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

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)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s most successful writer, ever

The obvious question to ask when someone makes a “best ever” claim is by what criteria? The easiest way to justify “best” is with numbers. And so it is here, as it’s with numbers that Australian publisher Allen & Unwin’s blog, Things Made From Letters, suggests that Morris West is “Australia’s most successful writer, ever.” The numbers are sales of course. According to Allen & Unwin (A&U), West’s books have sold over 70 million* copies around the world – more, apparently, than any other Australian author.

Morris West, The shoes of the fishermanAnd yet, I wonder how many readers here know – or have read – Morris West. He wrote nearly 30 novels, not to mention radio serials, plays and non-fiction, and his work was translated into 28 languages. His most famous novels were The devil’s advocate  (1959), which made him an international best-seller, and The shoes of the fisherman (1963). These, and a few others, were adapted to film.

West was born in Melbourne in 1916, and died in 1999. The Oxford companion to Australian literature says that he was a member of the Christian Brothers order for 12 years, but that he left in 1940 before taking his final vows. This is relevant because he was known for writing about the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding its role in international affairs. During World War 2 he worked as a cipher officer and was briefly private secretary to ex-PM Billy Hughes. After the war, he worked in radio, and founded, in fact, Australian Radio Productions.

However, as the A&U blog says, he “was determined to build a career as a writer, and as for so many artists, musicians and writers before the 1980s, the only way to do that was to move overseas.” And so he did, living in Europe and the USA from 1955 to 1980. He clearly maintained contact with Australia during this time because in the early 1960s, he helped found the Australian Society of Authors. The A&U blogger is particularly interested to know why such an apparently successful writer is barely known today, indeed completely unknown to her “younger colleagues”. She offers a few reasons. One is that except for a couple of early novels, all his books are set overseas. “Is Australian literary culture reluctant to acknowledge a novelist who doesn’t write about Australia?”, she asks. Or is it that “an increasingly secular Australia is now uncomfortable reading fiction which takes religion seriously?” Even though he wrote this fiction with a critical eye?

But then there’s the issue of “literary” quality. The A&U blogger quotes the AustLit database as stating that his fiction “has not received a great deal of literary attention.” Kerryn Goldsworthy, writing about Australian fiction from 1900 to 1970 in The Cambridge companion to Australian literature, names West, along with Ion L. Idriess and Jon Cleary, as writers who were very popular in their time but who “tended to be dismissed by their ‘serious’ peers and by later literary historians as middle-brow.”  She describes his books as looking at public institutions, usually political or religious ones, on the international stage and dealing with “the moral dilemmas they pose for the individual”. These three writers are probably the equivalent of my generation’s Colleen McCullough and Bryce Courtenay?

Morris West, The clowns of GodSo, why the interest now? Well, you may not be surprised to hear that Allen & Unwin is re-publishing most of his work – in print and e-version. (The book covers here are from this new series). Author Simon Caterson writing in The Monthly refers to this reissue and asks what West has to offer contemporary readers. Good question. He talks about the subject matter, suggesting that the “fascination with church politics and influence” is of continuing interest. Books keep coming out dealing with these, he says, just think The Da Vinci Code!

What makes West worth reissuing is, he suggests, West’s ability “to turn the intellectual and emotional struggles within his faith – his own and that of others – into gripping melodrama.” Moreover, he says that

it makes commercial sense to bring back the books of Morris West, whose big themes – conscience versus power, the individual versus the institution – are as relatable to the struggles of secular – as much as religious – life.

And finally, there’s the writing. Caterson sums it up this way:

It is also important to note that West could not have sold tens of millions of copies of his books without knowing how to make the pages turn. The prose may sometimes be prolix and the endings not always satisfying, but his writing is always full blooded and, for the most part, remarkably fluent.

Middle-brow perhaps, but a good read it seems. And as someone who loves seeing older Australian writers being read again – even those who didn’t write about Australia! – I’m happy to see this blast from my past being published again. Good on Allen & Unwin. I hope, just as I continue to hope for Text Classics, that they do well.

* Wikipedia says 60 million, but I think that might be based on figures around the time of his death.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (1)

Research can send you off on all sorts of tangents – particularly if don’t have to be focused. What fascinating things you can find when you go with the flow (in the wonderful Trove)! It started with my recent post on Currawong Press, which, somewhat serendipitously, led to a post on books published in The Australian Women’s Weekly. It also led to this one on literary (or reading) tastes in 1920s to 1940s Australia, through an article published in the Sun in 1947 which mentioned the strange fact that some books by Currawong Press on taxation had become best-sellers almost overnight, but it said a lot more too …

Georgette Heyer Regency BuckHowever, let me introduce the topic. That Sun article set me off on a trail which uncovered several articles discussing the public’s literary tastes, and how and why the “experts” thought they were changing. The experts were mostly librarians and booksellers. In 1929, The Sydney Morning Herald asked the large circulating libraries whether they’d seen changes from the previous year’s borrowing. Yes, said the librarians. They noted:

  • a changing of the guard in popular authors, but since none of the names – except one – are familiar to me, I won’t detail them. The one I did recognise was identified as “rapidly approaching the status of best-sellers”, Georgina Heyer! Well, I sort of recognised her, as presumably they meant Georgette Heyer. Her books would have been gaining traction around then, and I can’t find a Georgina.
  • a decline in the “sex-novel”, and also in plays. “Once upon a time every play published by Pinero and other popular dramatists sold almost as well as a novel”. How interesting.
  • increased interest in detective and mystery stories, and historical novels
  • increased interest in short story collections. Woo hoo! They write that “a very few years ago publishers hesitated to bring out volumes of short stories. That is all changed now.” Is an increased interest happening again now do you think?
  • increased sales of “standard works” (in “pocket editions”). They were “selling so amazingly well that there is almost evidence enough to show that the general public is being weaned from the frothier varieties of books”

What a fascinating insight into reading habits. I have no idea how “scientific” these observations were, but librarians are very trustworthy people, you know!

The Sunday Mail in 1932 explored changing tastes in detective fiction, arguing that “the reader of to-day wants to pit his brains against those of the detective, and so the mystery novel is assuming more and more the aspect of a mental problem”. When asked, Brisbane booksellers and librarians:

emphasised that there are “thrillers” and “thrillers,” detective stories and detective stories. The popularity of the detective thriller of the Edgar Wallace type, it was explained, was on the decline even before the death of that undoubted master, but not so the intellectual “thriller.”

They describe in some detail what makes an “intellectual thriller”.

The article also mentions increased interest in Australian books, and notes the surprising popularity of Swedish physician Axel Munthe’s The story of San Michele. It apparently “emerged from obscurity into something like the status of a best seller, all because a few people allowed themselves the pleasure of reading it ‘on chance’.” The booksellers said that bestsellers of “today are 100 per cent superior in literary merit to the bestsellers of five and six years ago”. This was the Depression era … I wonder what impact that had on reading tastes.

This idea of improved public taste was repeated in 1933 in an article in the Horsham Times which reported a statement by visiting English publisher John Lane, from Bodley Head. He said

there had been an improvement in the literary taste of the reading public throughout the world, and the demand among the great body of the public to-day was for clean healthy stories and plain dirt had little sale.

I’m not sure that “clean healthy stories” are guaranteed to be “literary”, but probably “plain dirt” isn’t? Lane suggests that “cheap lending libraries [presumably in England] were responsible for changing the literary tastes of readers in the industrial classes from the penny story magazine to volumes, and would eventually raise the literary standard of the masses”. Oh dear, this sounds a bit snooty, but I do like his belief that libraries were helping widen people’s reading tastes.

Now we jump t0 1937, with the Depression on its way out, and an article in Melbourne’s Argus titled “Novels are less popular”. It says that demand was changing, with “tastes more serious”. This came from Melbourne librarians who said that the borrowing of novels had decreased from 75% of their loans to 65%. Prahran Library chief librarian gave a reason for this:

The uncertainty of the international situation in Europe, he said, was resulting in many former readers of fiction asking for such books as Gunthe’s “Inside Europe,” and other works on economics and politics. The depression had made borrowers’ tastes more serious, and there was a growing demand for books on the trades and useful arts.

Interesting eh? Sometimes we hear that in hard times people turn to lighter fare, but apparently not always. Except, the report continues:

The [unnamed] chief librarian at a large city library said that with the return of more prosperous times many persons who had been forced to read during the depression were now finding their relaxation and amusement at the cinema. There had been a large decline in the borrowing of low grade fiction.

Hmm, there’s that “low grade fiction” again. And “forced to read during the depression” suggests that reading was not the entertainment of choice then (as that reader survey says it is in contemporary Australia)? The article quotes the librarian of the Borough of St Pancreas London as also attributing “the decline in the popularity of the novel to the appeal of wireless and cinemas”.

Anyhow, now we come to the 1947 article in Sydney’s Sun which inspired this post. Titled “Tastes in books were changing”, it looks at bookbuying in the lead up to that year’s Christmas.  It opens by stating that “book-buying boom, which began in the war years, is being maintained in the peace”. Booksellers said that:

  • War books were generally “out”, with some exceptions. However, publishers felt that war books would return just as the publication of All Quiet On the Western Front had generated renewed interest in World War 1
  • “Thrillers” were also declining, and “the sale of Westerns was negligible”
  • Australian books were popular, with most booksellers “displaying Australian books on special counters” (something we discussed recently). One firm reported that the sale of Australian books had doubled in recent years: the “First edition of Flying Doctor Calling, by Ernestine Hill (Angus and Robertson), sold out in a week. An Australian classic that keeps on selling and selling is The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, by Henry Handel Richardson.”
  • Long historical novels were in “big demand”
  • Books about Australia and other countries were very popular. A bookseller suggested that “The quiz craze may have something to do with this thirst for knowledge among Australians”. (Love the quiz craze!)
  • European migrants were keen book buyers, buying “expensive books on politics, art, music
  • Children’s books were selling well, perhaps partly due to “the high price of toys”

The article also discussed the increasing cost of books, but said people were paying the high prices “without demur”. It also noted that “unfortunately for Australian authors the boom in Australian books” had coincided with “unprecedented publishing difficulties”, which they describe in some detail. The situation was so bad that “Some local publishers are more than a year behind in their programmes and there isn’t much likelihood of catching up for a long time to come. Dozens of accepted Australian manuscripts are awaiting publication.” Poor writers.

Through these articles, there’s an ongoing thread of concern about “literary quality”. Do we see this same earnestness about whether people are reading “quality” in book reporting today? Or, are we more tolerant of diverse reading interests?