The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot – Book Review

Cover - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Cover - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks author Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who escaped an arduous life picking cotton – on the same farmland that her family worked as slaves – to move to Baltimore, Maryland.  Though she had a troubled marriage to her first cousin, David Lacks, with whom she has been raised in the same one room cabin, she also had 5 children whom she loved dearly and a strong network of friends. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 31 she was dead a short while later, and her cancer cells, taken and developed without permission, began a journey all over the world as they were used time and again to investigate the workings of disease and to develop vaccines/cures for a myriad of diseases like syphilis and polio.

Scientists had long been looking for cells that were capable of surviving and reproducing, and Henrietta’s cells were just about the only ones at the time capable of being cultured and grown. Laboratories growing and selling her cancer cells have made billions of dollars from providing the cells to scientists for research, while her family neither knew nor ever received compensation, and suffered a variety of illnesses without medical insurance.

I found The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be well researched and presented in such a way that made the science accessible to the average reader.  This was always an engaging read even though I had a lot of mixed feeling not only about what went on with Henrietta’s cells, but with the treatment of the family, and even the author’s involvement and choices while bringing this story to light.  Skloot’s examination of the ethics surrounding medicine at the time was detailed and informative.  From what I learned, medical ethics could have been termed ambiguous at best, at worse, it was an extremely unenlightened time in medical and research history, and the way doctors and scientists went about administering treatment and conducting research were cold, invasive and in some cases a serious threat to the lives of their patients.

Skloot is to be commended for her impartial and compassionate coverage of the Lacks family. Henrietta grew up extremely poor, was often unsupervised as a child, and would become pregnant with her own first child before she was fifteen – by the same cousin whom she would later marry.  Her daughter Deborah was daily threatened with sexual abuse for most of her middle grade and teenage years, and also had problems with dyslexia.  An eventual teen pregnancy limited Deborah’s opportunities to obtain a complete education.  I was often touched by her struggle to understand just exactly where her mother was, her fear at thinking that her mother was somehow alive somewhere, and being tortured in the experiments that were conducted on her cells.

Skloot ended up developing a relationship with the Lacks family as she was working on this project, and became particularly close to Henrietta’s daughter Deborah.  While I don’t question the fact that Skloot cared deeply about the Lacks family, proved to be instrumental in getting information to them when no one else either would or could, and has given a fascinating and important part of medical history and Henrietta Lacks a voice, I couldn’t help but to feel troubled by the initial contacts that she made with the family.  She details that she called them several times a week (sometimes as often as every day) over the course of a year in order to convince them to speak with her.  If someone called me like that I would have considered it harassment.

We discussed this at my book club and some argued that it is a story that needed to be told, but I have to say that I have mixed feelings about the entire thing. At the time and for whatever the reason, the Lacks family didn’t want to discuss their mother and that painful history with anyone, and I think that was worth respecting. Skloot kept at them until a year later they gave in.  I’m not sure what gave her the right to go after them so relentlessly because she wanted to tell that story, and why her feelings on the matter would have superseded theirs.   Skloot also wondered if she pushed too hard, but usually only after witnessing the intense pain and illnesses Deborah suffered from worrying over the whole thing.

I had similar mixed feelings about journalism when I read Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford.  In the end we say that the ends justify the means, and while I am not convinced, I recognized that even though I read some parts with uneasiness, I learned a lot from and was deeply touched by this story of just one of the injustices in our history. Skloot skillfully sums up at the end with some thoughts on the current state of medical ethics, and if you think something like this can’t happen again, you would probably be wrong.  As it currently stands anything that you leave behind in the doctors office- whether they draw blood, or you have your appendix out- is pretty much fair game since we don’t own tissues onec they are no longer a part of our body.  Yikes!  Things that definitely make you go… hmm!

Highly recommended.

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Book Information: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Publisher, Publication Date & Other Info: Crown
– February 2, 2010 – Hardcover – 384 pages
Author Website & Other Links:
Rebecca Skloot

Book’s Source: A friend in my book club lent it to me

Read More Reviews At: Fizzy ThoughtsHome Girl’s Book BlogEx Libris

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Blogger Unplugged! December 23,  2009   Jan 2, 2010

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  1. I heard about this book on the CBS Sunday Morning show and added it to my TBR list. In the interview with the author for that piece, I felt that she did have compassion for the Lacks family, but I also felt uneasy that she was making a profit by telling a deeply personal family story. I was also struck by the fact that the Lacks family did not have health insurance even though their mother contributed so much to medicine. It was heartbreaking to see the contrast between how much Lacks had contributed to the field and how much her family needed. Here is the link to the piece:
    My recent post The Sunday Salon #56: Pissed off about Books!!

  2. Thank you for this honest review of the book and for sharing your thoughts. I have been looking at this book…thinking should I purchase or not. I share your feelings about the stress which can be caused by media pressure/harassment and feel that such harassment is totally unethical. (understatement of the year there). I am more interested in reading this book now…thank you.

    1. Hi Geri! It is a fascinating books and it generated a ton of heated discussion in my books club. I think some of the thinking was that Skloot's heart was in the right place and that she was trying to bring that cause to light, but I just had a hard time justifying the intrusion when the family said no repeatedly. In the end we get the book which is great, and I can see the hypocrisy in my recommending it so strongly, but it is still a question that sticks with me.
      My recent post The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot – Book Review

    1. Well you will definitely get an interesting book that will provide you with some food for thought. I finished this one awhile back, but it definitely took me some time to figure out what I wanted to say about it.
      My recent post The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot – Book Review

  3. I've been wanting to read this one but put it off after reading about the author and how she went about contacting the family. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought she was a bit out of line there. I think I'm going to pick it up. Even with my odd reaction, my interet still hasn't waned.
    My recent post Teaser Tuesdays

    1. I am still struggling with that, an dI am glad that I read it. It seems like the family came around and finally embraced her in some ways, but I was very uncomfortable reading about her behavior. She did put it out there for public examinination, so I guess that says something.
      My recent post The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot – Book Review

  4. You know when I read articles about Skloot's curiosity about Henrietta Lacks and her family, not once was there anything about how much she harassed them. Calling all the time for a year? That's definitely harassment. It wasn't her story to tell though it has opened up much dialogue about medical ethics.
    My recent post Sunday Salon: Read-a-thon Recommendations

  5. I have heard this is such a great book!

    I think you're right on in wondering about the necessity of harassing the family to get the story. IT does sound like it was harassment!
    My recent post Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

  6. Ah, I can't believe I decided to browse all the posts I've missed in the past couple of weeks TODAY because just last night I had a friend show me this book and say it's quickly becoming the best book he's ever read. And I had never even seen nor heard of it!
    My recent post An exploration through literature