Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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Cervical cancer contracted because Day was promiscuous and not monogamous? I adored this book with all it's humanity-- exposed so the world can see and feel the pain of an ignored/dismissed family and the hurt of answers gone unanswered for so long. I am wondering if I read correctly, however, that Henrietta died from Cervical cancer due to HPV, which she contracted from her husband Day? So, in part, her death was due to her husband's sexual activities outside of marriage? And if so, did any of her children every think or speak of this?
asked by A. dyrwal on March 2, 2010
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Exactly. Not only did Day bring HPV home, he brought syphilis home--which, untreated, was passed along to their children and caused the mental retardation and assorted disabilities of their elder daughter, the much-mourned Elsie, even before Day married Henrietta. In her all-consuming drive not to hurt the feelings of the Lackses, Skloot acknowledges (very quietly, very early on) that Day brought "bad blood" home to Henrietta, but fails to connect the dots. Day victimized Henrietta--and his children--long before Johns Hopkins had the opportunity to do so. As for the children, with their profound ignorance of all things scientific--if Skloot enlightened them as to who bore the responsibility for their mother's and sister's deaths, it's not apparent here, and I doubt she did, given her fear of being denied access to the family. Henrietta's younger daughter, Deborah, understood that her and her siblings' deafness and her sister's disabilities were due to their parents' cousin marriage and syphilis, but she didn't lay the blame for the syphilis at Day's feet. The youngest son hated Day for his deficiencies as a father--not for impregnating their mother when he was nineteen and she at most fourteen in the bedroom they had shared since early childhood, and not for infecting her with the venereal disease that crippled their children or with the virus that ultimately killed her.
Morganalee answered on March 6, 2010

I don't think it's appropriate to blame Day for his wife's death from cervical cancer. The reason is that it's a slippery slope to blaming the victim here. There are tens of thousands of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year around the world, and recent estimates indicate that up to 75% of adults who are sexually active carry at least one type of HPV. There is a great deal of shame attached to a diagnosis of cervical cancer that is simply unnecessary.

Would you feel as comfortable blaming a woman who slept with a few guys in college for getting cervical cancer? How about a woman who slept with one guy in college before she met and married her husband? There should be no moral judgments in cancer diagnoses. The stigma around this cancer needs to go away. This means no blaming the victim and no attempting to assign blame to a person who may or may not have infected her. Most adults have HPV. Some are just unlucky enough to get the carcinogenic types, and some are unluckier still to actually develop cancer.
E. Jacobs answered on March 7, 2010

I admired the way Skloot looked at the Lacks family with respect and empathy rather than judgment and think it was a real strength of the book how clearly and fully she presented their unvarnished world and that of many other African Americans in the South. To me, the lives of Henrietta and her relatives illustrated the shattering legacy of American slavery, where men, women and children were bought and sold like livestock and torn from their families and forced to sleep together in conditions hard for most of us to imagine. The poverty and lack of societal help that took four-year-old Henrietta to a shared bedroom with her older (nine-year-old?) male cousin is a situation I'm glad I've never had to face and one I would never blame those children or their parents and relatives for given the resources they had and the experiences they'd endured as descendants of slaves (or actual slaves) of the Lacks family. If people are treated as objects and sex objects, kept from having or honoring marriages and monogamous commitments of their own and forced to serve at their Master's pleasure from the earliest years, what is learned and expected and can be passed on down the line?

To blame Day for victimizing Henrietta and bringing home HPV (which the vast majority of sexually active adults now have) is to turn a blind eye to the circumstances he was in from his own very early years. I see it as more of a societal and sociological responsibility, if anything, than a personal responsibility and view that brutal legacy of slavery as one of many heart-rending tragedies in the book. I also agree with E. Jacobs that it's is a very slippery slope to be assigning blame to anyone for HPV since if you've had more than one lover or if your lover's had more than one lover, there's a good chance you've have some variant of HPV yourself.
B. Weaver answered on March 7, 2010

[Deleted by Amazon on Mar 29, 2010 10:03:25 AM PDT]

Day wasn't a little nine-year-old when he impregnated Henrietta; he was nineteen. He was responsible for his victimization of Henrietta and he was responsible for his essential abandonment of their children after Henrietta's death. To me, it is racist to claim black men aren't responsible for their own voluntary acts--because of slavery, segregation, etc.--and helpful to those who would see them as inferior in kind to other men.
Morganalee answered on March 9, 2010

It may very well be true that Syphillis caused David and Henrietta Lack's daughter Elsie's mental retardation. It was noted in the Rebecca Skloot book and other reliable sources that David and Henrietta were first cousins. I wonder if such a genetically close, sanguineous intimate relationship could be a factor in the cause of Elsie's mental and physical problems.
Plus I'm wondering why they didn't realize the dangers in such an intimate relationship. Especially every culture from the Sumerians until today banned such relationships. Plus I'm pondering if their lack (no pun intended) of education could be a possibility or even if they were better education, that was simply how things were done back then in Clover VA, 40s,50s
Nlow I realize from a previous post on this topic
E Jacobs and B.Weaver and I are on the same wavelength in not blaming the victim. I recall reading Henrietta Lacks only went to the 6th grade and Day (David) Lacks to the 3rd grade. Wondering how their lack of education factored in what happened to her and him. Historical note back in 1951 the US was still under the 1896 US Supreme Court ruling "Plessy vs Ferguson" resulting the seperate but equal ruling. Remember she was treated in the colored ward at Johns Hopkins. I'm certain there's no such racial division in treatment there today.
Lynda Appell answered on March 11, 2010

I agree there should be no moral judgments in cancer diagnoses.

Not only is it a small step to victim blaming, it's a tiny one toward lionizing the bad guy: Thanks to Day's tomming around, people all over the world will benefit! For generations!

His raping his 14 year old cousing was disgusting. His being unfaithful was horrid. But keep it out of her illness unless you want to make other leaps.
Maria Beadnell answered on March 14, 2010

He also gave her gonorrea when she had cancer.
Hope Shafer answered on March 16, 2010

I do not recall Skloot as saying that Day raped Henrietta.

Did I miss something?

And there was some information on Crazy Joe, another cousin of Henriettas, who perhaps fathered one of her children.

I do not recall any rape of Henrietta by either man. Perhaps it was consensual.

Another unanswered question that will probably never be answered is why Henrietta's name was never ousted from the church registry due to having children out of wedlock, evidently a common practice in Clover.
Onie Wheeler answered on March 25, 2010

Henrietta was under age. I believe this is legally true even in the South. Even if 14 is an age of consent in some states, I do not believe a 14 year old can "consent" to sex with an adult.
Maria Beadnell answered on April 1, 2010
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