I won my copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot as a free giveaway from Lost Generation Reader during the Literary Blog Hop at the end of October.
I’m not sure I would have necessarily picked this up on my own, but after a few friends recommended it, I decided to choose it for my Literary Blog Hop win. I’m just more of an artistic person and for that reason usually cautious about science-focused books—not that I think it wouldn’t be interesting, but that the language may be too technical and I’ll get lost. Luckily that was not an issue in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I was hooked right from the beginning.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman born in the 1920s to a tobacco-farming family, married her cousin and had five children, and died from cancer in the early 1950s. Living in Baltimore, Henrietta sought treatment at Johns Hopkins, where the doctors took a tissue sample from a malignant tumor on her cervix without her knowledge. The cells from this tumor (known as HeLa) ended up being nothing short of what some would call miraculous, multiplying at an incredible rate and thriving outside the body. Doctors, scientists, and researchers around the world bought, sold, and gifted her increasingly valuable and ever-growing cells for decades, which aided in revolutionary developments and discoveries for modern medicine. For Henrietta’s family living in poverty, the decades passed as normal all the while never knowing their mother’s cells were the centerpiece of one medical breakthrough after another and spurred a multi-billion dollar enterprise. They were shrouded in doubt and little information (or misinformation, or none at all) basically until Rebecca Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She has donated some proceeds of the book to education funds for Henrietta’s descendants.
I read this 420-ish page book really quickly, in five days. The material is fascinating, although, like I said I’m not very knowledgeable about tissue, cells, culture medium, and so on, so while I couldn’t exactly manifest images of these things in my mind, Skloot kept the technical and medical jargon to a minimum but didn’t dumb it down for readers. She had a matter-of-fact tone throughout, even while describing some rather shocking hospital practices (normal for the 1950s, unheard of now).
The Lacks family is full of charismatic and charming people. Henrietta’s younger daughter Deborah—only about four years old when her mother died—is really the heart and soul of the book. I loved her enthusiasm and cheerfulness, and felt deeply for her confusion and fear. The void left in Deborah’s life of a mother she barely remembered and older sister she never knew—Elsie, institutionalized for “idiocy” at age 5—was heartbreaking. She was understandably full of endless questions. Deborah’s brothers—Lawrence and Zakariyya—had anger, suspicion, and doubts about their mother’s cells and who can blame them after years of getting the run-around from investigators, lawyers, and doctors who claimed trustworthiness. Deborah’s brother Sonny was a bright spot in the book, an optimist who was just happy his mother’s cells were being used for good, despite the family never seeing a penny from the commercialization of Henrietta’s cells.
Part of the story is Skloot’s first-person account of working with Deborah and the rest of the Lacks family to track down details of Henrietta’s life and the circumstances surrounding and following her death. I know some people had trouble with this first-person aspect from the author, but it didn’t bother me. The (few) science-themed books I’ve read had this quality, so perhaps it’s a new normal (Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, Bonk by Mary Roach come to mind). I found Skloot to be respectful, true to her word, and gracious with the Lacks family. I did feel a sense that she came to have a genuine fondness for them and a strong bond with Deborah.
I never heard of Henrietta Lacks before reading this book. I had no idea her cells were used to develop things like the polio vaccine, cloning, and much more. Her cells were tested against exposure to harsh conditions like outer space and nuclear bombs, to see how human bodies would react. The most interesting parts of the book for me, though, were the injustices done to the Lacks family (it is a shameful travesty, what they’ve gone through), the history of medical experimentation on Black Americans (going into some history on the Tuskegee syphilis study and more), and the ethical grey area of legalities surrounding informed consent and use of our cells after they leave our bodies. I wonder if there will ever be a definitive solution. An excellent, informative, thought-provoking read!
Read from November 29 to December 3, 2012.