The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

Posted 9 October, 2012 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 26 Comments

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Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Narrator: Casandra Campbell
Published: 2011  Pages: 400 
Audio Duration: 12 hrs, 30 min
Genre: History/Biography
Rating: 4.5/5

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.

Why I Listened: I first listened a year and a half ago after seeing a lot of praise for the book. I became especially curious when my then freshman sister was assigned the book as part of University of Arkansas’s freshman reading program. I re-listened recently for book club.
Thoughts in General: I always struggle with audiobook reviews because my mind works visually and textually. When reading I tend to focus on words and how smoothly they flow or how lyrical they feel but with audio I am either more forgiving or less aware of the words that I am hearing. That said, I don’t have much to comment on in the way of the actual writing in this book. I’ve heard that Skloot uses dialect, but this was seamless and very effectively done on the audio. Anyway.
I tend to think about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in two separate pieces—the science/history of the cells and the personal story behind the cells. I was not familiar with he-la cells or Henrietta Lacks prior to publication of this book and the idea of cell culturing is one that fascinates me and honestly is mostly beyond my grasp. Skloot does a wonderful job of explaining the importance of cell culturing and how Henrietta Lack’s cells fit into this corner of science. While Skloot goes into great detail, it does not mean that I still have a clear understanding other than it ethically questionable and at the same time essential to medical advancement. I appreciate Skloot’s attention to detail as well as the historical context she provides in relation to the sticky and tricky subject of cell culturing.

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.

A Note on the Audio: Cassandra Campbell is the perfect choice of narrator to help continue to breathe life into the story of Henrietta Lacks. Her pacing was well-timed and easy to follow, but what really sold her narration for me was the way that she allowed emotion into her tone. This mostly worked when something especially negative or tragic was occurring in the narrative and I ached at the sadness in her voice, but at the same time this never feels like manipulation. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the audiobook that made me realize that I could fall in love with audiobooks. It’s a wonderful way to experience the story and I highly recommend.

Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Why not?! ;)

26 Responses to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot”

  1. I thought this book was fascinating but I also felt like Skloot harassed the Lacks family – she just wouldn’t take no for an answer. I also thought she inserted herself into the story too much.

  2. Thanks for the reminder about this book. I had intentions to to read it several months ago, but by the time I made it to the front of the library queue, I wasn’t in the mood for it any more. I am putting it back on my TBR list. As an aside, I hate when people don’t give nonfiction a chance! I dropped out of a book club b/c everyone seemed to be stuck in one particular genre and wouldn’t budge.

  3. I haven’t read it yet, but fully intend to one day. I hadn’t heard any of the complaints about the author inserting herself into the Lacks family before, so I’m interested to learn more about that. It’s not like the story of her cells was unknown before this book, at least not in the scientific community. Rich has been teaching about her cells in his bio classes for many a year before this book was written. But I guess it’s more the telling of family’s story that people have a problem with and not the science and scientific ethics questions? Anyway, you’ve left me more eager than ever to finally get around to this one, Trish. :)

    • Debi – My review was already getting so lengthy that I didn’t want to go into all the details, but Henrietta’s family didn’t know that her cells were taken until years later. Maybe 15-20 years? There was definitely some understandable angst on the family’s part but also a lack of understanding as to what the cell culturing actually meant for their mother. It’s a fascinating and heartbreaking read. I’d be interested to hear what you and Rich think.

  4. I loved this book! Science usually turns me off but it was explained well and made accessible without making me feel that she had to totally dumb it down. I don’t remember thinking that the author harassed the family. But I can see how it could come across that way. I felt that she was reminding them of what their family had done for science, (for the world!)and was perhaps nudging them to want more recognition. Henrietta and her family got a raw deal, no doubt about that.

  5. I pre-ordered this book years ago when it was first being released and still haven’t read it. Why? After reading many reviews about this story, I think I would get very angry at Skloot and the treatment of Henrietta and the rest of the Skloot family. I’m even thinking about giving away my copy. We’ll see . . .

    • I can’t say the word ‘never’ here but I do not believe Skloot ever let her need for a story get beyond her desire to learn and know and actually help the family realize what the ethics dilemma is about. Without Skloot going to the lengths she did, the story would just be about another set of cells — but just naming them after the source is significant and this is a fascinating and I feel respectful story of who Henrietta was. I loved the book and do not quite have a stance on the ethics of the cell-exploitation issue but it IS important. Knowing you Vasilly – perhaps only through book blogging, yes – but I think you might want to read this and decide ‘after’ what you may think of Skloot’s approach and if any exploitation (if that is what you indeed speculate) occurred. :)

    • I don’t know if I would use the word exploitation but the lengths that I heard of Skloot going to get the story, is what turns me off to reading this. When it comes to medical ethics, I do think that technology is taking us places that we haven’t thought about yet. Since you love the book so much, Care, I will read it before the end of the month and let you know my thoughts. :-)

    • Vasilly – I can completely understand where you’re coming from and even here in the comments some mention that Skloot inserts herself too much into the story. We discussed at length at my book club whether Skloot even had a right to tell the story (white woman telling poor black woman’s tale). I personally did not feel that Skloot was pushy or disrespectful and I think that there came to be a mutual need between her and some of the family members–they both gave and they both took. Anyway, I don’t want to make you read something you don’t want to read but I do think there’s more to the story than what the reviews have mentioned. In many ways I think that Skloot might have helped the Lacks family more than they helped her with this big story… I’ll be really curious to hear what you think.

  6. Amy

    I loved this book so much. It has been on my brain ever since. I think it’s really a shame that some people shy away from it because of the science aspect. I do not have a scientific mind, but I found all the information about cells absolutely fascinating. The whole thing read like a novel to me…I couldn’t put it down. I thought Skloot wrote about the story in a candid, sincere, thoughtful, and hopeful way. I loved it.

  7. I loved this book. I’m really glad I read it. Despite all the science I really felt like it read like a novel. The personal stories made the story very real and accessible.

  8. I really enjoyed this one. I’m glad it was mostly focused on the human side of the story rather than the science-y bits. The basics of how the cells have benefited science were fascinating. It did prompt an interesting conversation with my husband. The company that he works for is a biotech company that was mentioned in the book. He was telling me about all of the cell lines that they have patented.

  9. I bought this one last year on a blogger’s recommendation, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t grabbed it yet! I think it’s probably about time, especially after reading your review. I’m getting more and more into non-fiction, and I expect to be pretty fascinated by this one!

  10. This sounds very interesting — I am always open to accessible scientific writing. I can see why some members of your book group might find the subject matter intimidating though.

  11. Nope, not read it yet, because tbr pile is too large ;) But on a more serious note, I think I’ve heard about this book before and the topic has awed me. I think that the effects of science on people and their everyday lives can be tremendous and would love to read about it.

  12. I listened to the audio and loved it, too. It ended up on my ‘Best of’ list that year. Cassandra Campbell is an outstanding narrator and the perfect choice for this book. She also did an amazing job with You Know When the Men are Gone – many thought she should have won an Audie for that performance!

  13. I usually avoid sciencey books, but this one was amazing. There were so many different aspects to the story. The memorable parts for me were the medical experiments that were done on un-consenting African Americans, and the ethics behind who really owns the rights to cells.

    I raved about this book for months to people, and never felt like I was able to do it justice.

  14. Thanks for the review! I’ve got it on my Kindle just waiting to be read. My husband just finished it and thought it was only ok, so I’ll be interested to see my own response to it. Thanks!
    ~Erin

  15. I loved how accessible this book was. I kind of expected it to be very difficult and stodgy but I ended up completely falling in love. I wish I could have sat in on that bookclub meeting – it sounds like you had some interesting discussions!