Start blogging by responding to today's discussion on the diction and tone used by Skloots to engage the your sympathy. What works?  What doesn't? 


Mark Chaplin
05/18/2010 14:24

I think that the author, Rebbecca Skloots, makes Henrieta's life seem more realistic in the sense that she is not just the medical aspect of the HeLa cells. Skloots does this because she uses very descriptive language in her writing that she could not have figured out with out being there. Therefore, this book i feel is trying to capture the reader into believing in the fact that Henrieta is an actual person, and her family should be taken care of of through the mass distribution of these cells.

Jasmin Oliveira
05/18/2010 16:44

Skloot's Tone
I completely agree with Marks statement of how Rebbecca Skloots helps the reader capture the fact that HeLa cells came from an actual ordinary person, Henrietta Lacks.
Skloots passionate tone and descriptive writing brings about the ignored importance of Henrietta's life. I think that Rebecca's change in tone throughout the book serves as a means of illustrating the different perspectives from which to analyze the importance of Henrietta's life. In some of the chapters that relate to the mistreatment of black patients at John Hopkins, Skloots' tone resembles that of a distant reporter covering a "story" from the outside. I think Skloots does this to represent the perspectives of both the doctors and the scientists who see Henrietta as just another patient whose cells will be used in a lab.
However, when she tells the story of Henrietta's childhood and describes the Lack's family, her tone is compassionate and warm, which brings about this feeling that Skloots was actually there during that time, thus conveying an extremely vivid aspect to Henriettas's life. I think that by going back and forth from the perspective of a scientific researcher to an intimate storyteller of Henrietta's life, Skloots proves to be successful in exhibiting the full aspect of HeLa cells.

Joshua Robins
05/18/2010 18:22

I agree with the two comments above, but I do not think it is right of Rebecca to try to make Henrietta into a hero. The real heros are the scientist that discovered usefulness of her cells. Rebecca's tone and diction in "life" shows Henrieta's family as the victims of this discovery, when in reality the HELA cells have only helped our society and culture. Rebecca has probably convinced the soft hearted that the researchers that took her cells were the villans, but if you look past her humanitarian propaganda you will see that the doctors were only doing what was standard of the time. There were no laws pertaining to cell use at the time, and Henrietta was using a public hospital. It would be wrong of Henrietta to deny the doctors her cells for no reason after they have bwwn trying to help her for so long. Like Mark said above, I do agree that the Johns Hopkins should take care of the Lacks family but not because they have to. Johns Hopkins should give them all health insurance because it is the right thing to do and because HELA cells have been and still are a big part of science today. This is my first blog ever, so I did well and I hope everyone reading this can relate to what I am saying.

Ian Gonzalez
05/18/2010 18:34

As we discussed in class, (and as Mark and Jasmin stated) Skloot definitely uses her tone and diction to create empathy for Henrietta's story and to remind people that she was a human being that existed beyond the legacy of her cells.

What I find highly intriguing is that Skloot does not stop at Henrietta. She is surprisingly true to the opening quote of her book: "No human being is an abstraction." The doctors who took and utilized Henrietta's cells, specifically Dr. Gey, are not demonized by her tone or diction at all, even though she could have easily done so and created even more sympathy for a victimized Henrietta. But of course, Gey was a human being as well, not a demon or an evil witch doctor, and she pronounces this very clearly with her detailed and understanding tone as she describes his background. Little details like the Lithuanian lab assistant who helped him with his microscope make Gey less of a historical abstraction and more of an individual.

I really respect Skloot for having this kind of balance...this was probably the most convincing aspect of her writing, since it made her out to be more objective and more true to her morals, which many authors fail to accomplish.

Of course, the work isn't perfect; I thought the depictions of Henrietta's past were a bit exaggerated and overly detailed. I don't have a huge problem with that, however. Every biographical author has to take some liberty in order to fully convey the emssage behind someone's life, and to make the story significantly less boring. I think Skloot has maintained her overall balance of all these factors rather well.

James Callado
05/18/2010 18:50

Throughout the novel so far, Skloot obviously writes in an “intimate” tone trying to connect the reader to Henrietta’s life, family, tribulations, and legacy. Yet, in the process, she manages to over glorify, even going as far to exhibit clear bias in her writing. As Josh stated, Skloot glorifies Henrietta completely, but fails to commend the scientist who are responsible for the discoveries related to HeLa cells.
She manages to keep the same tone throughout the novel which in this way, she has managed to revolutionize the scientific genre, but she slowly creeps from nonfiction to fiction by doing this. Thus, this creates doubts while reading the novel. Clearly, doubts should not crop up in the reader’s mind because scientific writing is trying to provide a factual and accurate recount of Henrietta’s life and her legacy. To conclude, her diction and tone is unsettling and a distraction if trying to follow the book in form of a scientific investigation, however, reading this as a human interest story(or even, a drama), they manage to intrigue the reader and keep them involved.

Eduardo Rangel
05/18/2010 19:05

Henrietta Lacks appears like a feasible character thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s personification of her past using actual facts taken from several interviews with Henrietta’s family members. Although this may be true, I feel as though these so called “facts” are not all true and that she uses mostly tone as an emotional pull on the reader to make it seem as if everything that she writes actually happened. There is no way that Skloot was able to confirm such things as Henrietta’s early childhood experiences in the tobacco fields and her actual feelings while she laid on an examination table at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I do agree with Ian because he makes a good point by saying that a writer has the right to take some liberty in their writing to make it less boring, but I feel that for her to say that this book was based all on historical fact is just too presumptuous to the reader. Skloot does have a unique writing style because she blends in several different forms of figurative language and emotional tones to animate her characters, and this is something I do appreciate when reading this book.

I feel as if Skloot does illustrate Henrietta as a victim of society and because of this it makes her a bit of a hero as Josh said up there ^. I do agree with Josh by saying that Skloot makes Henrietta bigger than life at some points, but Skloot also makes sure to humanize her and make her seem as regular individual also. By using a more relaxed and descriptive tone, Skloot manages to show the reader the fact that Henrietta was no different than any other woman. She says that Henrietta worked like a regular poor black woman at the time and that she painted her nails and took care of her appearance like any woman would. Therefore, I think Skloot does a decent job at both humanizing Henrietta, but also making her somewhat of a hero.

Dylan Schwartz
05/18/2010 19:07

I completely agree with Josh. Henrietta Lacks is in no way a hero. She is simply a lady who got cancer. She did not contribute in any other way to the discovery of the first immortal cells (well that and the name HeLa). Skloots' diction is obviously trying to request some sort of sympathy or empathy for the Lacks family, especially Henrietta. I personally, cannot find it in myself to feel this sympathy because my logic gets in the way.

Henrietta Lacks, in my eyes, was just another of the countless patients (both African American and White) that had her cells taken without asking for the purpose of experimentation. Something that, at the time, was in no way against the law. I do not believe in any way that Henrietta was wronged because she was dying anyway. It's not like she would have survived had these cells not been taken. Furthermore, even if she was alive I do not believe that she would have had a problem with saving countless lives (which was actually stated in the book when Gey went to visit her in her bed at Johns Hopkins).

Henrietta is no hero. She did not jump on a grenade that threatened to kill her whole platoon. She simply ran away from the platoon knowing that she had a ticking time bomb in her body.

Katie Chaplin
05/18/2010 19:08

As a follow up for the discussion in class, I agree with all of the previous comments, but I still emphasize the idea that this book was created for the sole purpose of people acknowledging who this anonymous woman was. Like I said, to scientists, no one really cared who she was as a person, they just wanted the HeLa cells and did whatever they felt that they could do. But on the defense, I think that Henrietta's family should have at least some compensation for what was done without being asked before hand. It states in the book that once Henrietta had passed away, her doctor asked her husband if they could use her cells to test and he had said no. Considering her family's current state (not financially stable) and the success of the HeLa cells throughout the world, it should not be difficult of "John Hopkin" to apologize for the least, or give the family recognition for their loved one. Looking at this story through "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" or through a cultural, or even a personal standpoint, knowing who Henrietta was and how she came to be is essential.

With the tone of the "life" portion of this novel, I feel like the author, Rebecca Skloot, puts herself into the story and her own bias persuading the reader to feel remorse for Henrietta Lacks. As is stated in the prelude, Rebecca Skloot had become very close with the family of Henrietta Lacks and had even come to a point where it was seen that Henrietta was "still alive". Skloot thought that "Henrietta's spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its path". This contributed to the tone of the book in describing the events that took place in Henrietta's early life and how and why she got stuck in the humiliating position that was her destiny.

I attached the picture of the starving child in Africa with some information if anyone hasn't seen it yet:

Andrew Holtz
05/18/2010 19:38

I absolutely agree with Mark on the point that Skloot makes you feel as your reading how this HeLa Cell miracle came from just an average normal person. What is even more incredible is the fact that Henrietta Lacks had a myriad of health issues including cancer. The fact that her cells lived on after the sicknesses that Henrietta went through truly is a miracle. In class, I was stunned to realize that Henrietta meant more to life when she died than when she was alive. That is horrible to say that about someone but it is true. I mean who was Henrietta Lacks before she died? Skloot does an incredible job of making that focal point the main message of the book but in a respectful way. Henrietta Lacks has meant so much to life and HeLa cells have saved so many lives that seems that it was only right to write a book about her life.

John Tripodo
05/18/2010 19:52

I thought that Skloot was affective in creating the sympathy this was written to induce. The small details about her and the people around her lives could convince the non-aware reader pretty efficiently. In this case, the author really inserts herself into her own story, and tells it from a clearly influenced position. Her intimacy with the Lacks family is another endearing factor to many readers.

I find myself leaning more towards Josh and Dylan's point of view when it comes to the morality and bio-ethics of the situation. Whether she wanted to or not, the procedure wasn't painful, debilitating, or degrading. And it ended up helping millions and millions of people. Works out for everyone, right?

Neil Mehta
05/18/2010 19:53

Rebecca Skloot represents Henrietta Lacks as short-lived, poor black woman whose cells have contributed to a medical revolution that has continued to save lives to this day. Through her descriptive and surprisingly in-depth details of Henrietta’s life, she causes the reader to feel sympathy towards the life of one of the most important contributors to medicine in history. This sympathy is created by Skloot’s ability to tell Henrietta’s life story by representing her as a woman who endured a difficult life and was in ways a victim to medical dishonesty and careless treatment. During the “Life” section of the book, Skloot depicts the stories that lead up to the discovery of her immortal cells and causes numerous scientific breakthroughs thus saving millions of lives. Ian’s last point about how she exaggerates parts of the story is clearly evident just by reading the first paragraph of Chapter 1. I agree with James and Dylan regarding how Skloot represents Henrietta as a hero, when in fact HeLa cells were only discovered because of the doctors experiments with cells. She does not give nearly enough credit to Dr. Gey who, with his assistants, discovered the immortal cells. I don’t believe Henrietta Lacks is a hero because it was by chance and inconceivable odds that her mysterious cells never died and she never even knew. It could have happened to anybody.

Karina Leiter
05/18/2010 19:55

Rebecca Skloot spent several years of her life depended to Henrietta Lacks and her story, so it would be understandable that she have an attached tone and sympathetic style. In the Life part of the book, Skloot makes you really get a sense of who Henrietta is so that when she dies you feel something and realize that she was a normal person. This book gives you opportunity to acknowledge the woman behind HeLa cells. Pat One's job is mainly to build the foundation for the rest of the story.

Continuing today's discussion in class, I don't believe that the story about Henrietta Lacks is about legal rights, because for the time period nothing illegal was done. What the story is about are moral rights and how even though it was legal to take her cells, the moral and right thing to do would be to at the very least show appreciation of Henrietta's contribution.

I think that the point Josh brings up is very powerful. It is not right to try and make Henrietta into a hero because she didn't choose to do an act of heroism, it was simply a coincidence for her. Most people would be honored if they knew that their cells contributed to science and medicine the way HeLa cells did.

Bharat Chandar
05/18/2010 20:12

I agree with Ian. Skloot tries to present the characters as human beings and unique individuals. The message she is trying to convey is that there was more to Henreietta, George Gey, Howard Jones, and the others than their roles in in the discovery of HeLa cells. They had unique families, friends, beliefs, morals, and histories. Skloot tries to invoke empathy by describing the human qualities in the characters.

On pages 90 and 91, Mary Kubicek is quoted as saying, "'When I saw those toenails I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we'd been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I'd never thought of it that way.'" This is a prime example of Skloot's use of Henrietta's human qualities to evoke empathy. The depressing tone of the chapter also forces the reader to empathize with Henrietta.

Personally, Skloot was more succesful in evoking empathy in the chapters where she wrote as a novelist moreso than a journalist. On page 134, Skloot does not engage my empathy to the same degree, even though the incident at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital was in many ways similar to Henrietta's story. It is not as engaging to read.Skloot likely wrote parts of the book as more of a novelist than a pure journalist precisely becasue it is more effective in procuring empathy.

Alex Brody
05/18/2010 21:09

Our discussion in class stated that Skloot definitely uses her tone and diction to create empathy for Henrietta’s story and life. She wants to acknowledge the life of an individual who is simply known for her cells, and not recognized as a human being. As Mary told Skloot years ago after seeing Henrietta’s toe nails, “Oh Jeez, she’s a real person.”

However, in an attempt to pull the reader to feel empathetic for Henrietta, she uses facts that seem extremely skeptical. The detailed imagery of Henrietta’s past seem too exaggerated and as Ian stated, overly detailed. It is feasible that Skloot used her “artistic license” to bring the reader closer to Henrietta and humanize her rather than victimize and utilize her as all the scientist did over fifty years ago.

Skloot goes beyond Henrietta and delves into her life, questioning family members, and friends to discover her legacy, her personality, and life. Surprisingly, given all the obstacles, Skloot obtains all these facts and is able to create a factual novel utilizing everything she can to portray the life of a utilized women stricken with misfortune and poverty.

It is simply by chance that Henrietta’s cell’s grew in culture and this novel would not exist if it happened to a different individual living in different circumstances such as wealth. The novel would not be as intriguing to the reader or much of a “Story.” The circumstances of Henrietta’s life and family layout a perfect novel for today’s society. The fact is that Skloot is making a lot of money, maybe millions, while some of Henrietta’s family members cannot afford healthcare.

Khadijah Stephen
05/19/2010 07:42

Similar to what many of my peers stated. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was mainly written as a contribution and to bring awareness of this woman who changed the lives of millions of people around the world. Humanizing the people in the book,Henrietta Lacks, Day, and George Gey, instead of taking notice of them because of simply what they did and how they did it, draws the reader into the book more on an emotional level. Although she tries to remain as factional about the events that happen as much as she can, she remains to wrtie as though it was a screenplay. Whether or not one should remain skeptical about her words is up to them, however I believe Skloot writes as a honest and truthful writer.

noah friedman
05/19/2010 14:06

I agree 100% with Dylan. Henrietta Lacks did nothing besides develop cancer and have some of that tissue removed at John Hopkins (which was not illegal at the time, so there can be no legitimate legal prosecution about it now). She does deserve recognition, but the real heroes of the story were the doctors who made massive medical breakthroughs with HeLa cells.

Going into the book with this bias, Skloot's diction and tone can often annoy me, just because I realize that she is 1. trying to make the reader think that Henrietta was raped of her humanity (which she was not), by showing her humanity (much of which is obviously fabrication) and 2. capitalizing off the story.

What I do not understand is how anyone can think that Henrietta was wronged in any way. Doctors took some of her cells, just like they did to everyone else, and they turned out to be able to save millions of people with them. Simple as that. Should her family have health care? Yes, they should, but no one has any legal obligation to them and although that may be hugely unfair, there have been far greater tragedies. In the big picture, the events of this book are actually a huge victory for mankind.... Think about it

Sarah Rutland
05/19/2010 18:48

Of course, being the last to comment, I have the unfortunate fate of repeating much of what previous classmates have already said. However! I’ll take a shot ☺

As made clear by our class discussions - and evident throughout he book- Skloots uses a variety of tones throughout her book. When describing scientific processes, discoveries, or simply explaining foreign concepts to the reader, Skloots takes on a professional, informative tone. When referring to the racism and difficulties encountered by Henrietta and her family, Skloot, at times, jumpes in with a slightly more aggressive tone emphasizing the hardships and injustice the Lacks’ frequently faced. When speaking about the life stories of specific people, whether it be Henrietta, George Gey, Debra, the Lithuanian assistant, or herself, Skloots takes on a personal, more intimate tone. As Ian pointed out, Skloots stays true to the opening quote of her book: "No human being is an abstraction."

When using this empathetic tone, though, Skloots runs the risk of letting bias blend with her writing. If this book were a newspaper column, that would be completely unacceptable. However, the reader has to remember that Skoolts spend 10 years gathering information, writing, rewriting, and meticulously crafting this book. Ten Years!! Ten years ago I was 6 and in 1st grade just mastering multiplication. Ten years is a Looooooooooooooong time! I like the fact that Skloot integrates herself into this book and has a personal connection with her subject. It would be insane for her not to have an opinion—this thing encompassed a decade of her life! Overall, I find Skloots’ tone very effective making this book an enjoyable, inspiring experience.

Lastly, in response to our class discussion and those who have commented on whether or not this book has value, I would like to fight in favor of this story. For the sake of at least respectful acknowledgement, Henrietta Lacks deserves to be more than just the anonymous “HeLa” labeled on a test tube. What I like about this book is that, though you may not praise Henrietta or regard her as any kind of hero, it simply gives a name to the ever-present HeLa cells. The book tells where they came from thus giving a story, a face even, to this ubiquitous scientific resource. You have to admit (don’t deny it) it is an interesting story no matter your opinion.

11/23/2010 07:28

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