Monday, May 17, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

With a great husband, three loving children, five amazing grandchildren, great friends, and a plethora of books to read, I feel like I lead a charmed life (knock on wood). I am inspired to say this at the beginning of my review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because this is one of those books that fills your heart to bursting and makes you feel happy to be alive.

I’m not sure how a book about a poor black woman whose cancerous cell samples are taken without her consent shortly before she dies of cervical cancer in 1951, can inspire such happiness! Nor how I can feel so elated to read about how that woman's cells are eventually grown in massive vats, leading to a cure for polio, breakthroughs in gene mapping and a multi-billion dollar industry. But I will try to explain. Click on Read More below...

First, in a world that sometimes feels doomed and threatened on every front by soulless criminals, it is nice to be reminded that by far our world is populated by individuals who define the purity and beauty of humanity. Rebecca Skloot has the enviable skill to show us the souls of people through her words, and in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we do see some beautiful souls.

I don’t think it was just the 10 very difficult years Ms. Skloot spent researching this book that made her depiction of the characters in her book so inspiring and intriguing – although it could have been the quality of the time she spent with them. She didn’t just research arms-length; she traveled and sat with the characters in her book – for years – sometimes in dangerous circumstances. It felt as though she were writing from that depth of understanding and empathy that most of us only have for blood relatives. (Henrietta and her husband, David, right.)

Henrietta Lacks’ family was understandably impacted not only by their mother’s/grandmothers death at the age of 30 years old, but also by the whole medical ethics issue of whether or not it was legal and morally OK for doctors and researchers to take Henrietta’s cells and use them to conduct experiments, and make tons of money selling her reproduced cells. Should the doctors have been required to get Henrietta’s consent to take her cells? Should her family have been asked for consent to use her cells for experiments and to sell her cells? Should her family have been compensated? Would science and research be stopped dead in its tracks if law required those types of consents and compensations?

Factor these provocative issues into the lives of a family with a horrific history of deprivation and you can imagine the drama. Maybe more drama than in our own lives, maybe less. But sometimes it is weirdly comforting to hear that we're not the only family with drama.

Rebecca Skloot  (left) mines all these deeply personal, emotional, ethical and extremely complicated issues with amazing finesse. The armchair scientist in me loved the science, the writer in me loved the writing, the person in me loved the story, and I think that you will too.



  1. Just finished it! Great minds and all that! This is an amazing story because we think we've heard it all and then something like this comes out of the blue - or at least for me. Good review. Charlena

  2. As the saying goes, there a million stories in the naked city, and this is just one of them.... Thanks for your comments, Charlena. It was a wonderful book wasn't it!