Happy Tuesday and welcome to another round of Book Worms; I’ve got a pretty good read for you today.
As you know, it’s Black History Month and though I read this book a little while back, I thought it was a good one to bring into my post for the day. Made into a motion picture starring Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne and Renée Elise Goldsberry among several others, the movie of the book I’m going to tell you about is a good reflection of the book–the book, however, is better.
For a little bit of background, this book is a biography on a woman named Henrietta Lacks, whose struggle with cervical cancer has impacted every one of our lives over half a century later. The book is titled using “The Immortal Life” because to a point, parts of her and her legacy are still alive and well within the field of science. If that sounds interesting, trust me, it is.
So without further ado, let me tell you what I’m talking about.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks–Rebecca Skloot
Though there are probably plenty of you who have not read this book, it is Rebecca Skloot’s first and made its way onto the NTY Bestseller list in 2010, staying on there for another 6 years. As a biography, this work does everything it needs to do: it introduces us to the main subject, gets us attached to her family, and gives us new shoes to walk around in as we experience this story alongside Henrietta Lacks’ journey.
Oftentimes, I think of reading biographies as rather cut and dry, straightforward, and not largely imaginative. I can’t say I’ve read enough biographies to really have a rounded opinion on that, but Skloot did something I didn’t expect out of this story–she gave me a narrative I wanted to read. Her writing is clear and narrative-focused while still holding true to the biography genre in a way that makes us interested in the characters and the lives she’s telling us about.
The first thing this author does, rather than throwing us straight into the “why it all matters,” is establish what we need to pay attention to: our leading lady Mrs. Henrietta Lacks. Growing up in Virginia, Lacks had five children before she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. When receiving treatment for the cancer, those treating her (specifically, George Otto Gey) at Johns Hopkins also took samples of her tumor tissue without her consent; this one action is what resulted in momentous change within the worlds of science, medicine, and ethics as a whole.
Very quickly, Skloot establishes that for many ethical reasons, these changes should have never happened this way either. Nevertheless, they did.
When her cells were taken as samples, Lack was not informed, nor was she asked for permission. Even when they began to perform tests and experiments with the cells found within her tissue, let alone continued to use them for two decades after, her family wasn’t told either. As her records were hidden, cells were taken, and her family was later put through several tests they were uninformed about, Henrietta Lacks became immortalized through four letters: HeLa.
Scientifically, HeLa cells were the first human cells to be successfully cloned in the year 1955, allowing for the successful creation of the polio vaccine and other areas like “cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits” (Skloot). They are special because they can replicate without dying after a certain number of cell divisions. Because of them, we have a lot of advancements and opportunities within science that we couldn’t imagine reaching before.
While this is a very good thing, it gets complicated in understanding what’s actually happening within the ethical and sociological aspects of this book and why the events it talks about happened in the first place. Race, science, and ethics all come to head with one another because none of this would have occurred without all three components of the story.
As a black person, Lack was treated with less respect and regard than she would have were she white–this was the middle of the 20th century, during legal segregation and “separate but equal” rights. Being a woman made this worse. When the HeLa cells were collected without Lacks’ consent, another ethical issue that would have been much bigger had it been the 21st century, it was only in realizing the value of the cells’ potential to change science that it was decided to reproduce and market them. Keep in mind, they technically never belonged to Gey in the first place. He simply took them.
Narratively, it may seem odd that the biography is on Henrietta Lacks, yet she died in the same year her tissue was sampled; that’s because the her story is not only her story.
Like so many of us, any narrative told about our own lives inevitable will intersect with the lives of those around us. Lacks was no different. If we are told about her life, we are also told how her life/death extends to the injustice paid towards her family. They had no idea their mother’s cells were being used until 2 ½ decades later. Since then, they have received little reparation for the testing and trials they have been put through because of it.
It’s a snowball effect. And if you read the book, you’ll see that it’s still going even today. I won’t go into it further because there are so many details and complicated relationships that go into the realities of Lacks’ life and death, but this is a story that needs to be told. More than that, it needs to be shared.
So, share it.
Beyond a story about science, medicine, and ethics, this book is a biography that started out following one life that in turn, became connected to almost all of our lives too.
While I’m a fiction kind of girl, the biography and memoir categories really aren’t so bad when they still have a story worth telling. Rebecca Skloot brings in ideas of family, love, history, resilience, and so much that may be a personal story, but somehow still relates to each of us.
So, if you have a chance, give this book a read. It’s an escape from this reality into another life that I know I have never lived myself. But it’s one worth learning about and Skloot allows for the opportunity to take another pair of shoes and walk around in them for a little while.
And hey, if you’d rather watch the movie, you’ll still get the story out of it; trust me, both are worth it.
So, with that, I hope you liked what I brought for you today and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your week. See you Friday.