her in her time of need highlights how loved she was and that the family appreciated her caring nature. From Cootie and Sadie’s anecdotes, we hear constantly about her cooking for others, providing nourishment for the family. In addition, multiple factors suggest that her marriage with Day may not have been the easiest. In previous chapters, we learned that Henrietta suffered from sexually transmitted infections she contracted from Day, suggesting that he had been unfaithful to her. Perhaps even more telling, one of her dying wishes was to remind Day to take care of the children, which could mean that she thought there was a chance he might shirk that responsibility.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!