HeLalujah: A Review of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Melanie Henderson

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot

Crown Publisher 2010

Non-Fiction, Hardback, 368 pages

$26.00, ISBN 978-1-4000-5217-2


HeLalujah: A Review of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Melanie Henderson


    Tobacco. Polio Vaccine. Prison. Sharecropper. Nuremberg Code. Red Nail Polish. Biopsy. Hoodoo. One reads the preceding list of words and wonders what any of them have to do with each other. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, makes them seamless in their connection.

       The inspiration for Skloot’s book began in a biology class when she was an unsuspecting college student. Her experiences in that context led her to the story of Henrietta Lacks, the person, the woman, and the mother of what is known as HeLa cells. A HeLa cell is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. The cell line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, who eventually died from cancer on October 4, 1951.

      These singular cells are the source of many major 20th century scientific and medical advancements. The development of the polio vaccine, procedures for cell culturing, and gene mapping are some notable breakthroughs. In addition, the invaluable cells were the source of huge profits, each penny of which has escaped Henrietta Lacks’ descendants.

      An eye-opener to many, Skloot’s account is both disturbing and miraculous. With the suspenseful energy of a major fictional drama, and all the integrity expected in the craft of non-fiction, Skloot’s literary debut is impressive for its literary qualities. Though fragmented, the story moves along coherently through decades of the Lacks’ family history, and through the family’s daily reckoning with half-truths. Skloot does not spare the important details. She makes it clear that many landmark medical advancements were made possible only because of Lacks’ cervical cancer, and one scientist’s determined (and arguably self-serving) efforts to grow an immortal cell.

         Skloot’s story, which is comparable to the discoveries of unethical human experimentation in Nazi Germany on Jewish people, and the U.S. Tuskegee Syphilis Studies on African American men, seems to defy genre placement. Her account is painterly, portraying scenery, people, and specific time periods with every sensory device, including the ethereal sixth sense. She relays a time in Henrietta Lacks’ youth when she, along with siblings, cousins, and her Grandpa Tommy, rode into South Boston with horses lugging the tobacco they would sell:

The auctioneer rattled off numbers that echoed through the huge open room, its ceiling nearly thirty feet high and covered with skylights blackened by years of dirt. As Tommy Lacks stood by his crop praying for a good price, Henrietta and the cousins ran around the tobacco piles, talking in a fast gibberish to sound like the auctioneer. At night they’d help Tommy haul any unsold tobacco down to the basement, where he’d turn the leaves into a bed for the children. White farmers slept upstairs in lofts and private rooms; black farmers slept in the dark underbelly of the warehouse with the horses, mules, and dogs, on a dusty dirt floor lined with rows of wooden stalls for livestock, and mountains of empty liquor bottles piled almost to the ceiling.

Night at the warehouse was a time of booze, gambling, prostitution, and occasional murders as farmers burned through their season’s earnings. From their bed of leaves, the Lacks children would stare at ceiling beams the size of trees as they drifted off to the sound of laughter and clanking bottles, and the smell of dried tobacco [21].

      The almost poetic artfulness of Skloot’s prose does not undermine the honesty bound within the pages of her book. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks begins with a quote from one of Henrietta’s relatives, “If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest. It’s taking away their lives, their experiences, and their selves (ix).” Perhaps Skloot is inspired by Emily Dickinson to tell all the truth but tell is slant. Yet, it is more likely she is compelled to tell a real human story to her readers in honor of Henrietta Lacks. The integrity of Skloot’s research speaks to this point. The Lacks family has fought fiercely to preserve and protect the memory of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot does the same as she tells the story of Lacks with accuracy, candor and power.

      By the book’s end, the invaluable HeLa cell line is no longer a faceless specimen. It is rightfully reunited with the person, the descendant of slaves and slave owners, the mother, the wife, the someone somebody loved. The specimen a dreaming scientist in a Johns Hopkins lab made off with has indeed changed the face of science and medicine; Skloot, however, has changed the way people will think of routine doctors’ visits, medical ethics, and health care access for years to come.

      The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brings into mainstream consciousness important names in scientific practice and pedagogy, such as George Gey, Leonard Hayflick, Stanley Gartler, Harald van Hausen, and Roland Pattillo, noting their important contributions in those discplines. Even so, the book deals with far more than simple science and medicine; it brazenly raises issue with medical ethics, health care access, mental illness, incest, infidelity, ideals of femininity, long-term effects of STVs/STDs, poverty, and much more without ever sacrificing the overall cohesiveness of the story. It seems Skloot’s book may become required reading in universities in several areas of study–especially in science, medicine, journalism, and English. Additionally, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is likely to provide insight to the person beginning the exhausting process of genealogical research.

      The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the best books of non-fiction I have read and is well worth the $26.00 shelf price it boasts.


About anotefrommel

The circle bio: I am many things. many people. many traditions. many minds. i begin this blog to divulge the tweety and sylester chase like debates i hold center stage, artistic (presidential at times), to attempt to make some sense of it all. relations are vital. i do not seek them. i want them naturally. this blog isn't natural communication. but much less mechanical and spiritless digital social networking structures of this early 21st century. on this. i hope we take a turn from technology someday soon. to write history. i mean with a pencil. a smudge of 9B graphite. a blue drip of acrylic paint. a scribbled message on a diner napkin after a chocolate milkshake with whip cream. the whip cream is not optional. The square bio: Melanie Henderson, 4th generation native of Washington, DC, is a graduate of Howard University and earned an MFA from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. A visual and literary artist and an alum of Voices Summer Writing Workshops (VONA), Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming in such publications as Black Arts Quarterly, Drumvoices Revue, Jubilat, Tuesday; An Art Project, Warpland Journal, Fingernails across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora. She is a winner of the Larry Neal Writers Award, 2009, Adult Poetry category. Her manuscript, "Elegies for New York Avenue," won the 2011 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and is slated for publication in Winter 2011. She is the Managing Editor of Tidal Basin Review.

One thought on “HeLalujah: A Review of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Melanie Henderson

  1. You capture what matters about this book with the phrase that remembers she was: “…the someone somebody loved.” That is who Henrietta Lacks is and perhaps who we all hope to be. She has the right to that most human of descriptions. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this book.

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