- A Better Life through Science?
There is a moment in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that brought tears to my eyes. Henrietta Lacks is the woman whose cervical tumor gave rise to a cell line—brand named HeLa—that became quite useful in many important lines of biomedical research. When the book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, tracks down Lacks’s descendents in a Baltimore ghetto, they are not doing well. Zakariyya, the youngest of her children, has had the toughest life. He was born after his mother’s cancer was already widespread, and she died shortly after his birth. He has drifted in and out of the military and in and out of jail. A moody and violent man, he once killed a man over a girl by stabbing him in the chest with a kitchen knife. Skloot is terrified at the prospect of meeting him: “I hoped to see the age of thirty, and it seemed like being the first white person to show up at Zakariyya’s apartment asking questions about his mother might interfere with that” (p. 241). But Deborah, the fourth of Henrietta’s five children and Skloot’s confidant, insists. They go together to the housing project where he lives.
There, Zakariyya and Skloot sit on a bench. Her questions about his mother stoke his fury:
I believe what them doctors did was wrong. They lied to us for twenty-five years, kept them cells from us, they gonna say them things donated by our mother. Them cells was stolen! Those fools come take blood from us sayin they need to run tests and not tell us that all these years they done profitized off of her. That’s like hanging out a sign on our backs saying, “I’m a sucker, kick me in my butt.” They probably think by what our mother’s cells had did that we well off. I hope George Grey [the scientist who first grew the cells] burn in hell. If he wasn’t dead already, I’d take a black pitchfork and stick it up his ass. I hope he burn in hell. If he were right here now, I’d kill him dead. The doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people. But it didn’t do no good for her, and it didn’t do no good for us. If me and my sister need something, we can’t even go see a doctor cause we can’t afford it.(p. 246)
Deborah interrupts the tirade and says to Zakariyya, “I got something I want to give you.” From the back of her jeep, she takes out a photo that Skloot has managed to get for her. It is a large color photograph of the chromosomes in a HeLa cell. Zakariyya stares at it.
“These supposed to be her cells?” he asked.
Deborah nodded. “See where it stained bright colors. That’s where all her DNA at.”
Zakariyya raised the picture to eye level and stared in silence. Deborah rubbed her hand on his back and whispered, “I think if anybody deserve that, it’s you, Zakariyya.”
Zakariyya turned the picture to see it from every angle. “You want me to have this,” he said, finally.
“Yeah, like you to have that. Put it on your wall,” Deborah said.
Zakariyya’s eyes filled with tears. For a moment, the dark circles seemed to vanish. He put his arm on Deborah’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said, in a small voice unlike anything we’d heard that day. He put his arm on Deborah’s shoulder. “Hey, thanks.” . . . Then he walked slowly back to his building, holding the picture in front of him at eye level, seeing nothing ahead but the DNA in his mother’s cells.(p. 249) [End Page 22]
My eyes brimmed, too. In that moment, we see the abstractions of genetics, race, and class dissolve. We see how Zakariyya’s angst and pain are really about the wrenching loneliness of a grown-up boy who had lost his mother. But not just that. The scene also captures the strange and unexpected...