Lawrence Lacks, the executor of his mother Henrietta Lacks‘ estate, says Oprah Winfrey, OWN, HARPO, HBO, Crown Publishing, and Random House’s upcoming movie, based on Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is an inaccurate portrayal of his family.
What’s more, he says, these entities continue the cycle of profiting from Henrietta’s legacy without giving back. Worse yet – they’re telling people they’re helping the family when they’re not, he added.
“Not only are they making money using my mother’s name – they’re telling people they’re supporting us when they’re not,” said Mr. Lacks. “It’s embarrassing. And when we try to raise money for our foundation or to help our family people say “you don’t need money – you’re rich. Oprah and HBO gave you all that money. Johns Hopkins paid for college.” None of it’s true. And now people ask us for money and not only is bad we can’t help our family – we can’t help others.”
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published by Crown Publishing Group in 2010, and is marketed as a factual book. It’s now required reading in several universities and high schools across the U.S. HBO and OWN will debut their movie based on the book April 22, 2017.
The Lacks family argues that the book doesn’t do his mother’s legacy justice, and inaccurately depicts the Lacks family as impoverished and uneducated farmers.
“It’s part of Skloot’s mythology and it feels very racist,” said Mr. Lacks. “If she can present the family as poor and uneducated, she can present herself as spokesperson for the family and make money and promote herself on her lies. It makes a better story if we’re poor and dumb.”
Mr. Lacks has been trying to set the record straight for years, and he’s hoping with the proof he now has, people will listen. Contrary to popular belief, the Estate of Henrietta Lacks has not received any money from Johns Hopkins, the NIH, Crown Publishing, Oprah Winfrey, pharmaceutical companies, HBO or OWN. In fact when the Lacks family approached these entities for help with medical bills – they were turned away.
“It’s bad enough Johns Hopkins took advantage of us,” Mr. Lacks said. “Now Oprah, Rebecca and HBO are doing the same thing. They’re no better than the people they say they hate.”
Mr. Lacks says he told Skloot there were many factual errors in her book and asked her not to publish it. Mr. Lacks was 17 when his mother died and vividly remembers details of Henrietta Lacks life and death. Other family members, including Deborah Lacks, also told Skloot her book was wrong. She ignored them.
According to the Lacks family, factual errors include:
• Henrietta was a sharecropper, when in fact, her family owned land.
• Henrietta couldn’t sign her name or read – when in fact the family has handwritten documents.
• Mr. Lacks hates white people. He does not.
• Skloot says raises money for the Lacks family. She made one small donation in 2011, although she continues to raise money. No one in the Lacks family knows where the money goes.
• Skloot used Lacks imposters to make money on speaking engagements.
• Deborah Lacks was very upset by the errors in Skloot’s book, Mr. Lacks says.
Crown Publishing issued letters through their spokesperson saying The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was vigorously fact checked. Mr. Lacks says Crown may have called some people, but no one called him. He was there during her life and her death. What’s more, he adds, Skloot only spent an hour with him researching her book.
In a strange twist, Mr. Lacks says there are two women posing as Lacks family members to make money. Mr. Lacks says he’s told Skloot many times that Veronica Spencer and Victoria Baptiste are not his granddaughters, though their mother erroneously told them they were related to Henrietta Lacks. Mr. Lacks has told these women for years they are not.
Both women are identified as Henrietta’s great-granddaughters by the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which is managed by Skloot. The women posing as Lacks family members are just below the donor solicitation button on Skloots Fundraising page.
Yet Mr. Lacks says Skloot told people these women are Henrietta’s grandchildren and uses their names to raise funds. Please see how these women are listed on the front of Skloot’s Foundation page. The Baltimore City Police have been notified of possible fraud, Mr. Lacks said. Skloot and both women have made money traveling across the country on what Skloot (through her lawyer) readily agrees are lucrative speaking engagements.
HBO and OWN were told these women were imposters and they paid them any way, Lacks said.
He adds that Skloot says she paid for his hearing aids.
“It’s a lie,” he said. “The VA paid for my hearing aids. That woman never gave me a dime and she needs to stop saying she did. She’s hurt our family as much as Johns Hopkins.”
When asked if HBO or Oprah would consider a donation to the family, Mr.Lacks said both companies declined through their lawyers. Now the family sees that Oprah is making even more money by putting her picture on the cover of Skloot’s book and are hurt.
“Henrietta’s two other sons are in shabby nursing homes and Oprah won’t help,” said Mr. Lacks. “Everyone is going to assume we got paid or a got a car, like that ‘you get a car thing.’ I asked her for help with medical bills and she said she and HBO declined. It’s her money and she can do what she wants. I just don’t want people to think she’s helping us.”