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Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (#BookReview)

November 30, 2018

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta LacksIn her extensive acknowledgements at the end of her book, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot thanks “Heather at The Book Store, who tracked down every good novel she could find with a disjointed structure, all of which I devoured while trying to figure out the structure of this book.” Interesting that she looked at novels, particularly given our recent discussion regarding non-fiction that reads like fiction, but more on that later …

Many of you will have heard of the book, or, if not, of Henrietta Lacks, or of her HeLa cells? It’s a sort of hybrid biography-cum-science book about an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951, and the immortal HeLa cell line that was and continues to be cultured from her cervical cancer cells. As Skloot writes, “these cells have transformed modern medicine.” The book was published in the USA in 2010. It won multiple awards, including, says Wikipedia, the National Academies Communication Award for “best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine”. In addition, the paperback edition was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 75 weeks.

I’ve described the book as hybrid, because the story (or biography) of Henrietta Lacks is just one of its threads. It also interrogates the complex intersection between race, class and ethics in medical research as well as broader ethical ramifications of issues like “informed consent” and the commercialisation of human tissue. Skloot, herself, says early in the book,

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, then, this book is another example of those non-fiction books that I like so much in which authors author takes us on their journey of discovery, in this case to understand the people and the science, the ethics and the law, behind this astonishing story. Skloot wasn’t the first so tell it, however – something she makes clear during our journey. Earlier stories include Michael Rogers’ 1976 article in Rolling Stone, and the 1997 BBC documentary, The way of all flesh, which you can watch on YouTube. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the story of the cells, so if you want to know about them – read the book and/or watch this video.

Skloot explains her own fascination with Henrietta, from being introduced to her cells in high school, through those HeLa cells being “omnipresent” throughout her biology degree, to when she was in graduate school studying writing “and became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story”. It’s not surprising then that this book has been extensively researched – as evidenced by the Notes and Acknowledgements. (These two chapters make great reading in themselves.) It took around 10 years to write, not just because of this extensive research. A major issue which Skloot had to confront was the understandable suspicion and anger of the Lacks’ family, whose help she needed if she were to tell this story properly and with integrity. Their story is bound up in a long invidious history of research carried out on African-Americans, which is also detailed in the book.

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!”

So, the structure. The book is divided into three parts – Life, Death, Immortality. In the first two parts, the story is told in two roughly alternating, chronological threads – one telling the story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, and her family, from 1920 to 1973; the other tracking the early days of Skloot’s research from 1999 to 2000. In the third part, the two tracks coalesce into one chronological thread, starting from 1973 when the late Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, Bobbette, discovers quite accidentally via a friend’s brother-in-law, that Henrietta’s cells were being used in scientific research and had been since 1951. Until that point, no-one in the family had known that Henrietta’s cells were still “alive” and being used in research all over the world:

“What?!” Bobbette yelled, jumping up from her chair. “What you mean you got her cells in your lab?”

He held his hands up, like Whoa, wait a minute. “I ordered them from a supplier just like everybody else.”

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!” Bobbette snapped. “What supplier? Who’s got cells from my mother-in-law?”

She is, to put it mildly, horrified – and rushes to tell her husband and thence the family.

Here, though, I’m going to return to the issue of writing non-fiction like fiction. There’s the use of narrative structure, of plot lines, to create some sort of tension for the reader – in this case it largely revolves around the lives and reactions of the family, particularly Deborah – while we are also learning drier “stuff” about the history and ethics of cell culture and medical research. The dialogue I’ve just shared is part of the main plot line concerning the family’s discovery of what had been happening to Henrietta’s cells.

Then there’s the use of evocative, descriptive language. Skloot doesn’t overdo this, staying, in the main, direct and focused – but there are enough little flourishes to keep the writing interesting, like “HeLa grew like crabgrass” or “tufts of hair like overgrown cotton sprouted from his head”. The imagery draws from the area in which it is set. And, there’s the use of dialogue. Skloot did carry out a lot of interviews over her decade-long research and often makes clear when she’s quoting from those – but not all dialogue comes from that research. Some is imagined – or what critics call “representative”. No-one, for example, would have recorded Henrietta’s exact words when she visited her gynecologist, but Skloot writes:

“I got a knot on my womb,” she told the receptionist. “The doctor need to have a look”.

How much more interesting that is to read than, say, “Henrietta visited her gynaecologist, telling the receptionist that she had pain in her womb that needed to be investigated.” I know what I’d rather read. Not only is dialogue more engaging, but if the writer gets the voice right it enhances our understanding of the character. One of the delights of this book, in fact, is our getting to “know” members of Henrietta’s family, and the dialogue plays a significant role in this. Not non-fiction readers, however, approve of this approach.

As I’ve already said, I’m not going to write a lot about the content of this book, fascinating though it is. It has been written about extensively; there are interviews with Skloot on the web; and for background there’s that BBC documentary. The book is now nearly a decade old. Cell research has moved on, but the story of the intersection of race and class with science and ethics is still relevant. Moreover, this is a book of history – the history of medicine. Close to home for me, for example, was learning that HeLa cells were involved in identifying the connection between the HPV virus and cervical cancer, and thence the development of the vaccine with which my reading group’s daughters were among the first in the world to be vaccinated.

All this makes the book well worth reading. There were, admittedly, times when the cell science got the better of me (and other non-scientific members of my reading group) but not enough to turn us off. Skloot’s courage, warmth and empathy with people out of her ken, the trust those initially fearful, angry people came to place in her, and her ability to tread the fine line between judgement and analysis when discussing actions of the past make this a special read. No-one in my reading group regretted this choice for our schedule. A fine way to end the year.

Rebecca Skloot
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
Sydney: Picador, 2010
ISBN: 9781742626260 (ePub)

18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2018 7:20 pm

    Excellent review! I read this book a few years ago and loved it for all the reasons you’ve picked up on, but particularly the way Skloot brings Henrietta to life and gives her dignity. I remember thinking at the time how difficult it must have been for Henrietta’s family to trust a white woman who seemed to be from the same group of people who had taken Henrietta’s cells without family consent, and how difficult for Skloot to gain that trust. I thought that she did a good job of representing that tension.

    • November 30, 2018 7:42 pm

      Thanks Jan… Yes, I thought she did that well too. Glad you liked the book and my review.

  2. December 1, 2018 10:37 am

    This sounds like a really good book group choice because (as you have) discuss the narrative choices that were made, and also the ethical issues.

    • December 1, 2018 10:40 am

      It was Lisa, you’re right – and we have some medically trained people in our group too (a doctor and a sonographer/radiographer/et al) so they had interesting perspectives too.

  3. December 2, 2018 7:39 am

    This is a book and an issue I have never heard of. I did a history and philosophy of science unit at uni (half a century ago!) and have stayed interested but more in physics/cosmology than in medicine. And if this were an ethics pop-quiz, I’d say the cells were inanimate and not part of Lacks (as compared with disinterred body parts for instance), but it was insensitive to name them after her and not tell her.

    • December 2, 2018 8:51 am

      I’m glad I’m not the only newbie to her as story Bill. Interestingly, the question of whether they are inanimate isn’t really addressed in the ethics. The ethics are more about consent and how the cells are used. Her family though, the daughter in particular, felt they were still, in a sense, Henrietta – but Skloot doesn’t judge them.

      I gather the naming of cells, using characters from the donor’s name was, or became, common practice. Nonetheless, it was insensitive by our understanding but Skloot, while exhibiting empathy for the family doesn’t judge the scientists for their time. The original scientist, George Gey, gave the cells away in a spirit of academic collegiality. He didn’t make money from them.

  4. December 2, 2018 9:04 am

    I’ve haven’t read this yet but I have gotten as far as obtaining a copy for my own book shelf. I’ve read dozens of reviews of it over the years (not a one as good as yours), and there was not a negative opinion in the lot.

    Your review has renewed my determination to actually read this – and it’s going on the top of my 2019 reading pile. Thanks for the kick in the pants 😉

    • December 2, 2018 9:26 am

      Always happy to kick you in the pants Debbie… Particularly when you compliment me so nicely! Haha. I’ll watch for your review.

  5. December 2, 2018 11:13 am

    I loved this book, thanks for reminding me of some of its texture!

  6. December 3, 2018 1:15 am

    Great post. I also love non – fiction books that go beyond topics and go off exploring. I heard an interview with Skloot. The book and the story sounds both fascinating and important in terms of science and ethics. I would like to read this one.

  7. December 8, 2018 7:30 am

    Ah, it was so good to read your thoughts on this book, which I read years ago and remember really enjoying. Such a fascinating topic, and the writing was excellent. It makes sense that she used novels as inspiration because it really was a compelling story. And lots for a reading group to sink its teeth into!

    • December 8, 2018 7:58 am

      Thanks Andrew. I’m really enjoying hearing from people who have read this book. It is so compelling.

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