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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

July 7, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of those books that captures the zeitgeist. There always seems to be someone on the bus reading it; when you recommend it to someone, they’ve already started reading it; stories related to the subject matter air on This American Life.

The hook that gets everyone into Henrietta Lacks is that it’s the story of the woman behind HeLa cells.  Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in Maryland who was unsuccessfully treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951. Before and after she died, cancerous cells were taken from her body without her permission, and grown into HeLa cells, a cell line that is used for research around the world today. Her family was never compensated, and was not even aware of the cells for years.

This story is interesting in and of itself, bringing together threads of family drama, the weight of generations of poverty, scientific discovery and experimentation, and the historical distrust of the medical profession by the black community (with good reason). But while the book is about those things, it’s mostly about Rebecca Skloot’s relationship with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter.

When Skloot begins her research, she is stonewalled by the Lacks family. They have been through so many reporters and journalists asking them questions, so many people promising they will tell Henrietta’s story, that they are just tired of it and don’t want to do it anymore. Skloot continues to press on, and the book is as much about the process of learning about Henrietta and her family as it is about what she found out.

Deborah ends up becoming a rather large part of Skloot’s life, and together they investigate not just Henrietta and HeLa cells, but attempt to make sense of a traumatic family history that includes Deborah’s sister being locked away and dying in an institution due to her learning disabilities. It ends up illuminating some dark corners of our history, specifically in the way that science has been used against people over time.

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