The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 1, Chapter 5 : "Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside" (1951) | Summary



When Henrietta comes home, she doesn't tell anyone she is being treated for cancer until she needs X-ray treatments every day for a month. Until now she has been going down to Clover on weekends, taking Elsie with her and working in the fields. She never complains about feeling sick from any of the treatments. Her cousin Sadie goes dancing with her and some other cousins, saying, "Hennie made life come alive." Ethel, who is married to Henrietta's cousin Galen, disagrees. Because Galen is attracted to Henrietta, Ethel feels nothing but dislike for her.

Henrietta puts Elsie in Crownsville State Hospital because she can't take care of her and also her new baby, Joe. She visits Elsie once a week and is heartbroken to have to leave her. When Henrietta starts daily treatments for the cancer, she must tell her cousins because she needs help with the rest of the children at home. She says nothing is wrong with her, and the radium treatment appears to have made the tumors go away. However, two weeks after the X-ray treatments begin, Henrietta hemorrhages, and by the time the treatments have gone on for nearly a month, her stomach is burned black. Even though Dr. TeLinde has said patients whose fertility will be impaired by treatments should be told ahead of time, no one tells Henrietta she will no longer be able to have children until it is too late. Had she known, her records said, "she would not have gone through treatment." She is also diagnosed with gonorrhea, which Day transmitted to her. Henrietta begins to feel exhausted and sick, as if the cancer has begun to spread. She says, "Lord, it just feels like that blackness be spreadin all inside me."


Henrietta's stoicism enables her to work in the fields without complaining of her treatment's side effects. However, she is unable to remain stoic about leaving Elsie in the hospital—an overcrowded facility previously used as an insane asylum. Elsie has been diagnosed with "idiocy"; today she might be diagnosed with autism, since she is nonverbal and exhibits many of the signs of the disorder. She is also epileptic, and at the time treatments for epilepsy are still quite primitive. Skloot describes Henrietta and Elsie crying when they see each other; it's clear Elsie is deeply unhappy in the hospital. Losing Elsie, like losing her health, makes Henrietta feel she is losing control over her life. When others say Elsie will be better off in a hospital, Henrietta doesn't question it, but it is clear Elsie is faring worse there.

Neglecting to tell Henrietta she will be sterile after her cancer treatment is another example of the inadequate care black, poor patients receive. There is no mention of fertility on the consent form Henrietta signs. Another sign of the times: Day accuses Henrietta of infecting him with disease, yet the reverse is true. In Henrietta's day it is common for husbands to blame their wives for infections the men contract during their infidelities.

Sadie's description of Henrietta shows a side of her most news articles omit: an incredibly generous woman who loves to cook for everyone in her extended family, loves children and is good with them, and is a lot of fun to be around. She paints her nails and toenails bright red, goes dancing in jazz clubs with her friends, and is a delight to be around—unless one of her children is misbehaving, in which case she is a strict disciplinarian.

Henrietta says the blackness is spreading inside her; once again she seems to know more about what is happening inside her body than the doctors do. She has tried not to show her suffering, but she reaches a point when she can't hide it anymore, and she shows her cousins her blackened skin. She often is too exhausted to walk anywhere. These outward effects prove the cancer is advancing, although the doctors simply peer at her cervix to see if it looks clear.

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