Review: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

immortal-life

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

  • Date finished: Nov. 23, 2013
  • Genre: Science
  • Year: 2010
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Fall 2013
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon finishing:

In the past year or so, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more quality non-fiction. Sometimes, these books fall short and I ask myself – “Why don’t I just stick with fiction?!” However, after having been fascinated by the idea of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for awhile, and just now finishing the very science-y book that read more like a novel – I can’t say I’m disappointed.

In The Immortal Life, journalist Rebecca Skloot tells the story of a bunch of cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman in Baltimore in the early 1950’s. While the woman would eventually die from an advanced and aggressive case of cervical cancer, the cells would miraculously live on, reproducing against all odds in labs around the world, creating the basis for an industry that would cure polio, discover new ways to treat cancer and unlock the secrets of gene mapping. However, the cells have always been a bitter subject for Lacks’ family, who currently live in poverty, without basic health insurance, and confused about the implications of their mother’s cells for modern medical research.

This book was good. While I was working at Books-A-Million, I tried recommending it to a woman browsing our paperback table, a woman who quickly told me she had already read it and didn’t like it. I can see how this might happen: the book can be dense at times when describing the science behind the cells, why they freakishly reproduced, and the research that went into them. However, I found Skloot’s research fascinating, especially after reading The Emperor of All Maladies – a biography of cancer, of sorts – a year or so ago. HeLa cells are a medical marvel, and their story is alone is fascinating enough, I’m surprised I hadn’t yet heard of them.

And yet, Skloot isn’t the first journalist to tell the story of HeLa cells, as she quickly points out. The BBC produced a documentary, dozens of journalists – including one reporter from Rolling Stone – have interviewed the Lacks family, and the story is well-known in medical circles and in medical textbooks around the world. But while the amazing HeLa cells stay at the center of Skloot’s story, The Immortal Life stands out in how it simultaneously tells the story of Lacks’ family. This is a family bitter from years of interviews, paranoid and obsessed with the idea that John Hopkins owes them millions of dollars from the sale of HeLa cells (even though the first scientist who cultured them gave them away). It’s a family in and out of jail, living in poverty and still trying to make sense of their mother/grandmother’s medical legacy, even when many of them don’t understand how a cell works.

Somehow, Skloot manages to befriend Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah – who was just a baby when Henrietta died – and together, they embark on a quest to not only understand the impact of Henrietta’s cells to medical research, but Henrietta’s life. This book is about the pain that comes with a mother’s death, and how it can affect her children, brothers, cousins. And it’s about not even knowing one’s mother, yet knowing that her cells – whatever they are – continue to live on in labs around the world. What does that mean and if there are so many of her cells out there, why isn’t Henrietta here with us again?

This book is also about the history of medical ethics as it has evolved in the past half century, especially as it pertains to race. However, while this was interesting, I still found the story of Deborah and Henrietta’s family to be the strongest part of the book. Sometimes, I was a little annoyed at Deborah and her family – “You didn’t even know science had her cells anyway, and it’s not like they could bring her back anyway. Get over it!” But at the same time, if science had commandeered such an important part of my life – a person, a mother, who could never be replaced – and then refused to tell me anything because I was poor, black and well, unimportant … well, I might be angry too.

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