The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 2, Chapter 15 : "Too Young to Remember" (1951–1965) | Summary



The family suffers after Henrietta dies. Sonny, Deborah, and Joe all contract tuberculosis. Lawrence goes into the army and is drafted for the Korean War. When he gets home after two years as a medic, he moves into his own house, so he never sees the horrors that befall his siblings. Henrietta's cousin Galen and his wife, Ethel, have moved into Day's house, purportedly so Ethel can care for the children. But rumor has it that Ethel moves in to have an affair with Day and to get back at Henrietta—to whom Galen was attracted—by torturing the children. She beats Joe every day, often tying him up in the basement and leaving him there; each morning she gives each child a biscuit—their only food for the day. She keeps all the cabinets locked so they can't get at the other food. She makes them do all the housework and shopping, as well as work the fields in the summer. They get no breaks and work from sunrise to sunset with no food. If they stop she beats them until they bleed. Joe, who suffers most, becomes violent.

Lawrence's new girlfriend, Bobbette, pulls the kids out of Day's house; they all move in with Lawrence. She raises them as her own, but she is unable to keep Galen from sexually abusing Deborah. When Day witnesses Galen punch Deborah in the face for fending off his advances, Day does nothing to stop him. Bobbette threatens Galen and Ethel and tells them to stay away from the kids. She also tells Deborah to stay in school and to avoid having sex—particularly with her cousins. Deborah has trouble hearing, as do her brothers, and this may because their parents were first cousins.

Deborah finds out her older sister, Elsie, was deaf and unable to speak and died in an institution when she was 15. Deborah wants Lawrence to tell her more about Elsie, but he cries when he thinks of her. Day tells Deborah she is too young to remember her mother, but her name is Henrietta Lacks.


Day doesn't make good on his promise to keep the children safe from harm. He turns a blind eye to the abuse. He is working two jobs, so he isn't around much, but he must know about the locked cabinets and the beatings. When he does nothing after Galen punches Deborah, it becomes clear he sees this behavior as normal, or at least acceptable. He may have seen similar things as a child, when he was exposed to sexual activity and drunken behavior in the warehouses.

Deborah becomes curious about her sister and her mother. She is reduced to tears when she thinks about what may have happened to Elsie in the institution; she also wants to understand what happened to her mother. Deborah is in an untenable situation with Galen; his attention make her feel special, but she fights his sexual advances as much as she can. She also must fight off cousins who want to touch her. Deborah is tempted to allow a man, her friend Cheetah, protect her, but Bobbette insists she do better. Deborah fears Bobbette will kill Galen if she finds out about his abuse, and then Bobbette will end up in jail. To prevent this Deborah remains secretive about the extent of Galen's abuse. Deborah yearns for a mother figure who can keep her completely safe; she wants to know more about who her mother was and thinks about how she could have protected her sister, Elsie.

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