Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I had planned to read this at some point, but bumped it up in my queue when I heard about Go Big Read, the University of Wisconsin Common Reading Program. I like it when a book gets a lot of attention around here; it makes for a change from all the fuss about the football team. Rebecca Skloot is speaking on campus in late October. For information about that event, and others related to Go Big Read, click on the button on my sidebar.

This book is the true story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman from Baltimore who had cancerous cells taken from her body without her consent by researchers at Johns Hopkins hospital. Because these cells (codenamed HeLa) were among the first to grew easily in a lab, they became the basis for much of the medical research that goes on today around the world. Biologists work on HeLa cells all the time, for cancer research, but also for research on genetics, organ transplantation, and pharmaceutical development. The book is a fascinating combination of family saga and medical documentary. Skloot explains the science well and doesn’t overdo (or underdo) it. Her portrait of Henrietta and her family is sensitive and honest. Henrietta’s early death from cancer left her young family motherless and adrift. Her cells proliferated while her family barely got by.

I’ve heard criticism that this book portrays the Lacks family unflatteringly. Skloot has transcribed their voices from her recordings of her interviews with them, and she included their regionalisms and reproduced their accents. She also doesn’t omit unpleasant details like Henrietta’s son’s prison record and tendency toward continued violence. The Lacks family suffers from entrenched poverty, poor education, and little access to reliable health care. Their situation is far from unique and Skloot is never judgmental. I thought it was a good look at one family’s situation, and an important part of the narrative.

The book brings up so many issues: Why could the researchers take Henrietta’s cells without her permission? (In many situations it’s still possible for this to happen today.) Why is it okay for someone to profit from the sale of Henrietta’s cells when she and her family received nothing for them? (Tissue culture vendors sell HeLa cells by the test-tube-full.) What part does this story play in the long history of exploitative research on African Americans by white scientists? Why is the health care system in the U.S. so uneven and unfair? Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, points out the irony of her family’s situation:
Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.

(Book 45, 2010)


Sarah Laurence said...

It's an amazing story. I hope the publication of this book is helping her family now.

Shelley said...

I agree with the above comment.

Reading the excerpt from the book reminded me of a problem I faced in my own writing: there's something about trying to write a straight transcription of "the way people talk" that ends up sounding patronizing and makes them sound stupid when they're not.

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