Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In a previous post I mentioned how I'm kind of getting into ebooks for some of my reading. Well, I managed to get my hands on a copy of the ebook of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and boy was that a doozy!

As I've mentioned previously, Goodreads has become an invaluable resource for me in my book addiction. I literally spend hours on that site when I visit, perusing my friends' recent reading, checking up on new giveaways, editing my library... So of course it makes sense that I would go to Goodreads for reviews of books I've just finished. Note: I (almost) never read reviews before I read the books themselves. I find it spoils my desire to read the book and I end up not enjoying it. I much prefer to read them after, when I've had a chance to digest the book's contents, and can coherently articulate my thoughts.

I realize I'm starting with the end here. Let's back it up a little bit.

Non-fiction is not my thing. I get really bored really quickly with books that just aren't written well, and I've had a lot of trouble with non-fiction because I find a lot of the books I've chosen to read over the years just weren't written well. They were written by someone who wanted to get something off her chest, or by a historian who has no idea how dry his prose really is. But last year (I believe anyway) I read an article on CNN about this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot about a woman whose cancer cells were taken from her during a biopsy, and have been growing and multiplying since, while she died of her horrible disease, a very painful death and one from which her family never recovered. They're called the HeLa cells (pronounced HEE-lah), and they are responsible for the polio vaccine, many cancer treatments, advancements in HIV/AIDS research, and may other scientific advancements since their harvesting in the 1950s.

The problem put forth in the book: Henrietta Lacks' cells may be immortal, but she certainly wasn't. And while people were getting richer and richer off her miracle cells, her family was barely surviving in the squalor in which they lived. Most were uneducated past elementary school, her children were all partly deaf because she had married her first cousin, cousins were having sex with each other, her daughter was being molested by another cousin, and the ignorance in which this family lived threatened to wipe them out. When scientists came knocking for their cells after Henrietta died, the family had no idea what had actually happened to her. When they were finally told the advancements her cells had made possible, they believed that she was still alive, that her cells had created a new her. That when her cells flew into space, Henrietta had flown into space. That they had cloned Henrietta in London and that they would someday visit and see her there.

It was funny and sad at the same time. Henrietta had done so much for humanity without her knowledge, and yet her family couldn't even pull itself up by the bootstraps.

Rebecca Skloot had to do a lot of digging and had to be persistent in order to get the family to talk to her. She mentions this a few times in the book, and that was something the reviewers on Goodreads brought up when they wrote negatively about it. One reviewer said,

Furthermore, I don't feel the admiration for the author of this book like I think many others do. She wanted to make herself out to be different than all the rest of the people who wrote about the woman behind the HeLa cell line but I only saw the similarities. Yes, she has established a scholarship fund for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks but I got tired of hearing again and again how she financed her research herself. I think the exploitation is there, just prettied up a bit with a lot of self-congratulatory descriptions of how HARD she had to try to talk to the family and how MANY times she called asking for interviews. At times I felt like she badgered them worse than the unethical people who had come before.

I didn't get that at all from the book (considering she only mentioned twice how she was paying for the research herself), but it shocked me to see so many other people saying exactly the same thing. I read it differently (and said so). It made me sad that people could so seriously misconstrue an author's intent when it seems so clear that the only motive behind this book is to expose the moral, ethical and legal obligations the doctors may or may not have had toward her family. Some people also accused Skloot of bias in her reporting, since she became so close with the family. I didn't see that either, especially in the afterword when she presents the questions in a very scientific and ethical way. She gives both sides, tells the law, explains the science, and then gives the story of the family. She is interjected into the story only because without her presence the book wouldn't make sense. She is a necessary character, and maybe her personal bias showed, but her journalistic bias was not compromised.

I invite you to read the book and decide for yourself. I really loved Skloot's story of the Lacks family and ate it up like a giant piece of chocolate cake. It was a fantastic book and I would love to know what you all think of it, whether you agree or disagree with me, and what you think of the ethics involved in cell and tissue donation.


  1. Thanks for the review! Sounds interesting!

  2. I hope you read it! It's a great book :)