The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Review
Good afternoon, friends and followers! Today, I talk about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a biography written by Rebecca Skloot. My interest in reading the book as first piqued when I heard that Oprah would be producing a movie based on it (and duh, it's OPRAH!). I'm glad that I finally got around to reading the book. It's a story that deserves to be told around the world, in medical ethics classes, the social sciences, teacher's colleges, and on and on and on. I took particular notice with the author's writing style, and that's what I'll be reviewing today.
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.
It's always difficult to review a nonfiction book. Like I said in my review for Red Azalea, how do you critique someone's actual experiences and history? No one will disagree that the story of Henrietta Lack deserves recognition. In this case, journalist Rebecca Skloot took it upon herself to research Henrietta Lacks and her history, to write this book. So, I'll instead be reviewing Skloot's writing- not the Lacks story.
The book talks in two separate timelines, and each chapter helpfully tells you which year it takes place in. For the majority of the first half of the book, Skloot objectively records how Henrietta Lacks first entered Johns Hopkins Hospital, how her immortal HeLa cells were discovered and then reproduced, and the scientific impact of them. Interspersed between historical events, Skloot talks about the "present-day," where she is interacting with Lacks' family members, acquaintances, and medical professionals who worked on her case. I mention a few details from the book below, and I don't consider them spoilers because this is all nonfiction and you could easily stumble upon them on Wikipedia or otherwise. But if you're still wary of these possible spoilers, skip all the way to the bottom of this blog post for my rating!
As I started reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I thought for sure this was going to be a 5-star read for me. It touched on so many social and ethical issues that are still relevant today. Race and community, the politics of medical care and practice, the legibility of scientific research and the accessibility of this important research in underserved communities. Granted, the first half of the book revolved solely on historical facts and events. This is what I was enraptured by. I was thrown back into the 1950s, into Lacks' hometown of Clove, Virginia. I was torn by the motivations of medical researchers versus the ignorance they showed about the African American communities they were also supposed to serve. I respected Skloot's accuracy in representing Lacks' symptoms and medical condition (even if a little grossed out).
And then Skloot threw herself into the mix. She talks about how hard she worked to track down members of Henrietta's family, the great lengths she went to in order for them to trust her. It's important for me to note that Skloot adds a disclaimer in the beginning of the book that the dialogue she puts down on paper is exactly as spoken. To take away from anyone's accents or mannerisms detracts from the authenticity of the book. She also acknowledges that she is a white, educated woman who is seeking to uncover the history of a poor, black woman. This is important. But I don't think it's nearly enough.
This is the reason why I docked one star from my overall review. I do not think that Skloot was reflexive enough in the parts where she was present. She retains a neutral, objective tone in the parts where she converses with Henrietta's family members or uncovers dark truths about her past. I understand that this is so the reader can make her own conclusion without Skloot's bias, but as someone telling such an important story- you better have a damn good reason for inserting yourself into it. And simply recounting conversations, describing Henrietta's daughter Deborah as panicked (almost manic)- this does the opposite.
This paints Skloot as an unblemished observer to this whole situation, someone without blame. She is clearly in the thick of the Lacks family nucleus. What was that like for her? How did different family members' responses to her research affect her motivations? If she is going to talk about what's going in the "present" timeline with Henrietta's children and the aftermath of the HeLa discovery, and put herself squarely in the center of it, then she should address her role. She hardly acknowledges the stress she puts on the Lacks family by constantly interviewing them. It seems that she recorded every conversation they had, parts of some which were included in the book. Did they consent to being constantly recorded? Were they different on and off the tapes?
As someone who is pretty serious about research methodology and the role of the author in nonfiction, expository pieces, this lack of acknowledgment actually took away from the book for me. I would have been perfectly fine if the second half of the book, where Henrietta's children struggle with their mother's legacy, were outlined the way the first half was. Skloot's presence wasn't needed, if she was hardly going to acknowledge her role as a researcher, writer, and curator of the words in the book.
I rate The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 4/5 stars.