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The definition of Immortality

maht91's picture

 I was very touched by the book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks b Rebecca Skloot, and the details it included about the challenges and pains of the Lacks family. The whole question about the title of the book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and its accuracy describing the concept of immortality had captured my attention throughout the book. The different people presented in the book, including Henrietta’s family, had their own strong connection to the word immortality and the presence of Henrietta among them or in this material life.

I was filled with great sadness reading the reactions of the Lacks family about their mother, wife, and grandmother. The testimonies of Deborah had left me speechless; I could not relate how hard it is for her to deal with her mother dying when she was young and her sister Elsie being sent to the hospital. In my opinion, Deborah clearly focused her attention more on her mother, as a person, not the cells. I feel that maybe she has given up the idea that her mother is immortal in these cells, or maybe not. However, throughout the book, Deborah changes her view about the way she sees her mother. She talks about her in terms of the cells. Deborah is confused about what her mother’s cells mean to her. She said on page 289: “They injected my mother’s cells with all kinds of, uh, poisons and stuff to test if they’d kill people…You know they shot her cell into murderers in prison?” And other times, she talks about her mother as a person she never had when she said I never got the attention or the care from a mother, but she still acknowledges that she did have a mother (page 288).

It is interesting to also see how other members in the family define immortality differently. In one of the chapters it is clear that Deborah and Gary define or look at immortality in terms of religion and the name of Jesus, while for scientists, immortality is the ability of the cells to keep growing non-stop. The contrast between what the Lacks family sees and what the other scientists see makes the story of Henrietta Lacks hard to read.  Gary looks at the cells as Henrietta when he says on page 295: “Those cells are Henrietta.” He also adds the religious aspect to it when he reads a verse from the bible: “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die.”

For Deborah and Zakariyya, the cells did also give them a glance into their mother, so for them the cells did represent their mother when on page 265, the author says: “it was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.”

Yet Deborah has her own views as well about immortality when it comes to her experiencing immortality, when she says on page 310: “…I don’t want to be immortal if it mean living forever…”

On the other hand, from the scientists’ point of view, Henrietta’s cells have proven to be of great importance to the advancement of medical research. I can’t feel angry towards them but I can’t feel satisfied or happy with what they have done because of the pains and anger that filled the hearts of the Lacks family. The scientists do acknowledge the cells as only cells; they don’t look at them in the context of a person’s life, when one of the scientists said on page 215: “HeLa have become a separate species.”



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