DUNDALK — Henrietta Lacks’ grandson, Ron L. Lacks, will publish a book on Jan. 29 called “Henrietta Lacks The Untold Story,” to set the record straight about his grandmother’s life from the perspective of people who actually knew and were apart of her.
Science writer Rebecca Skloot dropped a literature bomb on the world when she released an award winning book titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” 10 years ago. In the book, Skloot details the life of Henrietta and how the HeLa cell line was discovered from her many years of research.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” won the National Academies Best Book of the Year Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Young Adult Science Book award and went on to spend 75 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Although the world seemed to have loved the story of Henrietta’s contributions to medical science laid out in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” some of her family members weren’t too impressed with Skloot’s version of their beloved late family member.
Henrietta’s grandson, Ron L. Lacks is one of them.
In 1941, Henrietta moved to Turner Station from Virginia with her husband, David Lacks, so he could work at Bethlehem Steel. Following the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated at Johns Hopkins. While at Hopkins, the doctor took a piece of Henrietta’s cancer tumor without her consent for research. Unbeknownst to the doctor, the cells illegitimately removed from Henrietta’s body would go on to save thousands of lives and would advance the medical field beyond measure.
In the book, Skloot depicts how Henrietta’s cancer cells changed and advanced medical science without her family’s knowledge.
Skloot said that she first heard about Henrietta’s medical contributions in a high school biology class when she was 16 years old.
Taking what she learned in school in the late 1980’s, Skloot began to write Henrietta’s life story ten years before it was officially published — stating she had difficulties with getting information and clearance from the family.
From the time Skloot found out about Henrietta and her immortal cell line, she became “obsessed” with her story, which prompted her to conduct extensive research on what she described as something that affects almost everyone in the world.
Henrietta’s cells went up in the first space missions to experience what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, Skloot said in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” In addition, Skloot said Henrietta’s cells aided in the medical advancement of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping and invitro fertilization.
According to Ron, he and his father, Lawrence Lacks, had been discussing Skloot for years, trying to draw attention to some of the inaccuracies in her story.
The inaccuracies listed in Skloot’s version of Henrietta’s legacy, will be corrected in Ron’s book, “Henrietta Lacks The Untold Story,” Ron said.
Throughout the years, Lawrence deemed it time for him to share his mother’s story with Ron because he was aging and his memory was fading, Ron explained.
“I felt like I was Lawrence’s oldest son who shared his desire to set the record straight in history and for my family,” Ron said. “After Skloot’s story had been published, we realized that our family had been manipulated and misrepresented.”
“I wrote my family story so that the world can hear it from the horse’s mouth,” he noted.
Since 2010, Ron said, his late grandmother has been in the back of his mind heavily, but it wasn’t until he was watching The Morning Show with Oprah Winfrey, and Gail and Charlie Rowe, when they called his aunt a little crazy.
“It was at that moment that I was pushed over the edge and knew I had to tell my family story,” Ron said.
“Henrietta Lacks The Untold Story” will give the public a window into the memories of the Lacks family and how they lived their lives before and after his grandmother passed.
“It will tell you about all the people, places and things that entered into our lives. I will let you know about the good and the bad, the pros and the cons. We have nothing to hide, we just want our story told in our words from our point of perception,” Ron said.
The relationship between Skloot and the Lacks is a jaded one, Ron said.
“It seems that my family has been shut out of everything profit-bearing of my grandmother and our family history,” Ron said.
According to Ron, there are many Lacks family members that are motivating him to reveal the truth about Henrietta, her family and their past.
“Skloot called that beautiful black woman in that iconic picture a ‘poor black tobacco farmer’, along with many other authors and periodicals that were released about my grandmother,” Ron explained. “It was viewed by me as a negative portrayal of her since the actual photo doesn’t speak to that light. For years, that very picture hung on my mother’s wall. We never viewed my grandmother as a poor black farmer, and based on the picture even a blind man could see no traces of poverty or farming.”
Ron went on to say the only thing that he remembers about his grandmother, Henrietta, is when his grandfather used to talk about her.
“I had to pry it from my father’s mind, which I knew it brought him pain to think back and drag the memories of his mother on her deathbed. Several times, we had to stop and shed a few tears because I felt his pain and we could imagine what she was going through based on the trauma she suffered as it was told to us,” Ron said.
Redemption was the word Ron used when detailing the outcome he’d like to see once the books hit the shelves.
“I would like to tell my family’s story and what we went through and how we felt. Rebecca Skloot said it herself that Deborah Lacks Pullum (Henrietta’s daughter) stopped talking to her but what Skloot won’t say is that Deborah felt betrayed by Rebecca. Deborah initially trusted Rebecca and was honored that she wanted to write about her family and the history about my grandmother. She gave Skloot precious memories from her perspective and those memories were distorted,” Ron said.
Ron’s aunt, Deborah, has since passed on, so he decided that the time is now to take action to give the Lacks family’s version of their lives.
“Henrietta Lacks The Untold Story” will be available for purchase on Jan. 29 on Amazon, Kindle e-book and paperback.