The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot has written a masterpiece with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a nonfiction book that’s about, well, that’s another story, because it’s not a biography, but it is about Henrietta Lacks, it’s not a memoir, although Rebecca’s story is integral to the narrative, and it’s not a science book, even though The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the impact of cell culture on our lives.  More than anything I think this book is about storytelling, and to understand why I say that means explaining the emerging genre of creative nonfiction.

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Rebecca Skloot has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and has taught Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis.  Creative nonfiction uses techniques borrowed from fiction to tell a true, nonfictional story.  Creative nonfiction walks a delicate ethical line because in presenting the facts more engagingly and creatively writers sometimes step over the line into fiction.  To combat this, writers often put themselves into the story to explain how they acquires their facts, and thus they become part of the story themselves.  The first book I remember using these techniques was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe that I read back in the 1960s.  Wolfe called it new journalism back then.

Now I’m going to be upfront here and state that my goal in writing this essay is to get you to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  And to be perfectly honest, I do have several obstacles to overcome before I convince you to go out and buy this book.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about so many different things, working at so many different levels that it’s hard to describe.  I could just tell you to go Google “Best Books of 2010” and you’ll find Skloot’s book on many people’s list of best books of 2010, and let you read their praises.  But I don’t think that’s good enough.  I think I need to offer some specific hooks.

Immortality

Most people want to be immortal, and like Woody Allen, most people would prefer the kind of immortality where we just didn’t die.  Religious folk have the promise of heaven, but us skeptical people must live with a kind of shadowy immortality, of just being remembered.  On the surface, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about her cancer cells, called HeLa, that were cultured in 1951 and are still living today.  HeLa cells are the first line of immortal cells, and that’s one thrilling scientific aspect of this book.

However, the book deals with other kinds of immortality too, in different layers of this story, which is why I love this story so much.

  • In the process of writing this book Skloot shows what’s left of a person after they die.  For Henrietta Lacks, that wasn’t much, a hank of hair in an old Bible, a couple photos, an unmark grave, a handful family stories and, medical records.  Have you ever wondered how much of our lives are left in moldy files and computers digits?
  • The traditional down to Earth road to immortality is by having children, and Henrietta had five, and Skloot spends years getting to know them, which gives this book heart.
  • Some people seek immortality through creative work, but sadly Henrietta didn’t.  She never knew of her great accomplishments, which accidently turn out to be astounding.
  • A few people are remembered because people write about them, and Rebecca Skloot has written a book that should last a long time.  Most nonfiction books have short lifespans, but I think The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should have the same kind of longevity as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
  • Finally, Henrietta herself didn’t live forever, but one strain of her cancer cells did.  They went on to revolutionize science and medical research, and this is the science part of Rebecca’s book that should amaze readers.  I read a lot of science books and I didn’t know about HeLa cells.

Medical Misconduct

At another level The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a series of indictments against medical research, with some of the charges being historically horrifying, especially the stories about medical experiments done on institutionalize African Americans.  Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, the same year I was born, so in my lifetime the changes in patient rights have been dramatic.  Yet I wonder, are there research procedures used today that in another fifty years will horrify our descendants?

I don’t want to go into the specifics of what Skloot reports because it would spoil the reading of her story.  Let’s just say what happens to this one family is shocking.  HBO and Oprah Winfrey are working on a film version of this story and I’m curious how they are going to dramatize it.  I wonder if they follow the creative nonfiction structure Skloot has created, or if the film people will go linear and try to reenact the 1951 for the Lacks and follow her daughter Elsie, and her life at Crownville Hospital Center.

How the mentally ill are treated in America is a story our society has always kept hidden, and even in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot only touches the peripheral.   Today this nightmare is still hidden away.  We cleaned out the insane asylums, only to let the mentally ill fend for themselves on the street, and now they fill our jails.  At least I hope we’re no longer using the mentally ill for medical research.

Privacy and Informed Consent

In 1951 there was no informed consent laws, or HIPAA.  Henrietta’s doctor just took a sample of cancer without asking and gave them to George Gey at Johns Hopkins University, and Gey cultured them and gave them away to other researchers.  Skloot chronicles their scientific legacy in this book, and it was only by accident that we know the cells came from Henrietta Lacks, which provides half the human side of her story.  The other half is how her family reacted to learning decades later that their mother’s cells were still alive and that millions were being made selling them for research.  If Gey had preserved the patient’s privacy, Skloot’s book would have been far different.  It’s strictly a whim of fate that this scientific story is tied to the tragic human story of the Lacks.

Whose Story is Being Told?

In classes for fiction writing, when critiquing stories, we often ask, “Whose story is it?”  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about five people, Henrietta, Elsie, Deborah, Zakariyya, and Rebecca.  Skloot spent over a decade researching and writing this story and she is also one of the main characters.  She tries to stay out of the way, but her bravery and determination shows through.  This is a great book for people who want to  learn how to write non-fiction books.  It takes tremendous dedication.

Why Is This Book So Good?

There’s lots of great books to be read, so why should you pick this one?  I’m in two book clubs that selected this book for their monthly discussion, and for the most part everyone has been tremendously moved by this story.  Partly this is due to the story and Skloot’s storytelling skills, but another part is due to reading about something very novel, and that makes it exciting.  There are many lessons to be learned from this story too, but the most important is about education.  Without an education we can’t assess our situation in society and culture.  Now this is obvious when we read about the Lacks, but it’s also true of the reader.  This book now makes all those consent forms I sign at the doctors and the hospital meaningful.  It also makes those privacy laws that I thought were stupid not stupid.

I think this book is great because it’s different in content, storytelling technique and what it reveals.

JWH

4 Responses

  1. This book has garnered A LOT of praise over the past several months, showing up all over best of year lists, etc. I actually got to hear an NPR discussion about the book, more about the situations written about in the book, just before the first of the year and it was very interesting.

  2. Great review, Jim. And yes, it seems like everyone is talking about this book. It really must be something. (Certainly the storyline is fascinating.)

  3. this book is a very good book.

  4. [...] more gripping and appealing to read even though it’s presenting a lot of facts.  This is why The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson are such wonderful books to read [...]

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