“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is non-fiction, but reads like a novel. Science writer Rebecca Skloot has taken years of her life to gather details on a black woman from Baltimore who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Henrietta Lacks was treated by doctors in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins. As standard procedure, they took a sample of the cancer on her cervix, which proved to be the first human tissue sample that, given the right conditions, grew and kept growing. Henrietta died soon after, but her cells are alive across the planet today, used in medical research. Her family, though, didn’t know this until a reporter from Rolling Stone talked to them in the 1970s.

Skloot moves back and forth in time and in different people’s lives. She painstakingly recreates what can be known about the life of Henrietta, and the history of her cells. More than Henrietta, though, Skloot tells the story of Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter who has no memory of her mother, and cries out throughout her life for the lack of one. She and “Miss Rebecca” navigate a rocky relationship as they both seek to discover more about Henrietta, and her “immortal” cells. The question Deborah asks, that the reader can’t help but wonder also, is how Henrietta’s cells can be the worldwide basis, for cellular research, yet her descendants can’t afford healthcare? As Deborah said, in one of the passages Skloot quotes:

Truth be told, I can’t get made at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! [Deborah has many prescription drugs for a variety of difficulties.] I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.

I was by turns fascinated and horrified by this book, with its straightforward explanation of cellular science alongside the painful history of the Lacks family and their struggles. There’s much to mull over after reading this book, most of all how racism and profit are alive and thriving in the present, no matter how comfortable it might be to think otherwise.

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