Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

BOOK REVIEW: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

It’s hard to categorize this book. It’s creative nonfiction, memoir (the author’s quest to learn more about Henrietta Lacks and her family), biography (of Henrietta Lacks and her family, particularly her daughter Deborah) history (of race relations and racist treatment of African Americans by researchers, of the exploitation of one black woman and her family, of late twentieth-century medical research), science exposition (cancer research, tissue donors, cell biology, genetic research, advances in medicine, science as a profession, ethical and legal issues), and even more than all this.

Rebecca Skloot is a science writer who currently teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis. She researched and wrote this book over a period of 10 years, and it’s clear that it changed her own life as much as Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cancer cells changed the Lacks family’s life. It’s her first book — she did not have a publisher when she started out. She financed the book with student loans and credit cards.

It’s just an amazing story, and it’s a story about the author as much as it is about the woman she set out to learn about. It’s compelling, thrilling, depressing, inspirational, tragic. The overriding feeling I had while I read the book, and certainly after finishing it, was of how redemptive, how transformational, love can be. It may have been intellectual curiosity that first interested Skloot in the subject of this book, but I’m convinced it was love — for the story itself, but also for the people she was writing about — that drove her to finish it and gave her the strength to see it through. And as she herself makes clear, seeing it through wasn’t easy. Least of all was it easy for Deborah, the second youngest of Henrietta’s five children, and the one most driven, after finding out that Henrietta’s cells had been taken and given to researchers without her knowledge or permission, to learn about what had happened to her mother, and how those cells had changed the entire course of medical research in the second half of the twentieth century, and continuing. It was Deborah’s love for a mother who had died when she was barely four years old, and about whom she remembered nothing, that kept her going through the callousness and indifference of scientists, doctors, and media people — most of whom, of course, were white. It was that love for her mother that challenged her to finally trust (little by little, in stages) Skloot — a growing trust that, happily, turned out to be very well placed. Deborah Lacks overcame so much — lack of education, physical limitations, poverty, betrayal and dishonest treatment by people she turned to for help — to get the understanding and knowledge that had eluded her for so long and that she needed so badly. By the time she died — too young, of a heart attack — she had accomplished more soul work than many people do who live to the ripe old age she did not. She experienced a rebirth of sorts, or maybe it would be closer to the truth to say she was exorcised of demons that had tormented her for her entire life. At any rate, it was the love she felt for her mother — aided by the love and support she got from Skloot — that got her to that new place, and transformed her entire life.

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This entry was posted on April 12, 2010 by in Book Reviews.
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