The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 1, Chapter 2 : Clover (1920–1942) | Summary



Henrietta Lacks, born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920, is the ninth of 10 children. She has been sent to live with her Grandpa Tommy Lacks in Clover, Virginia, where Henrietta's father's family farms tobacco on land their ancestors worked as slaves. The house she grows up in is a four-room cabin, formerly a slave residence, called the "home-house," and she shares a bedroom with her cousin, David "Day" Lacks. Day was born on the home-house floor, with a 12-year-old cousin named Munchie serving not only as the midwife but as the person who saved his life when he was supposedly stillborn, according to a white doctor.

Henrietta and Day work the tobacco fields with their cousins, stopping school early to do so. Day stays in school until fourth grade, and Henrietta goes to school through sixth grade. Both children go to South Boston with Tommy to auction off the tobacco harvest, and tobacco farmers spend all their earnings on alcohol, card games, and prostitutes while the children sleep in the shadows of the warehouse basement, with the animals. Black farmers are relegated to the animal stalls at night, while white farmers sleep in private rooms.

One of Henrietta's cousins, Crazy Joe, tries to kill himself because Henrietta and Day—who have their first child, Lawrence, when Henrietta is 14—decide to marry. Their second child, Elsie, is born with epilepsy and neurosyphilis, and because of developmental disabilities, does not speak. Henrietta's sister Gladys opposes the marriage between Henrietta and Day, saying Henrietta could do better, but the two marry anyway, on April 10, 1941. By the end of the year, the demands of World War II mean steel mills are booming, and the Lacks's cousin, Fred Garret, comes back to Clover to tell Henrietta and Day to move to Turner Point, Maryland, so Day can work in the mills there. Soon Henrietta and the two children move up to be with Day, leaving the tobacco fields behind.


This chapter gives background on several aspects of Henrietta and Day's life together, affecting their social and economic status not only in Virginia but in Maryland as well. First, they both come from families who were enslaved at one point, and the land they work as children was given to Tommy Lacks by his slave ancestors. Rather than finishing school, each of them has to give up on education to work in the tobacco fields, manual work involving long and difficult hours. In Lacks Town, where the home-house is, everyone is related to everyone else; this may help explain the mental illness and other ailments that plague some of the Lackses.

Living in close quarters with cousins leads to sexual relations at an early age. Henrietta and Day, having shared a room, start having children very young. Although it is viewed as wrong to have "children out of wedlock," no one says anything about them, and they get married after they already have two children. Having children this early and with no medical care to speak of, Henrietta is pushed into adulthood very quickly, and her second child suffers from the lack of medical care. Because the Lackses are poor, they have almost no access to medical care or any information about family planning, and because Henrietta comes from the black side of the Lacks family, she is doubly disadvantaged.

Elsie's birth, marked not only by a blow to her head but also by complications involving neurosyphilis, is evidence of the lack of medical care, not only because of her birth injury, but also because Henrietta doesn't know she is carrying a disease that could affect her child. This disease later affects Henrietta's immune system, making it difficult for her to fight off the disease that eventually takes her life. Because cousins have frequent sexual relations and farmers engage prostitutes when they go to sell their wares, sexually transmitted diseases are rampant and affect children born to the Lacks family.

Moving to Turner Station without Henrietta gives Day opportunities to sleep with other women, which he does throughout their marriage. He contracts various sexually transmitted diseases and transmits them to Henrietta. Her medical records show treatments for diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea. Part of her reluctance to visit doctors might stem from a reluctance to admit to having such diseases and being branded as "loose."

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