4 January 2017

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Year of publishing: 2010
Published by: Crown Publishing Group

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons. 

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

This was the only book on our required reading list at school. The upside is that we all got a free copy of the book. The downside is... actually, there is no downside. I got a free book. That being said, sometimes reading it was a bit frustrating. Partly because the author makes gigantic leaps in time, going back and forth between the time periods, which sometimes made it quite difficult to follow the story. And partly because we were supposed to read it during the course of a whole month, and by the time I was finished, I had already forgotten some important parts in the beginning of the book. 

HeLa is a great book. While being thorough, objective and honest, Skloot goes to great lengths to paint the full picture of the true story behind the HeLa cells, and you can read right here on these pages that it was a daunting task, and I'm pretty sure that had I been in Skloot's shoes, I would have given up long ago. But she persisted. 

In this book, Skloot is telling not one but three stories. First of all, this is a story of Henrietta Lacks, and her family. Secondly, this is a detailed and thorough account of how her cells changed medical science, and of the complicated relationship between the scientific community and the "regular" world . And finally, Skloot is telling her own story, about the challenges she faced and the people that became a part of her life while she was doing research. With so many stories to tell, and so many people who play a part, it would be very easy to make the narrative unbalanced and just cram up all the stories and all the facts and anecdotes into this book and make them compete with each other. But Skloot does a remarkable job balancing all of the elements, giving both the personal and the factual sides of the story the equal amount of time and space. She puts Henrietta's case in a large nationwide - and sometimes even international - perspective, and makes it easier for the reader to understand why events unfolded the way that they did. 

What I like about Skloot is that she isn't being judgy or partial. She leaves the judging and the debating to us - the readers. The ethical, moral, and political questions that spring out from this story are so many that we had three whole seminars dedicated to discussing them. But it's important to keep in mind that this story is first and foremost about the people who lived it. And this is where Skloot's book really succeeds. She gives us all sides of the story, and makes sure that all the people that she has managed to find make their voices heard. And these are the people who the world didn't even know existed. It's Henrietta herself, it's her children and relatives, and the people who knew her. But it's also the scientists who worked with the HeLa cells and whose lives had changed as a result. 

I do have a couple of issues with the way this book is written. Number one - as I've already said - Skloot jumps between time periods. And number two is that towards the end, she writes too much about herself. Now, I understand why. This is a very personal book, and making it happen meant that Skloot had to let Henrietta's family into her life and gain their trust. The last chapters are all about Skloot's complicated and fascinating friendship with Henrietta's daughter, Debora, and it's very interesting to read about that relationship. But Skloot writes way too much about her own feelings and reflections, almost to a point where her own story risks of hijacking Debora's story and the subject of the book. Almost. Because it also helps me relate to Skloot, and really understand what she had to go through in order to make this book happen. 

This is a very interesting book and one I would highly recommend.

My rating: 4,5 stars

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