Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: The Immortal Life if Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction
Pages: 362
Warnings: References to Tuskegee and other racial injustices, e.g. Jim Crow south, freaky descriptions of early radiation treatment
Rating: 4.5/5

Usually I read fiction (fantasy or science fiction or whatever) because I need a compelling story-line to keep me engaged. For me, it isn't enough for an author to have great skill at crafting sentences, their books also need a reasonably cool plot. I completely understand why the books of non-fiction writers are never judged based on how well they make a tale hang together, but there it is. I'm pleased to say that "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" delivers on all fronts. This book was a fantastic read by any way I measure it.

While the narrative Skloot writes about are anything but simple, her style of writing is easy to follow and her structure flows well. For clarity's sake, the year in which the majority of the chapter's action takes place is labeled at the beginning of the chapter. The first plot-line follows Henrietta Lacks herself, a woman born in 1920 and who died of a vicious strain of cervical cancer in 1951 (source). The second is about how Rebecca Skloot approaches and gradually wins the trust of Deborah, Mrs. Lacks' youngest daughter (in the early 2000's). The third story is a more clinical view of the history of consent in medicine (which sounds slightly textbook-y because it is), which converges on the HeLa case and branches off in some notable directions.

I hate to divulge too much of the book if it will stop anyone from reading it on their own time, but I want to state there are some admirable qualities to Skloot's narratives beyond being compelling as heck. Early on, Skloot makes it clear that she is a white woman telling the story of a black family. She doesn't avoid the fact that her being a white women that has her coming from a completely different, privileged world. As another white person, I can't make any definitive statements about how Skloot portrays Mrs. Lacks and her family; however I believe she is trying to be a respectful ally. That means Skloot presents the details of Mrs. Lack's life as accurately as possible, without malice or judgement. It means that she portrays the hurdles she has to leap to gain even the tiniest bit of trust trust from the Lacks family as  reasonable road blocks the family has created after numerous people have tried to take advantage of them (which is what they are).

On the other side of the immensely personal retelling of Mrs. Lacks life and death is a small-scale retelling of how medical science used and misused Mrs. Lacks' cells, code named HeLa. There is a brief overview of other cases that share similarities with Mrs. Lacks'. You see, medical science has no small history of experimentation on minorities, and of taking and using remarkable tissue samples without asking. HeLa was probably the most fascinating example of how patient's and doctor's best interests can diverge. No matter how I look at it, I feel like Mrs. Lacks was treated to a grave injustice, as was her family.

I think this book is the complete package. Skloot is descriptive without being wordy, her writing juggles several intertwining story-lines without getting confusing and she has a knack for getting her readers emotionally invested. It was a lot more focus on a good, evocative story than I was expecting from a non-fiction book, so if you would prefer facts over feelings, this book might not be worth it to you. If you're traditionally a fiction reader like myself, this is a great way to get into absolutely wonderful non-fiction, where I realized stories can mean more when they're real. More than that, this book started me asking questions about how the legal relationship between medical professionals and patients should look. I don't know the answers, but those are questions worth asking. One warning: I'm not sure if this will affect anyone else quite as strongly, but the descriptions of early radiation treatment for cervical cancer freaked me out!

Questions and Comments Welcome~


  1. Not the first time this has been recommended to me. It'd be interesting to compare Skloot's journey through HeLa's story with The Help.

  2. Really? I seriously need to motivate to read that.