The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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 .
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.