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Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

There was a period a few months ago where, if you listened to NPR podcasts like I listen to NPR podcasts, you couldn’t avoid mention of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks nor the voice of it’s author, Rebecca Skloot, answering questions about the remarkable story she uncovered (and took part in).

I finished this book on the road trip, meaning I returned it to the library something like 6 days late (and have the $1.50 fine to show for it). I’m more than happy to pay up–it was a book worth turning in late. Before I started reading, I was afraid I’d heard the whole story from all the radio interviews, but the book offers much much more.

Immortal Life is a definitively American tale, exposing a bizarre and unfortunate dichotomy in our society — scientific and technological innovation at its highest, world-changing levels, and poverty, racism, and neglect unconscionable anywhere else in the developed world.

The book intertwines two distinct threads — the discovery and development of HeLa cells, an immortal strain that has proven a remarkable boon to biotech; and the trial and tribulations of uncovering the life of Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman (or, in the parlance of the time of her death, “negress”), whose cervical cancer served as the fount of these cells.

Either story on it’s own is fascinating. The idea that there’s a strain of cells that, given just a bit of food and culture, will live forever, endlessly reproducing, seems like the stuff of science fiction (and has been the inspiration for such).

The biography of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants, poor African-Americans who somehow manage to get by, but face trouble (health, money, alcohol, drugs, jail) at every turn is heartbreaking. And always lurking around is the book’s fundamental irony, that Henrietta’s family cannot afford the health care that her cells have made available.

The patron saint of the book proves to be Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s mercurial daughter. After much effort, Skloot bonds with her, though Deborah occasionally slips into paranoid phases where she believes Skloot is out to get her, to be yet another white person profiting off of her mama’s cells. Deborah’s behavior gets to be quite trying, even for the reader, but it speaks to Skloot’s power as an author that, at the end of the book, when you hear that Deborah has died, you feel immensely sad. More than anything else, Deborah did what she could to preserve the memory, and good name, of the mother she never got to know, and deserves our respect.