Reading Questions: Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Reading Questions: Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Each week, we will write short free-responses to questions on the assigned reading that will be helpful in developing your project topics. If you are struggling to respond to these questions, first review the lecture videos.

There is no required word count to hit in your responses, but a good rule of thumb is to write enough that you feel you have developed an argument — a claim backed up by evidence and analysis.

  1. There is a lot of introductory material leading up to Part One of this book: “A Few Words About This Book”; an epilogue from Nobel laureate, writer and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel; a Prologue; and two pages of introductory contextualizing of the book expressed in “Deborah’s voice,” the daughter of Henrietta Lacks.
    Why, for example, is the first line of this book “This is a work of nonfiction.” Why don’t other works of nonfiction announce that they are nonfiction? Why is Elie Wiesel’s an appropriate epigraph to this book? Why is the inclusion of “Deborah’s voice” appropriate, moreover, to a course about the conventions of research and argumentation?
  1. The Afterword of this book is followed by a “Cast of Characters”—a list of names that form the basis of Skloot’s research—the people involved in the life of Henrietta Lacks. If Skloot goes out of her way in the first sentence of the book to declare, “This is a work of nonfiction,” why do you think she then uses the term applied in dramatic works, “cast of characters?”
  2. This book does not have a traditional bibliography, yet the Notes show that it is extensively researched. How and why does it use notes in lieu of a traditional bibliography?
  3. Based on what we read in Chapter One, “The Exam” what important information do we learn that is not on Henrietta’s medical chart? (16). What, according to her medical chart, do we learn about what kind of information was important to those who took information for a medical chart in 1951? Do you see any differences in the medical information that is prioritized today and that of 1951? Any similarities?
  4. Chapter 3 is a varied mix of anecdote, original documents, the names of people, both medical professionals and patients, scientific terms, practices, and descriptions to craft a story that is based in fact. This mix of narrative and evidence is called literary journalism.
    How does Skloot use this method to expose the weaknesses in the conventions (both then and now) of communication between doctor and patient? What alternative method(s) of communication does she suggest?
  1. How does the introduction of Deborah Lacks into the narrative change everything for you, for us, the readers? How would you describe her character? If we were to act according to the rules of fiction, we might ask, “Is this a reliable narrator?” (We might even determine that she isn’t), but how does Skloot demonstrate that we are not to be seduced by fictional elements, but to entirely trust Deborah’s reliability as a narrator?
  2. What does Chapter 7, “The Death and Life of Cell Culture,” tell us about the power public perception holds over life and death? Overall, how does this book represent the media portrayal of the Lacks family and the effects those portraits had on the family?
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