The Lacks family experience.

The Lacks family with Rebecca Skloot

Earlier in class when we were discussing the HeLa cells and listening to the radio lab a point came up where the class discussed how we thought the family of Henrietta was depicted. It was a surprise to me that quite a few people thought they were being presented in a negative light. It seemed that most of the negative connotations centered around two parts in particular. The part of the radio lab where they were explaining how Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, did not understand that the HeLa cells were not clones of her mother, and the part where Deborah felt overwhelmed and burdened with the knowledge of her mother’s cells being used in all of these medical experiments. I listened to the radio lab several times before the class and I did not at all think of the way the family was presented in the show as negative, so hearing how other people in the class had interpreted that information in a negative way surprised me. I have listened to the radio lab a couple of times since that class and I just cannot hear the negativity others heard. When listening to Rebecca (author of The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks) talk about Deborah the only thing I interpret in the way she speaks about her is a since of sympathy, for the way she was bombarded with the information of her mother’s cells without anyone properly explaining what the cells existence meant, and a since of wonder, when Deborah went to her uncle and he began to pray and sing to sooth her. Now when I say sympathy I do not mean that she was pitying Deborah and the Lacks family, but that she understood how they were feeling. The way I heard it was that Rebecca knew how Deborah could think that there were several clones of her mother being experimented on because no one had properly explained it to her. I thought there was even a hint of astonishment in the tone of her voice because of how the researchers were being kind of insensitive toward the family. In my mind Henrietta’s daughter wasn’t crazy for thinking that her mother was cloned or that she was feeling the pain of the diseases being injected into her cells, no one had explained to her that there were no clones, and no one could tell her with 100% certainty that her mother’s soul could not rest or that she wasn’t feeling the pain because of the uniqueness of the cells themselves. I am not an expert in biology or medicine, so it’s possible that I could have come to the same conclusion if I were put in a similar situation. The part of the story where Deborah is with her uncle and almost hysterical because of the burden the information of the HeLa cells had put on her is something I am not unfamiliar with. My family is very spiritual and has a deep belief in God. Going to church with my family growing up, I had witnessed similar situations where prayer and rejoicing by singing praise were common. Even today my family turns to prayer for any and everything. Being someone who grew up with that experience, but does not share those beliefs, I understand how people who have not had the same experience or have those beliefs can interpret what happened on the tape we heard as strange. However, what I heard in Rebecca Skloot’s voice and how she talked about the event was not a negative reflection, but was someone who had not experienced that before and was kind of amazed at what had happened. I listened time and time again but cannot hear any negativity. I’d like to hear from someone who did hear negativity when hearing about the Lacks family. What about the story gave you that impression? Why do you think you heard the negativity and I cannot?


1 Comment

  1. I am in agreement with you and do not think it was negative. However I feel like the part about them being shocked to find out about their mother’s cells was a big surprise
    to them and could have been shocking for them.

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