A review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Greetings Fellow Tar Valonians and Fans of WOT. I am Adina Sedai of the Blue Ajah, and I love books. All kinds of books, any genre, for all ages. Please join me in my reading adventures!
Why I chose this book:
Given the nature of our site, I feel it is safe to say that many of us are fantasy and fiction lovers – however, I wanted to start this series out with a bit of “reality” as it impacts the events of our world right now.
The COVID pandemic and Black Lives Matter have both had an undeniable, far reaching presence across the globe. I chose this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, because it features a woman of color, some interesting science that has impacted all of us, and research that could possibly play a role in coming up with a viable vaccine for COVID. An added bonus in selecting this book is that, as of the date of this article’s creation, it is banned book week in the United States, and this book has been banned (or at least challenged for banning) in Tennessee. The mother who pushed to have the book banned challenged it because she felt it was too indelicate about female bodies and sexual issues. However, the author’s response to the challenge was “A parent . . . has confused gynecology with pornography and is trying to get my book banned . . .” After having read this book, I agree with the author and did not find the book to be inappropriate or sexual, but there is a whole lot of science going on.
What is it about?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is based on a real woman named Henrietta Lacks, who passed away from cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. She was a Black woman who spent her short life working to take care of her large extended family, and then of her own five children. She was known for her kind and generous nature, her beauty and love of life, and her welcoming home. Her story is told over the course of decades, with the time period and focus changing with each chapter. Some chapters focus on Henrietta herself, some focus on her daughter Deborah and other family members, and some focus on the science and history of her cells and cellular research.
Henrietta Lacks discovered a tumor on her cervix, and sought treatment at Johns Hopkins hospital. As part of her exam, a doctor removed a sample of the tumor and passed it along to a coworker who was doing a cell study. Unlike all prior attempts at culturing cells with other unaware patients’ sample tissues, Henrietta’s cancer cells did not die. They in fact robustly lived on, and multiplied rapidly. The research scientist named the cell line “HeLa,” and passed samples of the new cells to a friend, who passed them to another friend, and so on until one day someone decided to monetize the cell acquisition system. The HeLa cell line is so productive and useful it is now found in virtually all labs that do any kind of cell studies.
Cells from Ms. Lacks have been used to come up with numerous medications, vaccines, and information in all areas of science. They have also caused millions of dollars of damage to other trials and experiments because the cells are from a cancer so productive and invasive that they regularly and easily contaminate other projects.
The thing is, despite their value scientifically and monetarily, no one ever asked Ms. Lacks for her permission to take her cells, and no one ever came to her family after she passed away to ask if they could continue to do research with her cells. This is where the sections with Deborah and the rest of the family come into play.
Deborah’s quest to find out more about her mother and sister dominate the family sections. Deborah is the fourth of Henrietta’s five children, and was only a toddler when her mother died. She was not even told she had an older sister, Elsie, the second of the five, until much later in her life. The family were poor, under educated, and undervalued, and chose not to seek out regular medical care because of the rumors of doctors experimenting on Black patients. Some would say they were taken advantage of, and that they should have been cut in on the profit that was eventually made from the HeLa cells. Others (including this author) argue that at the very least the family should have been made aware of the situation long before they were.
I found the sections with Deborah to be much more of an emotional read than I was expecting for this type of subject. It was very clear over the course of the years this book took to develop that Ms. Skloot came to care deeply for the Lacks family and felt a genuine burden to help them understand the situation and uncover as much information as she could. Because of her and Deborah’s perseverance we got to read about Deborah discovering the truth about her sister’s death. (It was not pretty.) We also got to experience Deborah getting to view some of her mother’s cell line for the first time. For a person who spent so much time in fear and frustration over what happened with her mother, Deborah is an extremely positive and forgiving person. Deborah wanted the world to know that “HeLa” was a real woman, named Henrietta Lacks, not Helen Lane, and now we know.
My personal take:
It is always a good thing when a book teaches you something. In this case, it taught me more about science, racial inequality, and the ethics (really, lack thereof!) of the medical field at the time this ground breaking research was taking place. The study of cells and tissues is wide and deep, legally speaking. I was surprised to learn that at the time of the book’s publishing in 2010, and despite the field having developed patient privacy and consent laws, the patient whose body the scrapings came from does not own, nor can they patent anything that is developed from their body. Makes me wonder what my tonsils have been up to since I forcibly evicted from my body so many years ago.
I admire the author’s dedication to the story. She spent over a decade working on interviews, at her own personal cost, helping Deborah to find the answers she desperately wanted about her mother and sister. Some of the experiences that did make it into the book seem like they would have been pretty intense, and if it was me, I probably would have “noped” out of there on more than one occasion.
I am thankful for all that has come from cellular research. I am thankful to know now who Henrietta Lacks was, and is, and how very important she is to all of us. I hope you take the opportunity to learn more about her as well.
Similar reading/books like it that I have read and recommend:
1. The 1978 article by Michael Rogers that first broke the news about Ms. Lacks’ race, and the contamination issues that resulted.
2. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women – Kate Moore
3. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family – Robert Kolker
4. Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital – Eric Manheimer, MD
How about you, my friends? What are you reading? Do you have book recommendations for me that you’d like to see reviewed in the TVT? I’d love to hear from you! Please drop me a PM, all genres welcome!