In [not as] Short: In 1951 Henrietta Lacks was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins. During the course of her treatment, her cells were used in live culturing experiments which resulted in the first case of immortal living cells—the HeLa cells. Author Rebecca Skloot provides not only the history of the HeLa cells but the very human story behind the cells.
While we would not have a story without the HeLa cells, the true draw of this book for me was not the science and history of cell culturing. Where The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shines is with the personal stories and history of the Lacks family. Henrietta was a young woman when she died of cervical cancer and a huge part of this book is what happened to her five children after her passing as well as how her family handled the surprise that their mother’s cells lived on and will continue to live on. I’m not sure if Skloot set out to tell the story of the Lacks family but they become an integral part of the story, especially as Skloot and Henrietta’s youngest daughter Deborah bond throughout the course of Skloot’s research for the book.
We had a lot of discussion in my book club over Skloot’s right to tell Henrietta’s story as well some of the ethics of journalism that may have surfaced—specifically whether the Lacks family was exploited in the process. Some of the members were annoyed with Deborah and some of the other family members but they also wondered whether their story after Henrietta needed to be told. I’m not sure but I do believe that Skloot writes with sincerity and that by telling their story the reader gains a full understanding of the human impact this case has had on real people. It is an incredible story that is heartbreaking and at times difficult to listen to. I know that I’ve talked much more about the actual content of The Immortal Life than I normally do, but this was a rich and multilayered book that I believe deserves attention.
Bottom Line: We had really low attendance at this particular book club session and I think it was because people were turned off by the scientific nature of the book. Non-fiction about some cells they’d never heard of: I say blah to them. But the folks who did show up were all amazed at how much they enjoyed reading about the story of the he-la cells as well as the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family. Don’t be put off by the technical nature of the book. This is an important story that deserves to be heard and read.
Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Why not?! ;)