As Deborah and the boys and I walked from the car toward the front door, Deborahcleared her throat loudly and nodded toward a hulk of a man hobbling from the building inkhaki pants. He was five feet eight inches tall and weighed just under four hundred pounds.He wore bright blue orthopedic sandals, a faded Bob Marley T-shirt, and a white baseball hatthat said, HAM, BACON, SAUSAGE.“Hey Zakariyya!” Deborah yelled, waving her hands above her head.Zakariyya stopped walking and looked at us. His black hair was buzzed close to his head,his face smooth and youthful like Deborah’s except for his brow, which was creased from dec-ades of scowling. Beneath thick plastic glasses, his eyes were swollen, bloodshot, and sur-rounded by deep dark circles. One hand leaned on a metal cane identical to Deborah’s, theother held a large paper plate with at least a pint of ice cream on it, probably more. Under hisarm, he’d folded several newspaper ad sections.“You told me you’d be here in an hour,” he snapped.“Uh … yeah … sorry,” Deborah mumbled. “There wasn’t any traffic.”“I’m not ready yet,” he said, then grabbed the bundle of newspaper from under his armand smacked Davon hard across the face with it. “Why’d you bring them?” he yelled. “Youknow I don’t like no kids around.”Deborah grabbed Davon’s head and pressed it to her side, rubbing his cheek and stam-mering that their parents had to work and no one else could take them, but she swore they’dbe quiet, wouldn’t they? Zakariyya turned and walked to a bench in front of his buildingwithout saying another word.Deborah tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to another bench on the opposite side ofthe building’s entrance, a good fifteen feet from Zakariyya. She whispered, “Sit over here withme,” then yelled, “Come on boys, why don’t you show Miss Rebecca how fast you can run!”Alfred and Davon raced around the concrete cul-de-sac in front of Zakariyya’s building,yelling, “Look at me! Look at me! Take my picture!”Zakariyya sat eating his ice cream and reading his ads like we didn’t exist. Deborahglanced at him every few seconds, then back to me, then the grandkids, then Zakariyyaagain. At one point she crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out at Zakariyya, but he didn’tsee.Finally, Zakariyya spoke.“You got the magazine?” he asked, staring into the street.Zakariyya had told Deborah he wanted to read the Johns Hopkins Magazine story I wroteabout their mother before he’d talk to me, and he wanted me sitting next to him while he readit. Deborah nudged me toward his bench, then jumped up saying she and the boys would waitupstairs for us, because it was better if we talked outside in the nice weather rather than be-
ing cooped up alone inside. It was in the nineties with dizzying humidity, but neither of uswanted me going in that apartment alone with him.“I’ll be watching from that window up there,” Deborah whispered. She pointed severalfloors up. “If anything funny starts, just wave and I’ll come down.”As Deborah and the boys walked inside the building, I sat beside Zakariyya and startedtelling him why I was there. Without looking at me or saying a word, he took the magazinefrom my hand and began reading. My heart pounded each time he sighed, which was often.“Damn!” he yelled suddenly, pointing at a photo caption that said Sonny was Henrietta’syoungest son. “He ain’t youngest! I am!” He slammed the magazine down and glared at it as Isaid of course I knew he was the youngest, and the magazine did the captions, not me.“I think my birth was a miracle,” he said. “I believe that my mother waited to go to the doc-tor till after I was born because she wanted to have me. A child born like that, to a mother fullof tumors and sick as she was, and I ain’t suffered no kinda physical harm from it? It’s pos-sible all this is God’s handiwork.”He looked up at me for the first time since I’d arrived, then reached up and turned a knobon his hearing aid.“I switched it off so I didn’t have to listen to them fool children,” he said, adjusting thevolume until it stopped squealing. “I believe what them doctors did was wrong. They lied to usfor twenty-five years, kept them cells from us, then they gonna say them things donated byour mother. Them cells was stolen! Those fools come take blood from us sayin they need torun tests and not tell us that all these years they done profitized off of her? That’s like hanginga sign on our backs saying, ‘I’m a sucker, kick me in my butt.’ People don’t know we just aspo’ as po’. They probably think by what our mother cells had did that we well off. I hopeGeorge Grey burn in hell. If he wasn’t dead already, I’d take a black pitchfork and stick it uphis ass.”Without thinking, almost as a nervous reflex I said, “It’s George Gey, not Grey.”He snapped back, “Who cares what his name is? He always tellin people my mothername Helen Lane!” Zakariyya stood, towering over me, yelling, “What he did was wrong!Dead wrong. You leave that stuff up to God. People say maybe them takin her cells andmakin them live forever to create medicines was what God wanted. But I don’t think so. If Hewants to provide a disease cure, He’d provide a cure of his own, it’s not for man to tamperwith. And you don’t lie and clone people behind their backs. That’s wrong—it’s one of themost violating parts of this whole thing. It’s like me walking in your bathroom while you inthere with your pants down. It’s the highest degree of disrespect. That’s why I say I hope heburn in hell. If he were here right now, I’d kill him dead.”
Suddenly, Deborah appeared beside me with a glass of water. “Just thought you might bethirsty,” she said, her voice stern like What the hell is going on here, because she’d seen Za-kariyya standing over me yelling.“Everything okay out here?” she asked. “Y’all still reportin?”“Yeah,” Zakariyya said. But Deborah put her hand on his shoulder, saying maybe it wastime we all went inside.As we walked toward the front door of his building, Zakariyya turned to me. “Them doctorssay her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people. But it didn’t do no goodfor her, and it don’t do no good for us. If me and my sister need something, we can’t even gosee a doctor cause we can’t afford it. Only people that can get any good from my mother cellsis the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cells—they get rich off our mother andwe got nothing.” He shook his head. “All those damn people didn’t deserve her help as far asI’m concerned.” Z akariyya’s apartment was a small studio with a sliver of a kitchen where Deborah and theboys had been watching us from a window. Zakariyya’s belongings could have fit into theback of a pickup truck: a small Formica table, two wooden chairs, a full-sized mattress with noframe, a clear plastic bed skirt, and a set of navy sheets. No blankets, no pillows. Across fromhis bed sat a small television with a VCR balanced on top.Zakariyya’s walls were bare except for a row of photocopied pictures. The one of Henriettawith her hands on her hips hung next to the only other known picture of her: in it, she standswith Day in a studio sometime in the forties, their backs board-straight, eyes wide and staringahead, mouths frozen in awkward non-smiles. Someone had retouched the photo and paintedHenrietta’s face an unnatural yellow. Beside it was a breathtaking picture of his sister Elsie,standing in front of a white porch railing next to a basket of dried flowers. She’s about sixyears old, in a plaid jumper dress, white T-shirt, bobby socks and shoes, her hair loose fromits braids, right hand gripping something against her chest. Her mouth hangs slightly open,brow creased and worried, both eyes looking to the far right of the frame, where Deborah ima-gines her mother was standing.Zakariyya pointed to several diplomas hanging near the photos, for welding, refrigeration,diesel. “I got so many damn diplomas,” he said, “but jobs pass me by because of my criminalrecord and everything, so I still got all kind of troubles.” Zakariyya had been in and out of
trouble with the law since he got out of jail, with various charges for assault and drunk anddisorderly conduct.“I think them cells is why I’m so mean,” he said. “I had to start fightin before I was even aperson. That’s the only way I figure I kept them cancer cells from growin all over me while Iwas inside my mother. I started fightin when I was just a baby in her womb, and I neverknown nothin different.”Deborah thinks it was more than that. “That evil woman Ethel taught him hate,” she said.“Beat every drop of it into his little body—put the hate of a murderer into him.”Zakariyya snorted when he heard Ethel’s name. “Livin with that abusive crazy woman wasworse than livin in prison!” he yelled, his eyes narrowing to slits. “It’s hard to talk about whatshe did to me. When I get to thinkin about them stories, make me want to kill her, and myfather. Cause of him I don’t know where my mother buried. When that fool die, I don’t wannaknow where he buried neither. He need to get to a hospital? Let him catch a cab! Same withthe rest of the so-called family who buried her. I don’t never wanna see them niggers nomore.”Deborah cringed. “See,” she said, looking at me. “Everybody else never let him talk be-cause he speak things the way he want to. I say let him talk, even if we be upset by what he’ssayin. He’s mad, gotta get it out, otherwise he gonna keep on keeping it, and it’s gonna blowhim right on up.”“I’m sorry,” Zakariyya said. “Maybe her cells have done good for some people, but Iwoulda rather had my mother. If she hadn’t been sacrificed, I mighta growed up to be a lotbetter person than I am now.”Deborah stood from the bed where she’d been sitting with her grandsons’ heads on herlap. She walked over to Zakariyya and put her arm around his waist. “Come on walk us out tothe car,” she said. “I got something I want to give you.”Outside, Deborah threw open the back of her jeep and rummaged through blankets,clothes, and papers until she turned around holding the photo of Henrietta’s chromosomesthat Christoph Lengauer had given her. She smoothed her fingers across the glass, thenhanded it to Zakariyya. “These supposed to be her cells?” he asked.Deborah nodded. “See where it stained bright colors? That’s where all her DNA at.”Zakariyya raised the picture to eye level and stared in silence. Deborah rubbed her handon his back and whispered, “I think if anybody deserve that, it’s you, Zakariyya.”Zakariyya turned the picture to see it from every angle. “You want me to have this?” hesaid finally.
“Yeah, like you to have that, put it on your wall,” Deborah said.Zakariyya’s eyes filled with tears. For a moment the dark circles seemed to vanish, andhis body relaxed.“Yeah,” he said, in a soft voice unlike anything we’d heard that day. He put his arm on De-borah’s shoulder. “Hey, thanks.”Deborah wrapped her arms as far around his waist as she could reach, and squeezed.“The doctor who gave me that said he been working with our mother for his whole career andhe never knew anything about where they came from. He said he was sorry.”Zakariyya looked at me. “What’s his name?”I told him, then said, “He wants to meet you and show you the cells.”Zakariyya nodded, his arm still around Deborah’s shoulder. “Okay,” he said. “That soundsgood. Let’s go for it.” Then he walked slowly back to his building, holding the picture in front ofhim at eye level, seeing nothing ahead but the DNA in his mother’s cells.The Immortal life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks 31Hela, Goddess of Death T he day after I got home from our marathon visit, a man Deborah didn’t know called her ask-ing if she’d ride on a HeLa float in a black rodeo. He told her to be careful of people looking tofind out where Henrietta’s grave was because they might want to steal her bones, since herbody was so valuable to science. Deborah told the man she’d been talking to me for a book,and he warned her not to talk to white people about her story. She panicked and called herbrother Lawrence, who told her the man was right, so she left me a message saying shecouldn’t talk to me anymore. But by the time I got the message and called her back, she’dchanged her mind.
“Everybody always yellin, ‘Racism! Racism! That white man stole that black woman’scells! That white man killed that black woman!’ That’s crazy talk,” she told me. “We all blackand white and everything else—this isn’t a race thing. There’s two sides to the story, andthat’s what we want to bring out. Nothing about my mother is truth if it’s about wantin to fry theresearchers. It’s not about punish the doctors or slander the hospital. I don’t want that.”Deborah and I would go on like this for a full year. Each time I visited, we’d walk the Bal-timore Harbor, ride boats, read science books together, and talk about her mother’s cells. Wetook Davon and Alfred to the Maryland Science Center, where they saw a twenty-foot wallcovered floor to ceiling with a picture of cells stained neon green and magnified under a mi-croscope. Davon grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the wall of cells, yelling, “Miss Re-becca! Miss Rebecca! Is that Great-Grandma Henrietta?” People nearby stared as I said,“Actually, they might be,” and Davon pranced around singing, “Grandma Henrietta famous!Grandma Henrietta famous!”At one point, as Deborah and I walked along the cobblestone streets of Fell’s Point late atnight, she turned to me and without prompting said, “I’ll bring them medical records out on myterms and when I think is right.” She told me that the night she tackled her mother’s medicalrecords and ran home, she’d thought I was trying to steal them. She said, “I just need some-body I can trust, somebody that will talk to me and don’t keep me in the dark.” She asked meto promise I wouldn’t hide anything from her. I promised I wouldn’t.Between trips, Deborah and I would spend hours each week talking over the phone. Oc-casionally someone would convince her she couldn’t trust a white person to tell her mother’sstory, and she’d call me in a panic, demanding to know whether Hopkins was paying me toget information from her like people said. Other times she’d get suspicious about money, likewhen a genetics textbook publisher called offering her $300 for permission to print the photoof Henrietta. When Deborah said they had to give her $25,000 and they said no, she calledme demanding to know who was paying me to write my book, and how much I was going togive her.Each time I told her the same thing: I hadn’t sold the book yet, so at that point I was pay-ing for my research with student loans and credit cards. And regardless, I couldn’t pay her forher story. Instead, I said, if the book ever got published, I would set up a scholarship fund fordescendants of Henrietta Lacks. On Deborah’s good days, she was excited about the idea.“Education is everything,” she’d say. “If I’d had more of it, maybe this whole thing about mymother wouldn’t have been so hard. That’s why I’m always tellin Davon, ‘Keep on studyin,learnin all you can.’” But on bad days, she’d think I was lying and cut me off again.Those moments never lasted long, and they always ended with Deborah asking me topromise yet again that I’d never hide anything from her. Eventually I told her she could even
come with me when I did some of my research if she wanted, and she said, “I want to go tocenters and colleges and all that. Learning places. And I want to get the medical record andautopsy report on my sister.”I began sending her stacks of information I uncovered about her mother—scientific journalarticles, photos of the cells, even an occasional novel, poem, or short story based on HeLa. Inone, a mad scientist used HeLa as a biological weapon to spread rabies; another featuredyellow house paint made of HeLa cells that could talk. I sent Deborah news of exhibits whereseveral artists projected Henrietta’s cells on walls, and one displayed a heart-shaped cultureshe’d grown by fusing her own cells with HeLa. With each packet, I sent notes explainingwhat each thing meant, clearly labeling what was fiction and what wasn’t, and warning herabout anything that might upset her.Each time Deborah got a package, she’d call to talk about what she read, and graduallyher panicked calls grew less frequent. Soon, after she realized I was the same age as herdaughter, she started calling me “Boo,” and insisted I buy a cell phone because she worriedabout me driving the interstates alone. Each time I talked to her brothers she’d yell at them,only half joking, saying, “Don’t you try to take my reporter! Go get your own!”When we met for our first trip, Deborah got out of her car wearing a black ankle-lengthskirt, black sandals with heels, and a black shirt covered with an open black cardigan. Afterwe hugged, she said, “I got on my reporter clothes!” She pointed at my black button-up shirt,black pants, and black boots and said, “You always wear black, so I figured I should dress likeyou so I blend in.”For each trip, Deborah filled her jeep floor to ceiling with every kind of shoes and clothesshe might need (“You never know when the weather gonna change”). She brought pillowsand blankets in case we got stranded somewhere, an oscillating fan in case she got hot, plusall her haircutting and manicure equipment from beauty school, boxes of videotapes, musicCDs, office supplies, and every document she had related to Henrietta. We always took twocars because Deborah didn’t trust me enough to ride with me yet. I’d follow behind, watchingher black driving cap bop up and down to her music. Sometimes, when we rounded curves orstopped at lights, I could hear her belting out, “Born to Be Wild,” or her favorite William Bellsong, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.”Eventually, Deborah let me come to her house. It was dark, with thick closed curtains,black couches, dim lights, and deep brown wood-paneled walls lined with religious scenes onblacklight posters. We spent all our time in her office, where she slept most nights instead ofthe bedroom she shared with Pullum—they fought a lot, she told me, and needed somepeace.
Her room was about six feet wide, with a twin bed against one wall and a small desk dir-ectly across from it, nearly touching the bed. On top of the desk, stacked beneath reams ofpaper, boxes of envelopes, letters, and bills was her mother’s Bible, its pages warped, crack-ing with age, and spotted with mold, her mother’s and sister’s hair still tucked inside.Deborah’s walls were covered floor to ceiling with colorful photos of bears, horses, dogs,and cats she’d torn from calendars, as well as nearly a dozen bright felt squares she andDavon had made by hand. One was yellow with THANK YOU JESUS FOR LOVING ME writ-ten in big letters; another said PROPHECIES FULFILLED and was covered with coins madeof tinfoil. A shelf at the head of her bed was crammed with videotapes of infomercials: for aJacuzzi, an RV, a trip to Disneyland. Nearly every night Deborah would say, “Hey Davon, youwant to go on vacation?” When he nodded yes she’d ask, “Where you want to go, Disneyland,spa, or RV trip?” They’d watched each tape many times.At the end of one visit, I showed Deborah how to get online with an old computersomeone had given her years earlier, then taught her to use Google. Soon she started takingAmbien—a narcotic sleep aid—and sitting up nights in a drugged haze, listening to WilliamBell on headphones, Googling “Henrietta” and “HeLa.”Davon referred to Deborah’s Ambien as “dummy medicine,” because it made her wanderthe house in the middle of the night like a zombie, talking nonsense and trying to cook break-fast by chopping cereal with a butcher knife. When he stayed with her, Davon often woke upin the middle of the night to find Deborah sleeping at her computer, head down and hands onthe keyboard. He’d just push her off the chair into bed and tuck her in. When Davon wasn’tthere, Deborah often woke up with her face on the desk, surrounded by a mountain of pagesthat spilled from her printer onto the floor: scientific articles, patent applications, randomnewspaper articles and blog posts, including many that had no connection to her mother butused the words Henrietta or lacks or Hela.And, surprisingly, there were many of the latter. Hela is the native name for the country ofSri Lanka, where activists carry signs demanding “Justice for the Hela Nation.” It’s the nameof a defunct German tractor company and an award-winning shih-tzu dog; it’s a seaside resortin Poland, an advertising firm in Switzerland, a Danish boat where people gather to drinkvodka and watch films, and a Marvel comic book character who appears in several onlinegames: a seven-foot-tall, half-black, half-white goddess who’s part dead and part alive, with“immeasurable” intelligence, “superhuman” strength, “godlike” stamina and durability, and fivehundred pounds of solid muscle. She’s responsible for plagues, sickness, and catastrophes;she’s immune to fire, radiation, toxins, corrosives, disease, and aging. She can also levitateand control people’s minds.
When Deborah found pages describing Hela the Marvel character, she thought they weredescribing her mother, since each of Hela’s traits in some way matched what Deborah hadheard about her mother’s cells. But it turned out the sci-fi Hela was inspired by the ancientNorse goddess of death, who lives trapped in a land between hell and the living. Deborahfigured that goddess was based on her mother too.One day, around three o’clock in the morning, my phone rang as I slept, feverish with flu.Deborah yelled on the other end, “I told you London cloned my mother!” Her voice was slowand slurred from Ambien.She’d Googled HeLa, clone, London, and DNA, and gotten thousands of hits with sum-maries like this, from an online chat-room discussion about HeLa cells: “Each contains a ge-netic blueprint for constructing Henrietta Lacks…. Can we clone her?” Her mother’s nameshowed up under headlines like CLONING and HUMAN FARMING, and she thought thosethousands of hits were proof that scientists had cloned thousands of Henriettas.“They didn’t clone her,” I said. “They just made copies of her cells. I promise.”“Thanks Boo, I’m sorry I woke you,” she cooed. “But if they cloning her cells, does thatmean someday they could clone my mother?”“No,” I said. “Good night.”After several weeks of finding Deborah unconscious, with her phone in her hand, or faceon the keyboard, Davon told his mother he needed to stay at his grandmother’s house all thetime, to take care of her after she took her medicine.Deborah took an average of fourteen pills a day, which cost her about $150 each monthafter her husband’s insurance, plus Medicaid and Medicare. “I think it’s eleven prescriptions,”she told me once, “maybe twelve. I can’t keep track, they change all the time.” One for acidreflux went from $8 one month to $135 the next, so she stopped taking it, and at one point herhusband’s insurance canceled her prescription coverage, so she started cutting her pills inhalf to make them last. When the Ambien ran out, she stopped sleeping until she got more.She told me her doctors started prescribing the drugs in 1997 after what she referred to as“the Gold Digger Situation,” which she refused to tell me about. That was when she’d appliedfor Social Security disability, she said, which she only got after several court appearances.“Social Security people said everything was all in my head,” she told me. “They ended upsending me to about five psychiatrist and a bunch of doctors. They say I’m paranoia, I’mschizophrenia, I’m nervous. I got anxiety, depression, degenerating kneecaps, bursitis, bulgeddiscs in my back, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, cholesterol. I don’t know all ofwhat’s wrong with me by name,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone do. All I know is, when I getin that mood and I get frightened, I hide.”
That’s what happened the first time I called, she said. “I was all excited, sayin I want abook written about my mother. Then things just started going in my head and I got scared.“I know my life could be better and I wish it was,” she told me. “When people hear aboutmy mother cells they always say, ‘Oh y’all could be rich! Y’all gotta sue John Hopkin, y’allgotta do this and that.’ But I don’t want that.” She laughed. “Truth be told, I can’t get mad atscience, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! Ican’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so Idon’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells prob ably helpedmake.” E ventually, as Deborah grew comfortable with the Internet, she started using it for more thanterrifying herself in the middle of the night. She made lists of questions for me and printed art-icles about research done on people without their knowledge or consent—from a vaccine trialin Uganda to the testing of drugs on U.S. troops. She started organizing information into care-fully labeled folders: one about cells, another about cancer, another full of definitions of legalterms like statute of limitations and patient confidentiality. At one point she stumbled on anarticle called “What’s Left of Henrietta Lacks?” that infuriated her by saying Henrietta hadprobably gotten HPV because she “slept around.” “Them people don’t know nothing about science,” she told me. “Just havin HPV don’t meanmy mother was loose. Most people got it—I read about it on the Internet.”Then, in April 2001, nearly a year after we first met, Deborah called to tell me that “thepresident of a cancer club” had called wanting to put her on stage at an event honoring hermother. She was worried, she said, and she wanted me to find out if he was legit.He turned out to be Franklin Salisbury Jr., president of the National Foundation for CancerResearch. He’d decided to hold the foundation’s 2001 conference in Henrietta’s honor. OnSeptember 13, seventy top cancer researchers from around the world would gather to presenttheir research, he said, and hundreds of people would attend, including the mayor of Wash-ington, D.C., and the surgeon general. He hoped Deborah would speak there, and accept aplaque in her mother’s honor.“I understand that the family feels very abused,” he told me. “We can’t give them money,but I’m hoping this conference will set the historic record straight and help make them feel
better, even if we are fifty years late.”When I explained this to Deborah, she was ecstatic. It would be just like Pattillo’s confer-ence in Atlanta, she said, only bigger. She immediately started planning what she’d wear andasking questions about what the researchers would be talking about. And she worried againabout whether she’d be safe on stage, or whether there’d be a sniper waiting for her.“What if they think I’m going to cause trouble about them taking the cells or something?”“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” I said. “The scientists are excited to meet you.”Besides, I told her, it was going to be in a federal building with high security.“Okay,” she said. “But first I want to go see my mother cells, so I know what everybody’stalkin about at the conference.”When we hung up I went to call Christoph Lengauer, the cancer researcher who’d givenDeborah the painted chromosome picture, but before I could dig out his number, my phonerang again. It was Deborah, crying. I thought she was panicking, changing her mind aboutseeing the cells. But instead she wailed, “Oh my baby! Lord help him, they got him with finger-prints on a pizza box.”Her son Alfred and a friend had been on a crime spree, robbing at least five liquor storesat gunpoint. Security cameras caught Alfred on tape yelling at a store clerk and waving abottle of Wild Irish Rose above his head. He’d stolen a twelve-ounce bottle of beer, one bottleof Wild Irish Rose, two packs of Newport cigarettes, and about a hundred dollars in cash. Thepolice arrested him in front of his house and threw him in the car while his son, Little Alfred,watched from the lawn.“I still want to go see them cells,” Deborah said, sobbing. “I ain’t gonna let this stop mefrom learning about my mother and my sister.”The Immortal life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks 32“All That’s My Mother”
B y the time Deborah was ready to see her mother’s cells for the first time, Day couldn’t come.He’d said many times that he wanted to see his wife’s cells before he died, but he was eighty-five, in and out of the hospital with heart and blood pressure problems, and he’d just lost a legto diabetes. Sonny had to work, and Lawrence said he wanted to talk to a lawyer about suingHopkins instead of seeing the cells, which he referred to as “a multibillion-dollar corporation.”So on May 11, 2001, Deborah, Zakariyya, and I agreed to meet at the Hopkins Jesusstatue to go see Henrietta’s cells. Earlier that morning, Deborah had warned me thatLawrence was convinced Hopkins was paying me to gather information about the family. He’dalready called her several times that day saying he was coming to get the materials she’d col-lected related to her mother. So Deborah locked them in her office, took the key with her, andcalled me saying, “Don’t tell him where you are or go see him without me.”When I arrived at the Jesus, it stood just as it had when Henrietta visited it some fiftyyears earlier, looming more than ten feet tall beneath a tiered dome, pupil-less marble eyesstaring straight ahead, arms outstretched and draped in stone robes. At Jesus’s feet, peoplehad thrown piles of change, wilted daisies, and two roses—one fresh with thorns, the othercloth with plastic dewdrops. His body was gray-brown and dingy, except for his right foot,which glowed a polished white from decades of hands rubbing it for luck.Deborah and Zakariyya weren’t there, so I leaned against a far wall, watching a doctor ingreen scrubs kneel before the statue and pray as others brushed its toe on their way into thehospital without looking or breaking stride. Several people stopped to write prayers in over-sized books resting on wooden pedestals near the statue: “Dear Heavenly Father: If it is yourwill let me speak to Eddie this one last time.” “Please help my sons conquer their addictions.”“I ask you to provide my husband and I with jobs.” “Lord thank you for giving me anotherchance.”I walked to the statue, my heels echoing on marble, and rested my hand on its bigtoe—the closest I’d ever come to praying. Suddenly Deborah was beside me, whispering, “Ihope He’s got our back on this one.” Her voice was utterly calm, her usual nervous laughgone.I told her I did too.Deborah closed her eyes and began to pray. Then Zakariyya appeared behind us and letout a deep laugh.“He can’t do nothin to help you now!” Zakariyya yelled. He’d gained weight since I’d seenhim last, and his heavy gray wool pants and thick blue down coat made him look even bigger.The black plastic arms of his glasses were so tight they’d etched deep grooves into his head,
but he couldn’t afford new ones.He looked at me and said, “That sister of mine, she crazy for not wantin money from themcells.”Deborah rolled her eyes and hit his leg with her cane. “Be good or you can’t come see thecells,” she said.Zakariyya stopped laughing and followed as we headed toward Christoph Lengauer’s lab.Minutes later, Christoph walked toward us through the lobby of his building, smiling, hand out-stretched. He was in his mid-thirties, with perfectly worn denim jeans, a blue plaid shirt, andshaggy light brown hair. He shook my hand and Deborah’s, then reached for Zakariyya’s. ButZakariyya didn’t move.“Okay!” Christoph said, looking at Deborah. “It must be pretty hard for you to come into alab at Hopkins after what you’ve been through. I’m really glad to see you here.” He spoke withan Austrian accent, which made Deborah wiggle her eyebrows at me when he turned to pressthe elevator call button. “I thought we’d start in the freezer room so I can show you how westore your mother’s cells, then we can go look at them alive under a microscope.”“That’s wonderful,” Deborah said, as though he’d just said something entirely ordinary. In-side the elevator, she pressed against Zakariyya, one hand leaning on her cane, the othergripping her tattered dictionary. When the doors opened, we followed Christoph single filethrough a long narrow hall, its walls and ceiling vibrating with a deep whirring sound that grewlouder as we walked. “That’s the ventilation system,” Christoph yelled. “It sucks all the chem-icals and cells outside so we don’t have to breathe them in.”He threw open the door to his lab with a sweeping ta-da motion and waved us inside.“This is where we keep all the cells,” he yelled over a deafening mechanical hum that madeDeborah’s and Zakariyya’s hearing aids squeal. Zakariyya’s hand shot up and tore his fromhis ear. Deborah adjusted the volume on hers, then walked past Christoph into a room filledwall-to-wall with white freezers stacked one on top of the other, rumbling like a sea of washingmachines in an industrial laundromat. She shot me a wide-eyed, terrified look.Christoph pulled the handle of a white floor-to-ceiling freezer, and it opened with a hiss,releasing a cloud of steam into the room. Deborah screamed and jumped behind Zakariyya,who stood expressionless, hands in his pockets.“Don’t worry,” Christoph yelled, “it’s not dangerous, it’s just cold. They’re not minus twentyCelsius like your freezers at home, they’re minus eighty. That’s why when I open them smokecomes out.” He motioned for Deborah to come closer.“It’s all full of her cells,” he said.Deborah loosened her grip on Zakariyya and inched forward until the icy breeze hit herface, and she stood staring at thousands of inch-tall plastic vials filled with red liquid.
“Oh God,” she gasped. “I can’t believe all that’s my mother.” Zakariyya just stared in si-lence.Christoph reached into the freezer, took out a vial, and pointed to the letters H-e-L-a writ-ten on its side. “There are millions and millions of her cells in there,” he said. “Maybe billions.You can keep them here forever. Fifty years, a hundred years, even more—then you justthaw them out and they grow.”He rocked the vial of HeLa cells back and forth in his hand as he started talking about howcareful you have to be when you handle them. “We have an extra room just for the cells,” hesaid. “That’s important. Because if you contaminate them with anything, you can’t really usethem anymore. And you don’t want HeLa cells to contaminate other cultures in a lab.”“That’s what happened over in Russia, right?” Deborah said.He did a double take and grinned. “Yes,” he said. “Exactly. It’s great you know about that.”He explained how the HeLa contamination problem happened, then said, “Her cells causedmillions of dollars in damage. Seems like a bit of poetic justice, doesn’t it?”“My mother was just getting back at scientists for keepin all them secrets from the family,”Deborah said. “You don’t mess with Henrietta—she’ll sic HeLa on your ass!”Everyone laughed.Christoph reached into the freezer behind him, grabbed an other vial of HeLa cells, andheld it out to Deborah, his eyes soft. She stood stunned for a moment, staring into his out-stretched hand, then grabbed the vial and began rubbing it fast between her palms, like shewas warming herself in winter. “She’s cold,” Deborah said, cupping her hands and blowing onto the vial. Christoph mo-tioned for us to follow him to the incubator where he warmed the cells, but Deborah didn’tmove. As Zakariyya and Christoph walked away, she raised the vial and touched it to her lips.“You’re famous,” she whispered. “Just nobody knows it.” C hristoph led us into a small laboratory crammed full of microscopes, pipettes, and containerswith words like BIOHAZARD and DNA written on their sides. Pointing to the ventilation hoods covering his tables, he said, “Wedon’t want cancer all over the place, so this sucks all the air to a filtration system that catches
and kills any cells that are floating around.”He explained what culture medium was, and how he moved cells from freezer to incubatorto grow. “Eventually they fill those huge bottles in the back,” he said, pointing to rows of gal-lon-sized jugs. “Then we do our experiments on them, like we find a new drug for cancer,pour it onto the cells, and see what happens.” Zakariyya and Deborah nodded as he toldthem how drugs go through testing in cells, then animals, and finally humans.Christoph knelt in front of an incubator, reached inside, and pulled out a dish with HeLagrowing in it. “They’re really, really small, the cells,” he said. “That’s why we go to the micro-scope now so I can show them to you.” He flipped power switches, slid the dish onto the mi-croscope’s platform, and pointed to a small monitor attached to the microscope. It lit up afluorescent green, and Deborah gasped.“It’s a pretty color!”Christoph bent over the microscope to bring the cells into focus, and an image appearedon the screen that looked more like hazy green pond water than cells.“At this magnification you can’t see much,” Christoph said. “The screen is just boring be-cause the cells are so small, even with a microscope you can’t see them sometimes.” Heclicked a knob and zoomed in to higher and higher magnifications until the hazy sea of greenturned into a screen filled with hundreds of individual cells, their centers dark and bulging.“Oooo,” Deborah whispered. “There they are.” She reached out and touched the screen,rubbing her finger from one cell to the next.Christoph traced the outline of a cell with his finger. “All this is one cell,” he said. “It kindalooks like a triangle with a circle in the middle, you see that?”He grabbed a piece of scrap paper and spent nearly a half-hour drawing diagrams and ex-plaining the basic biology of cells as Deborah asked questions. Zakariyya turned up his hear-ing aid and leaned close to Christoph and the paper.“Everybody always talking about cells and DNA,” Deborah said at one point, “but I don’tunderstand what’s DNA and what’s her cells.”“Ah!” Christoph said, excited, “DNA is what’s inside the cell! Inside each nucleus, if wecould zoom in closer, you’d see a piece of DNA that looked like this.” He drew a long, squig-gly line. “There’s forty-six of those pieces of DNA in every human nucleus. We call thosechromosomes—those are the things that were colored bright in that big picture I gave you.”“Oh! My brother got that picture hanging on his wall at home next to our mother and sis-ter,” Deborah said, then looked at Zakariyya. “Did you know this is the man who gave you thatpicture?”Zakariyya looked to the ground and nodded, the corners of his mouth turning up into abarely perceptible smile.
“Within the DNA in that picture is all the genetic information that made Henrietta Henri-etta,” Christoph told them. “Was your mother tall or short?”“Short.”“And she had dark hair, right?”We all nodded.“Well, all that information came from her DNA,” he said. “So did her cancer—it came froma DNA mistake.”Deborah’s face fell. She’d heard many times that she’d inherited some of the DNA insidethose cells from her mother. She didn’t want to hear that her mother’s cancer was in that DNAtoo.“Those mistakes can happen when you get exposed to chemicals or radiation,” Christophsaid. “But in your mother’s case, the mistake was caused by HPV, the genital warts virus. Thegood news for you is that children don’t inherit those kinds of changes in DNA from their par-ents—they just come from being exposed to the virus.”“So we don’t have the thing that made her cells grow forever?” Deborah asked. Christophshook his head. “Now you tell me after all these years!” Deborah yelled. “Thank God, cause Iwas wonderin!”She pointed at a cell on the screen that looked longer than the others. “This one is cancer,right? And the rest are her normal ones?”“Actually, HeLa is all just cancer,” Christoph said.“Wait a minute,” she said, “you mean none of our mother regular cells still livin? Just hercancer cells?”“That’s right.”“Oh! See, and all this time I thought my mother regular cells still livin!”Christoph leaned over the microscope again and began moving the cells quickly aroundthe screen until he shrieked, “Look, there! See that cell?” He pointed to the center of the mon-itor. “See how it has a big nucleus that looks like it’s almost pinched in half in the middle?That cell is dividing into two cells right before our eyes! And both of those cells will have yourmother’s DNA in them.”“Lord have mercy,” Deborah whispered, covering her mouth with her hand.Christoph kept talking about cell division, but Deborah wasn’t listening. She stood mes-merized, watching one of her mother’s cells divide in two, just as they’d done when Henriettawas an embryo in her mother’s womb.Deborah and Zakariyya stared at the screen like they’d gone into a trance, mouths open,cheeks sagging. It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they werebabies.
After a long silence, Zakariyya spoke. “If those our mother’s cells,” he said, “how come they ain’t black even though she wasblack?”“Under the microscope, cells don’t have a color,” Christoph told him. “They all look thesame—they’re just clear until we put color on them with a dye. You can’t tell what color a per-son is from their cells.” He motioned for Zakariyya to come closer. “Would you like to look atthem through the microscope? They look better there.”Christoph taught Deborah and Zakariyya how to use the microscope, saying, “Lookthrough like this … take your glasses off… now turn this knob to focus.” Finally the cellspopped into view for Deborah. And through that microscope, for that moment, all she couldsee was an ocean of her mother’s cells, stained an ethereal fluorescent green.“They’re beautiful” she whispered, then went back to staring at the slide in silence. Even-tually, without looking away from the cells, she said, “God, I never thought I’d see my motherunder a microscope—I never dreamed this day would ever come.”“Yeah, Hopkins pretty much screwed up, I think,” Christoph said.Deborah bolted upright and looked at him, stunned to hear a scientist—one at Hopkins, noless—saying such a thing. Then she looked back into the microscope and said, “John Hopkinis a school for learning, and that’s important. But this is my mother. Nobody seem to get that.”“It’s true,” Christoph said. “Whenever we read books about science, it’s always HeLa thisand HeLa that. Some people know those are the initials of a person, but they don’t know whothat person is. That’s important history.”Deborah looked like she wanted to hug him. “This is amazing,” she said, shaking her headand looking at him like he was a mirage.Suddenly, Zakariyya started yelling something about George Gey. Deborah thumped hercane on his toe and he stopped in midsentence.“Zakariyya has a lot of anger with all this that’s been goin on,” she told Christoph. “I beentrying to keep him calm. Sometime he explode, but he’s trying.”“I don’t blame you for being angry,” Christoph said. Then he showed them the catalog heused to order HeLa cells. There was a long list of the different HeLa clones anyone could buyfor $167 a vial.“You should get that,” Christoph said to Deborah and Zakariyya.“Yeah, right,” Deborah said. “What I’m gonna do with a vial of my mother cells?” Shelaughed.“No, I mean you should get the money. At least some of it.”
“Oh,” she said, stunned. “That’s okay. You know, when people hear about who HeLa was,first thing they say is, ‘Y’all should be millionaires!’”Christoph nodded. “Her cells are how it all started,” he said. “Once there is a cure for can-cer, it’s definitely largely because of your mother’s cells.”“Amen,” Deborah said. Then, without a hint of anger, she told him, “People always gonnabe makin money from them cells, nothing we can do about that. But we not gonna get any ofit.”Christoph said he thought that was wrong. Why not treat valuable cells like oil, he said.When you find oil on somebody’s property, it doesn’t automatically belong to them, but theydo get a portion of the profits. “No one knows how to deal with this when it comes to cellstoday,” he said. “When your mother got sick, doctors just did what they wanted and patientsdidn’t ask. But nowadays patients want to know what’s going on.”“Amen,” Deborah said again.Christoph gave them his cell phone number and said they could call any time they hadquestions about their mother’s cells. As we walked toward the elevator, Zakariyya reached upand touched Christoph on the back and said thank you. Outside, he did the same to me, thenturned to catch the bus home.Deborah and I stood in silence, watching him walk away. Then she put her arm around meand said, “Girl, you just witnessed a miracle.”The Immortal life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks 33The Hospital for the Negro Insane T here were several things I’d promised Deborah we’d do together: seeing her mother’s cellswas first; figuring out what happened to Elsie was second. So the day after we visited Chris-
toph’s lab, Deborah and I set out on a weeklong trip that would start at Crownsville, where wehoped to find her sister’s medical records, then go through Clover and end in Roanoke, at thehouse where Henrietta was born.It was Mother’s Day, which had always been a sad day for Deborah, and this one hadn’tstarted well. She’d planned to take her grandson Alfred to see his father in jail before we lefttown. But her son had called saying he didn’t want Deborah or Little Alfred visiting until hecould see them without looking through glass. He told her he wanted to learn about his grand-mother, Henrietta, and asked Deborah to send him whatever information we found on our trip.“I been waiting for him to say that his whole life,” she told me, crying. “I just didn’t want himto have to get locked up in prison to do it.” But once again, she said, “I’m not gonna let thatstop me. I just want to focus on the good, like seein my mother cells, and learnin about mysister.” So we drove to Crownsville in our separate cars.I don’t know what I expected the former Hospital for the Negro Insane to look like, but itcertainly wasn’t what we found. Crownsville Hospital Center was on a sprawling 1,200-acrecampus, with bright green hills, perfectly mowed lawns, walking paths, weeping cherry trees,and picnic tables. Its main building was red brick with white columns, its porch decorated withwide chairs and chandeliers. It looked like a nice place to sip mint juleps or sweet tea. One ofthe old hospital buildings was now a food bank; others housed the Police Criminal Investiga-tion Division, an alternative high school, and a Rotary club.Inside the main building, we walked past empty offices in a long, empty white hallway,saying, “Hello?” and “Where is everybody?” and “This place is weird.” Then, at the end of thehall was a white door covered with years’ worth of dirt and handprints. It had the words MED-ICAL RECORDS stenciled across it in broken block letters. Beneath that, in smaller letters, itsaid NO THOROUGHFARE.Deborah gripped the door handle and took a deep breath. “We ready for this?” she asked.I nodded. She grabbed my arm with one hand, threw the door open with the other, and westepped inside.We found ourselves in a thick white metal cage that opened into the Medical Recordsroom—an empty, warehouse-sized room with no staff, no patients, no chairs, no visitors, andno medical records. Its windows were bolted shut and covered with wire and dirt, its gray car-pet bunched in ripples from decades of foot traffic. A waist-high cinder-block wall ran thelength of the room, separating the waiting area from the area marked AUTHORIZED PER-SONNEL ONLY, where several rows of tall metal shelves stood empty.“I can’t believe this,” Deborah whispered. “All them records is gone?” She ran her handalong the empty shelves, mumbling, “Nineteen fifty-five was the year where they killed her…. Iwant them records…. I know it wasn’t good. … Why else would they get rid of them?”
No one had to tell us something awful had happened at Crownsville—we could feel it in thewalls.“Let’s go find someone who can tell us something,” I said.We wandered into another long hallway, and Deborah began screaming. “Excuse me! Weneed to find the medical record! Does anyone know where it is?”Eventually a young woman poked her head out of an office and pointed us down the hallto another office, where someone pointed us to yet another. Finally we found ourselves in theoffice of a tall man with a thick white Santa Claus beard and wild, bushy eyebrows. Deborahcharged over to him, saying, “Hi, I’m Deborah, and this is my reporter. You may have heard ofus, my mama’s in history with the cells, and we need to find some medical record.”The man smiled. “Who was your mother,” he asked, “and what are the cells?”We explained why we were there, and he told us that the current medical records were inanother building, and that there wasn’t much history left at Crownsville. “I wish we had anarchivist,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m as close as you’ll get.”His name was Paul Lurz, and he was the hospital’s director of performance and improve-ment, but he also happened to be a social worker who’d majored in history, which was hispassion. He motioned for us to come sit in his office.“There wasn’t much funding for treating blacks in the forties and fifties,” he said. “I’m afraidCrownsville wasn’t a very nice place to be back then.” He looked at Deborah. “Your sister washere?”She nodded.“Tell me about her.”“My father always say she never went past a child in her head,” she said, reaching into herpurse for a crumpled copy of Elsie’s death certificate, which she began reading slowly outloud. “Elsie Lacks … cause of death (a) respiratory failure (b) epilepsy © cerebral palsy….Spent five years in Crownsville State Hospital.” She handed Lurz the picture of her sister thatZakariyya had hanging on his wall. “I don’t believe my sister had all that.”Lurz shook his head. “She doesn’t look like she has palsy in this picture. What a lovelychild.”“She did have them seizures,” Deborah said. “And she couldn’t never learn how to use thetoilet. But I think she was just deaf. Me and all my brothers got a touch of nerve deafness onaccount of our mother and father being cousins and having the syphilis. Sometimes I wonder,if somebody taught her sign language, maybe she’d still be alive.”Lurz sat in his chair, legs crossed, looking at the photo of Elsie. “You have to be pre-pared,” he told Deborah, his voice gentle. “Sometimes learning can be just as painful as not
knowing.”“I’m ready,” Deborah said, nodding.“We had a serious asbestos problem,” he said. “Most of our records from the fifties andearlier were contaminated. Instead of cleaning each page of the records to save them, the ad-ministration decided to have them carted away in bags and buried.”He walked to a storage closet near his desk, its walls lined with shelves and file cabinets.In the back corner he’d crammed a small desk, facing the wall. Lurz had been working atCrownsville since 1964, when he was a student intern in his twenties, and he had a habit ofcollecting potentially historic documents: patient records, copies of old admissions reports thatcaught his attention—an infant admitted blind in one eye with facial deformities and no family,a child institutionalized without any apparent psychiatric disorder.Lurz disappeared into the closet and began muttering amid loud clunking and shufflingnoises. “There were a few … I just had them out a couple weeks ago … Ah! Here we go.” Hewalked out of the closet carrying a stack of oversized books with thick leather spines and darkgreen cloth covers. They were warped with age, coated in dust, and filled with thick, yellowedpaper.“These are autopsy reports,” he said, opening the first book as the scent of mildew filledthe room. He’d found them while rummaging in the basement of an abandoned building at thehospital sometime in the eighties, he said. When he’d first opened them, hundreds of bugsscurried from the pages onto his desk.Between 1910, when the hospital opened, and the late fifties, when the records werefound to be contaminated, tens of thou sands of patients passed through Crownsville. Theirrecords—if they’d survived—could have filled Lurz’s small storage room several times over.Now this stack was all that was left at Crownsville.Lurz pulled out a volume that included some reports from 1955, the year Elsie died, andDeborah squealed with excitement.“What did you say her full name was?” Lurz asked, running his finger down a list of nameswritten in careful script next to page numbers.“Elsie Lacks,” I said, scanning the names over his shoulder as my heart raced. Then, in adaze, I pointed to the words Elsie Lacks on the page and said, “Oh my God! There she is!”Deborah gasped, her face suddenly ashen. She closed her eyes, grabbed my arm tosteady herself, and started whispering, “Thank you Lord … Thank you Lord.”“Wow. This really surprises me,” Lurz said. “It was very unlikely she’d be in here.”Deborah and I began hopping around and clapping. No matter what the record said, atleast it would tell us something about Elsie’s life, which we figured was better than knowingnothing at all.
Lurz opened to Elsie’s page, then quickly closed his eyes and pressed the book to hischest before we could see anything. “I’ve never seen a picture in one of these reports,” hewhispered.He lowered the book so we all could see, and suddenly time seemed to stop. The three ofus stood, our heads nearly touching over the page, as Deborah cried, “Oh my baby! She lookjust like my daughter! … She look just like Davon! … She look just like my father! … She gotthat smooth olive Lacks skin.”Lurz and I just stared, speechless.In the photo, Elsie stands in front of a wall painted with numbers for measuring height. Herhair, which Henrietta once spent hours combing and braiding, is frizzy, with thick mats thatstop just below the five-foot mark behind her. Her once-beautiful eyes bulge from her head,slightly bruised and almost swollen shut. She stares somewhere just below the camera, cry-ing, her face misshapen and barely recognizable, her nostrils inflamed and ringed with mu-cus; her lips—swollen to nearly twice their normal size—are surrounded by a deep, dark ringof chapped skin; her tongue is thick and protrudes from her mouth. She appears to bescreaming. Her head is twisted unnaturally to the left, chin raised and held in place by a largepair of white hands.“She doesn’t want her head like that,” Deborah whispered. “Why are they holding herhead like that?”No one spoke. We all just stood there, staring at those big white hands wrapped aroundElsie’s neck. They were well manicured and feminine, pinky slightly raised—hands you’d seein a commercial for nail polish, not wrapped around the throat of a crying child.Deborah laid her old picture of Elsie as a young girl next to the new photo.“Oh, she was beautiful,” Lurz whispered.Deborah ran her finger across Elsie’s face in the Crownsville photo. “She looks like shewonderin where I’m at,” she said. “She look like she needs her sister.”The photo was attached to the top corner of Elsie’s autopsy report, which Lurz and Ibegan reading, saying occasional phrases out loud: “diagnosis of idiocy” … “directly connec-ted with syphilis” … “self-induced vomiting by thrusting fingers down her throat for six monthsprior to death.” In the end, it said, she was “vomiting coffee-ground material,” which was prob-ably clotted blood.Just as Lurz read the phrase “vomiting coffee-ground material” out loud, a short, round,balding man in a dark business suit stormed into the room telling me to stop taking notes anddemanding to know what we were doing there.“This is the family of a patient,” Lurz snapped. “They’re here to look at the patient’s medic-al records.”