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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
From the epigraph, Skloot emphasizes that doctors and scientists must never let their zeal for science overshadow their recognition of the humanity of their patients and research subjects. The Lacks family’s feelings of helplessness highlight why the recognition of patients’ humanity is crucial. Although George Gey, the researcher who grows the very first HeLa cells, doesn’t profit from Henrietta’s cells and has good intentions, he loses sight of the fact that those cells were part of a real person. He believes that Henrietta’s name can be released years after her death, and this highlights that he no longer sees them as being attached to a person, as he doesn’t consider how her family might feel. In contrast to many medical researchers mentioned in the biography, Christoph Lengauer helps both Deborah and Zakariyya. Lengauer acknowledges the hurt Hopkins has done to the family and offers them an opportunity to interact with Henrietta’s cells, treating them with respect. Unlike Victor McKusick, who doesn’t consider it important to explain his research to Deborah, Lengauer patiently answers their questions and doesn’t condescend them. His ability to treat Deborah and Zakariyya as humans worthy of respect eases their confusion and grief.
Skloot also constructs a parallel between scientists and journalists, noting that both can erase the humanity of the people they are studying, and is careful not to make the same mistakes. For example, Michael Gold publishes Henrietta’s medical records without the family’s permission because he views Henrietta as a human-interest hook in his science story, rather than as a woman with a family who might find this violating and frightening. As a result, total strangers see details about Henrietta’s medical history before her family sees them. Even journalists who work with the family don’t take their feelings into regard. The BBC documentary rejects footage from the interview with Deborah where she talks about missing her mother, which shows a lack of concern for the family, who clearly feels hurt and confused by Henrietta’s legacy. Rather than create opportunity for empathy and understanding, the BBC interviewer emphasizes spectacle by asking questions like “What is cancer?” to highlight the family’s lack of formal education. In contrast, Skloot carefully catalogues her methods and builds a friendship with Deborah, humanizing the Lackses and taking care not to perpetuate the harm done to the family.
Skloot notes the way people are socialized to submit to those in positions of authority and examines the damaging effects of unquestioned deference. Deborah and Sonny’s instructions to keep quiet and never question adults hampers their ability to succeed in school because they never told their teachers they had hearing issues. Day feels he cannot question McKusick about the blood samples because he is afraid to question the authority of a white professional, and because he has been taught not to question doctors. Day’s deference to McKusick causes the Lacks family more fear and confusion. Far from blaming the victims of this dynamic, Skloot portrays mandated deference as a structural flaw, and demonstrates that disempowered people are justified in their hesitation to question authority. John Moore explicitly states that he initially signed the consent form at UCLA without questioning his doctors because he didn’t want to antagonize the people who had the potential to save his life, meaning that he didn’t feel he had a choice. The Lacks children face punishment from the adults in their lives for questioning authority. The enormous power imbalance between black and white professionals means that Day had ample reason to fear questioning Hopkins.
The concept of immortality creates tension throughout the biography, as the Lacks family, the scientific community, and the media have conflicting ideas about immortality and legacy. For Henrietta’s family, spiritual immortality is a religious truth, and their legacy is made up of deeply personal memories about family members. To the scientific community, Henrietta’s immortality lies in her cells’ impact on medical research. Scientists and the media highlight the legacy of Henrietta’s “immortal” cells, which is at odds with the Lacks family’s religious beliefs and does nothing to preserve Henrietta’s personal legacy. When Skloot first talks to Cootie, he comments that her cells have outlived her memory, and Deborah consistently laments that no one knows more information about her mother. Scientists like Susan Hsu and Victor McKusick claim Henrietta’s cells have granted her immortality, and that her family should be proud of her scientific legacy, ignoring the ways in which the story around HeLa cells has hurt Henrietta’s children, her family legacy. Gary, Deborah’s cousin, brings into question this distinct separation between Henrietta’s spiritual and physical immortality by proclaiming that Henrietta’s cells are her spiritual body, the shape God chose for her so that she could help others.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!