My latest in-car “reading” has been Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book whose research blends impeccably with the honest voices of the narrator and the subject’s family members.
The book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman from Baltimore whose cervical cells became the first “immortal” (i.e. continually reproducing) human cell line in the world. Ms. Lacks’ cells have been used to work in HIV vaccines, cancer treatments, and the vaccine for the HPV virus. Yet, her cells were taken without the permission of her or her family. Thus, there is much controversy and ethical debate around her.
The story itself is fascinating because Ms. Lacks and her family are colorful, thoughtful people who have been dealt a very serious injustice. But it’s Skloot’s writing that really brings the book to life. Skloot is thorough, honest, and absolutely aware of her own involvement in the story. She quotes a lot of texts and interviews, but ultimately, this book describes how she – a white woman in her 20s – became invested in and dedicated to the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells. She doesn’t try to act the impartial observer or leave herself out of the story, and that decision is to the book’s benefit because her search for this information provides a great avenue for us, her readers, to follow the discovery with her.
Additionally, Skloot’s willingness to admit her own subjectivity calls into question the actions of the doctors and scientists who, however well-intentioned, pulled on the face of false objectivity to provide a rational for their ethical and medical choices. As a person who finds nothing in the world to be truly objective, I found Skloot’s honesty and profound investment in her subject to be both engrossing and touching.
Finally, Skloot’s research is deep and wide. The book reveals that she has spent a decade delving into the history of Ms. Lacks, her family, and the medical research that came out of Henrietta Lacks’ cells (now know as HeLa cells). I’m not a medical professional, and honestly, medicine doesn’t interest me much. But Skloot’s discussion of cell culture, medical history, and medical ethics has taught me a great deal about the field and provided me much pleasure in the process.
It is books like this, like those by Tracy Kidder, or Sylvia Nassar’s A Beautiful Mind that make me want to write a book of my own, something that requires in-depth research. If only I could find the right subject . . .
If you are interested in medicine, racial inequalities in medical treatment, biology, Baltimore history, or even just a good story, this book is one you must read.