The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a nonfiction novel that follows a young African American womaen, and her battle with Cervical Cancer during the 1950’s. During the 1950’s there had been little done to research cCervical cCancer, and the known effects were often missguided. At this time Cervical Cancer was thought to be somewhat easily treated, but as the reader finds out later that is not the case. Through the entirety of the novel, there is always a particularly negative attitude about medical health professionals.
From the overall mistrust of corrupted doctors to the equally unethical scientists, this novel covers a lot of controversial topics such as the use of human cells to gain monetary value without the patient’s explicit request. Rebecca Skloot, in order to convey the truly unethical ideas of the health industry, had to manipulate her language to achieve this purpose. The key ways in which she does this is by using cynical words to describe doctors, making comparison to Nazi’s, and by juxtaposing the education levels between the Lackses, and the doctors.
The family members of Henrietta Lack’s, including herself consists of poorly educated African Americans resided in the Maryland. This lack of education is the main differentiation that Skloot draws between the doctors and the Lack’s Family. The way in which the doctors are portrayed makes them seem as though they are affluent in the English language. Because of this, it is understandable that an under educated person could easily get mislead by a doctor, or lied to. The Lack’s uncertainty of the intentions of the doctors leads them to develop a mistrusting attitude towards them.
Due to their lack of education, the way in which they speak is sometimes unintelligible. Rebecca Skloot directly exhibited this by the style she used to write the dialogue of the family. Her mastery at writing dialogue helps to present the family in a way that animates and brings them to life. Which allows for readers to think of the Lacks’s as real people instead of characters. In the dialogue, she writes as it as if she did not embellish, and it is authentic to the way that the Lacks’s speak. By using the unintelligible language of the family, it allows for Skloot to deepen the reader’s understanding of just how unknowing the family was.
For example when Cootie describes Henrietta, Skloot keeps the slang words. He says,” Everybody liked Henrietta cause she was a very good condition person, he said. She just lovey dovey, always smilin, always takin care us of when we come to the house. Even after she got sick, she never was a person who say ‘I feel bad and I’m going to take it out on you. ‘She wasn’t like that, even when she hurtin. ” (Skloot 81) By Skloot using the direct language or slang of the family members, it helps create an aesthetic of a vernacular speaking family.
It would have been so mundane for her to change the quote from having the slang version of the word into something sensible. Skloot could have changed it from “Smilin” to smiling, the correct spelling of the word. However, had she changed the spelling of the words, it would have alluded to the fact that these people are intelligent, when in fact they have very little education. Additionally, another problem would arise through her change of word spelling. The problem would be that if the family was presented as educated, the reader would have a hard time in believing that the family did not know what was happening with Henrietta’s cells.
Which would hurt the message that the doctors and scientists were not accommodating to them. The intelligent language in the novel is used to show the smart scientific side of the doctors. This allows for the reader to get an understanding of the doctor’s point of view. One example of this is when Skloot is describing the extent of her cancer. She said, “The official cause of Henrietta’s death was terminal uremia: blood poisoning from the buildup of toxins normally flushed out of the body in urine. ( Skloot 90)
These technical terms make Skloot sound as though she is educated in the field of medicine, or she has a basic knowledge of medicine. This ultimately helps to further build the gap between the educated and uneducated. Skloot portrays the doctors in a cynical light. She makes the this clear to the reader by using harsh, often repugnant words to describe the doctors. As well as her recurring comparison between the American doctors and their Nazi counterparts. These representation choices help her to illuminate the Lack’s feelings of the doctors as well as to input her own opinion.
Through reading the novel, there are several examples of this that especially stick out. One being the time when she describes the Carrel’s chicken heart. She says, “Tissue culture was the stuff of racism, creepy science fiction, Nazis, and snake oil. “(Skloot 62) The diction in the quote includes harsh words. The fact that they are something of science fiction helps to create an otherworldly portrayal of them. Additionally, by Skloot comparing the doctors of the time to Nazi’s it allows for the reader to understand how awful the doctors were.
The interesting aspect to her comparisons of the doctors to the Nazi’s, is that she is able to make subliminal messages throughout the book by including a quote from Elie Wiesel in the beginning. Including the quote helps to create a bridge between the horrible ethics of both the Nazis and the doctors, and the innocence of the patients. The other quote that sticks out is when Skloot is talking about the Night Doctors. She mentions that they kidnap people during the night and conduct experiments on them. It says, “The Lackses aren’t the only ones who heard from a young age that Hopkins and other hospitals abducted black people.
Since at least the 1800s, black oral history has been filled with tales of “night doctors” who kidnapped black people for research. And there were disturbing truths behind those stories. ” (Skloot 165) This demonstrates that the Lacks were not the only ones in town that were afraid of doctors. The wording of the quote is especially hard. The fact that Skloot writes that there was “disturbing truths behind those stories” illuminates the unethicality of doctors. Rebecca Skloot achieves her purpose of illuminating the unethical ideas of the doctors through employing various techniques.
She is able to compare the educational levels of the Lackses and medical professionals by changing the way they speak. To create an uneducated vibe from the Lack’s family Skloot exercises many slang words. This slang is then is able to be compared to the educated language of the doctors. In order to create a negative atmosphere surrounding the doctors, Skloot uses extremely cynical words to describe them. She also makes both direct and subliminal omparisons between the doctors of the 1950’s to the Nazi’s. Thus by using all of these techniques she is able to successfully portray her purpose.