The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Crown, $26, February 2, 2010
If you read primarily fiction, or the word “HeLa” brings back bad memories from high school biology class, you might look skeptically at Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. That would be a mistake, because this book is a page-turner. (And many, many people agree—it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for 17 weeks, and Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball are producing an adaptation for HBO.)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is, essentially, a two-part history: a history of HeLa cells, and a history of the descendants of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cervical cancer cells would become HeLa in 1951 (without her or her family’s knowledge). Woven into these stories are questions and reflections on science, ethics, race and class; as Skloot writes in the book’s intro, “I’ve done my best to present them clearly within the narrative of the Lacks story, and I’ve included an afterword addressing the current legal and ethical debate surrounding tissue ownership and research.” (And, true story: The questions raised in that afterword kept me up longer than the creepy scenes in The Passage.)
All the HeLa cells ever grown would weigh about 50 million metric tons, and HeLa cells are still used in labs around the world. They have helped develop drugs for treating numerous diseases, from influenza to Parkinson’s. While this research was taking place—and pharmaceutical companies were making millions of dollars—Henrietta’s family could not afford health insurance.
Skloot spent 10 years of her life working on this book, and over that time period she became close with the Lacks family, especially Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter and the heart of the book. The excerpted passage describes the moment Deborah agreed to cooperate with Skloot.
A few days later, ten months after our first conversation, Deborah called me. When I answered the phone, she yelled, “Fine, I’ll talk to you!” She didn’t say who she was and didn’t need to. “If I’m gonna do this, you got to promise me some things,” she said. “First, if my mother is so famous in science history, you got to tell everybody to get her name right. She ain’t no Helen Lane. And second, everybody always say Henrietta Lacks had four children. That ain’t right, she had five children. My sister died and there’s no leavin her out of the book. I know you gotta tell all the Lacks story and there’ll be good and bad in that cause of my brothers. You gonna learn all that, I don’t care. The thing I care about is, you gotta find out what happened to my mother and my sister, cause I need to know.”
She took a deep breath, then laughed.
“Get ready, girl,” she said. “You got no idea what you gettin yourself into.”
You can read more about Rebecca Skloot, the Lacks family and the book at the author’s website. Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? What did you think?
What are you reading today?