The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 35 : Soul Cleansing (2001) | Summary



Deborah and Skloot go to the old home-house, where Deborah asks Skloot to take photos of her with the picture of Elsie and the house as background. She also asks for a photo of her, Elsie's photo, and her mother's grave, or where she thinks her mother is likely buried. Deborah is happy to finally be there, but she is suffering from all-over hives and is "swigging" Benadryl to keep them down. They visit her aunt Gladys, and Deborah's cousin Gary comes by. Deborah shows him the photo of Elsie with the hands around her neck, and Skloot encourages her to show the other photo instead. Gary, who has been in touch with Skloot for years about the case, understands Deborah is emotional because she has just seen her mother's cells and found out about her sister's fate.

Gary tries to calm Deborah, but Deborah keeps talking rapidly about everything researchers have done to the HeLa cells as if these things were done to her mother. Gary realizes he has to intervene. He begins singing, puts his hands on Deborah, and starts to pray, saying the Lord is giving him words to say to her. Skloot feels terrible, thinking, "I did this to her," and Gary asks God to take away the burden of the cells from Deborah and give them to Skloot, who he thinks has been sent to take the burden. Deborah recovers her wits and is thankful for Gary's help. She and Skloot go out into the rain together under her raincoat, the rain serving as "soul cleansing."


Deborah's mania has reached a point where both Skloot and Gary know she is about to blow up or have a stroke. Gary's contact with Skloot before this meeting helps him understand where Skloot and Deborah are in their relationship with each other. He also knows preaching and singing, not talking and reassuring, are the way for him to get through to Deborah. Spirituality is as important as family in the lives of Henrietta's descendants. Gary takes care of Deborah; he knows her situation better than anyone else does.

The intervention has a strong impact on Skloot, too. Although she is an atheist, she feels Gary's power as he preaches and sings, and she sees it take hold of Deborah. But Skloot doesn't feel comfortable with the role Gary wants her to assume: taking responsibility for the HeLa cells so Deborah doesn't have to. But Skloot is the only person who can handle the tough emotions the research brings up. Deborah is overwhelmed, and Skloot realizes it is her responsibility to take care of Deborah; Skloot is the one who led Deborah to this information.

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