The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 30 : Zakariyya (2000) | Summary



Skloot goes to meet Zakariyya, who is in an assisted living facility but is on probation for being aggressive with other residents. Skloot is nervous about talking with him, but Deborah promises to keep an eye on him and step in if he gets mean. Zakariyya and Skloot sit outside as he reads Skloot's magazine article and gets upset by a photo caption saying Sonny is the youngest of Henrietta's children. Skloot assures him she didn't write the caption and she knows he is the youngest. He tells Skloot so many people are making money from his mother's story and the HeLa cells but his family is "just as po' as po'." He gets agitated about George Gey taking the cells, and Deborah intervenes, bringing them up to Zakariyya's apartment. On the wall he has a picture of Henrietta and Day together, as well as one of Elsie. Zakariyya thinks the cancer in his mother's cells made him so mean, but Deborah believes it is more than that. She says, "That evil woman Ethel taught him hate." Zakariyya is angry with Ethel and with his father as well, for allowing the abuse and for not letting him know where his mother is buried. About the HeLa cells, he says, "Maybe her cells have done good for some people, but I woulda rather had my mother." He thinks he would have grown up to be a better person then. Deborah decides to give him the print of the cells, which makes him weepy. Skloot tells him about Christoph Lengauer, and Zakariyya agrees to go see him.


Skloot has good reason to be afraid of Zakariyya, who has been in jail for murder and has a hard time controlling his temper. But Deborah is willing to listen to what Zakariyya has to say, because she knows how terrible he was treated as a child and believes allowing him to let it out is the healthiest thing for him. The gentleness with which Deborah treats Zakariyya shows how close the family is, and how important it is for Deborah to include others in her family as she finds out more information about her mother. But Deborah is also very protective of Skloot, whom she has started to call "Boo," realizing Deborah is her daughter's age. Skloot is slowly becoming part of the family.

Deborah's gift of the print has a strong effect on Zakariyya. He becomes emotional and speaks softly, which is unusual for him. He is also suddenly willing to go visit a lab at Johns Hopkins because the person he will visit respects what his mother did for science and is sorry the Lacks family has been treated so poorly. This gesture of recognition validates Zakariyya's concerns and feelings. Deborah's mention of the abuse is also important for understanding Zakariyya's personality and his anger. Zakariyya has more reasons to be angry than anyone because of the abuse he suffered from Ethel. His response to the gift is gentle in part because Deborah knows what he has been through and understands his anger. She makes him feel important by giving him the print.

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