Mother, daughter and biographer

Rebecca Skloot writes about the amazing story of a poor black woman and her cancer cells in her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. But she also tells the story of Lack’s daughter Deborah and her own story, too.

Before Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, researchers at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore began growing Lack’s cancer cells in a lab. They were the first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, and billions of them have been bought and sold around the world. They have been used to develop the polio vaccine, uncover some of the secrets of cancer and find advances in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.

Deborah, Henrietta Lack’s daughter, who became pregnant at 16 when she was a junior in high school, spent her whole life trying to understand what had happened to her mother. Because of her limited education, she didn’t understand that only her mother’s cells were alive. She worried that clones of her mother might be walking around, and she wondered if it might be possible to take DNA from the immortal cells and bring her mother back to life.

For years, Deborah collected newspaper and magazine articles about her mother. She filled notebook pages with definitions of scientific and legal terms. And, finally, she joined forces with Rebecca Skloot to find out more about her mother’s story.

Deborah wasn’t always cooperative with Skloot, who spent 10 years writing this book. For almost a year, she refused to talk to the author. Instead of interviewing Deborah, Skloot talked to other relatives and “dug through archives, church basements and the abandoned falling-down buildings where Henrietta went to school.”

Skloot talks about her persistence in this book. She called Deborah every few days and left messages on her answering machine. For example, she once reported, “Aunt Gladys is doing well after her stroke. She told me great stories about your mom.”

During a speech in Dallas in March 2011, Skloot said that Deborah was her greatest obstacle and her greatest inspiration. “I have never met anyone stronger than Deborah,” she emphasized.
Someone in the audience asked how Skloot kept from getting discouraged. “I am really stubborn,” she said.

Skloot and Deborah both were stubborn women—and Resolute Women. Sometimes we have to be stubborn to accomplish our goals.

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