The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Originally published: 2010, U.S.
328 pages (excluding endnotes)
Rating: 3 (Worth a Try)
How would you like it if you were told that your mother, who had died decades ago, had cells that were alive in laboratories all across the globe? This is the situation the Lacks family found themselves in 22 years after the death of their mother, Henrietta Lacks or, as her cells are known, HeLa. In 1951 doctors at Johns Hopkins treated a black woman and took cells from her cancerous cervix without permission or informing the patient or her family. Today, these cells are being used in laboratories around the world to try out new vaccines, study cell structures, and more. HeLa cells were used to create the famous polio vaccine and have also been used in cloning experiments. HeLa cells are famous, but Skloot tells the story mostly of the woman who supplied them.
The information in this book is fantastic. Skloot, who is mostly a science writer, brings her understanding of science to this very human story of the Lacks family. Skloot uses vocabulary that is understandable and tries to make the story relatable by telling it either through her eyes as she researches this story or from the somewhat fictionalized position of Henrietta Lacks and her doctors. Skloot brings to the forefront of this novel issues of race and class, the changing issues of medical privacy and ownership, and justice. She does a good job also of weaving in the story of the Lacks family up to the current day, their awkward position of being informed over 20 years too late of the HeLa cells and not being properly informed about what they were or what they had done for the scientific community. Most of the members of the Lacks family are in need of medical insurance that they cannot afford, and although companies have sold HeLa for a profit, the family has not seen any of that money. The question, really, is should they? Are those cells part of Henrietta Lacks? Are they property of her and is her family granted legal protection for them? Through this book, Skloot expresses some important modern questions of scientific property without stepping up on a soapbox, and reveals historic scientific practices that may be considered grotesque by today’s standards (like radium treatments for cervical cancer in 1951).
The style of this book is a mixture of fiction-like stories (based on real life research) set in the past about Henrietta and her family and Skloot’s research for writing this story. Maybe this is a personal issue, but I have never been a fan of books written from the researcher’s perspective about doing their research; the author cannot help but sound self-centered. Not only does this tactic expose the writer to a book full of “I” statements, but it also forces her point of view on the book—in this case, that of a scientifically-minded, middle-class white woman. This perspective is not wrong or bad in itself, this is who Skloot is, but it makes for some awkward moments in dealing with race relations as well as the presentation of the Lacks family and where they live. For example, Skloot’s discussion of the black Lackses and the white Lackses is handled with such uncertainty from the narrator/author that it sounds like this is the first ever discussion about a mixed family with distinct branches. Overall, I find this storytelling strategy uneven with some awkward racial moments built in that I could write a whole literary article evaluating.
Skloot’s debut novel provides interesting facts and perspectives about important scientific issues of today by looking at the story of Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells. This is a story that I believe, like Skloot, needs to be told. Although the storytelling is uneven and includes a whole lot of the author’s point of view, this book is worth reading for the information and the story. I recommend picking it up, but perhaps at your local library.