The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Amazon Book Description:

“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.”

My Review:

I listened to the audio version of this book, and, for me, there were a few drawbacks. Skloot herself doesn’t read the book, but she makes it clear at the outset that she will use Black dialect whenever Black characters are speaking. Since the investment was made to hire someone to read the book, it should’ve been one who could produce an authentic sound. All the Black characters are voiced the same – male, female, young, old – doesn’t matter. They all sound exactly the same and often border on buffoonish.

Also, with listening to the book rather than reading it, I missed being able to pull my eyes away from the page to absorb and make sense of the text, which would’ve been helpful on the science parts of the book, especially Gartler’s contamination findings.

Another drawback, though not limited to the audio version, is Skloot’s need to give background information on almost ALL the characters. For instance, I really didn’t care to hear the life history of the lab assistant and how she came to work in Gey’s lab at Johns Hopkins. However, I was hesitant to FF through these extensive histories for fear of missing something important.

In any event, none of these things were deal breakers for me, and I commend Skloot for taking on this gargantuan project. I’ve read many reviews of those who feel the telling of the Lacks family history is unnecessary, and that Skloot should’ve stuck to the details of the HeLa cells and their effects on medical research, which, to me, sounds very much like a textbook.

At the end of the audio, Skloot actually gives an interview that sheds light on how the Lacks family’s story gets woven into the book and how the daughter, Deborah, becomes the central figure, neither of which had been Skloot’s intention. I appreciate the story much more after hearing this interview.

I know the sentiment has been raised that neither Henrietta Lacks nor her children deserve anything because Henrietta didn’t DO anything. However, Mrs. Lacks sought medical attention instead of dying at home in her bed, which is exactly what many Blacks did back then. I also believe that her family should’ve been informed when researchers discovered the miraculous nature of the HeLa cells.

In the Afterward of the book, Skloot does an excellent job of discussing where we are today in regards to the ethical and legal ramifications of cell research, patient consent, and patenting of one’s cells or tissues if they will be used commercially. Turns out that people who have found that their tissues are marketable and profitable seek compensation, and there are those in research and law who agree that they should be compensated. Of course no such discussions existed in 1951, yet I think it’s unfair to accuse the Lacks boys of simply being out to get money.

I believe the Lacks children’s reaction to the HeLa cells was a combination of their limited education, their inability to understand, from a research perspective, what was happening (they couldn’t differentiate between their mother’s cells and their mother herself), and mostly I believe they reacted the way they did because they are a part of a people who have historically been on the receiving end of abuse and exploitation. To leave the Lacks children in the dark was to deny them their family legacy of being able to say, “This is what our family has contributed to the world,” and what could be more incredible than that?