The Trouble With Trouble
Closer to the Edge, Closer to Home

The Woman Behind HeLa: A Review of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot

Lscks Though she may be a science writer, author Rebecca Skloot has a gift for taking esoteric topics over which non-scientists' eyes may glaze and writing about them in a winsome, broadly accessible, and humanizing way.  Her first full-length book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is no exception. Part science, history, biography, and race relations study, Skloots' meticulously researched topic --- the medical and human legacy of a cancerous cell line taken from a poor African-American woman without her knowledge or consent --- is put in the context of its time, illuminating the issues and lives swirling around this seemingly inconsequential event that had enormous positive ramifications for medicine, and yet one which caused such difficulties for the family of Henrietta Lacks.

For those who don't know (which likely includes most of us), the cancerous tissue taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 by doctors at Johns Hopkins led to the famous and ubiquitous HeLa cell line.  From that cell line  --- which, unlike most normal cells, continues to thrive and divide and multiply even to this day (hence, its "immortality") --- mind-blowing medical advances have been made, including cancer treatments, breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning, and fertility, and yet the world until recently knew next to nothing about the woman who gave us these cells.  Worse yet, her own family --- tobacco sharecroppers and then Baltimore factory workers --- had little idea of what their mother gave the world.  To the extent they did, their knowledge was incomplete, mired in confusion, and eclipsed by their own difficulties.  And when multi-billion dollar businesses began to profit off the HeLa cell line, they wondered why they had so little and struggled so much as well as why their mother, sister, and grandmother was so unknown to the world when so much money was being made off her.

According to Skloot, she became intrigued by Henrietta Lacks when she heard her name in a college-level biology class she took when she was 16.  She wanted the back-story, one no one seemed able to provide.  After college she picked up the story in a decade-long study that reads almost like an anthropological participant-observer study.  Skloot herself becomes a character in the story, writing about how she researched the book, how she met the Lacks family, and all her many interactions with them, both good and bad.  It truly is an anthropological study, in that the background and culture from which Skloot came --- educated, white, and nonreligious --- is far removed from that of the Lacks --- poor, undereducated, and religious.  Part of the beauty of the book is watching the two peoples interact and begin to trust and, in a real sense, grow to love each other.

For writers, other pleasures abound.  First, there is simply the evident work ethic embraced by the author.  The time, personal involvement, and attention to detail over the better part of a decade evidence her commitment.  Writing is not easy, but it can be rewarding.  We can better savor the meal when we appreciate the ingredients and labor that went into it.  Another pleasure is hearing the Lacks family members speak in their own words, in their dialect, something they requested and a request the author adhered to, all to the good as it lends the book credibility in its honesty and human warmth.  Science is one thing.  These are real people.  As was Henrietta Lacks.  And while Skloot provides plenty of detail about her sources, enough to serve as a primer on how to go about researching such a book, it's tucked away in an endnote, not cluttering up a flowing, almost novel-like tale.

Christians may find particular delight in watching the author, a self-described nonreligious person who never prayed, interact with a sin-wracked and struggling and yet often deeply religious family.  The strangeness of religious experience is never more evident than in this passage, when one of Henrietta's sons, Gary, ministers to his overwrought and hysterical sister, Deborah, while Skloot is watching the loud preaching, praying, singing, and weeping:

I'd been watching all this from a recliner a few feet away, dumbfounded, terrified to move or make noise, frantically scribbling notes.  In any other circumstance I might have thought the whole thing crazy.  But what was happening between Gary and Deborah at that moment was the furthest thing from crazy I'd seen all day.  As I watched, all I could think was, Oh my god. . . I did this to her.

And then Gary came for Rebecca Skloot.

This story moves you, educates you, and humanizes you, like all great stories should.  And while the policy issues surrounding use of tissues, both the nature of consent and who should profit, are important, at the heart of this book is the story of its people.  For that reason alone, you should read it.