Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

Crown Publishing Group (2010)
382 pages
Non-Fiction / Science / Biography

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My commute to and from work requires me to sit in a car in rush hour traffic for about two hours a day.  It is just as unpleasant as it sounds, but I attempt to calm my traffic-frazzled nerves by listening to audiobooks when I can.  Normally it’s something easy that I can zone in and out of when traffic requires more of my attention, but for some reason I decided to pick up a non-fiction book about the development of cellular science and gene mapping.  At least, that’s what I thought I was getting.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not the book I thought it was, though it’s probably the book I should have expected.  I wanted science history, controversy and the on-going discussion of bioethics, all things that I did receive from this book.  I didn’t, however, think I would be getting an anthropological look at social/racial issues through the decades or the genealogical history of the Lacks' family.  These things also held my interest for the most part.  The on-going drama of Deborah Lacks and her search for the truth about her mother and sister did not hold my interest, which sounds heartless but was the case.  I felt for the family, I really did, but I also felt like their pain and confusion was being exploited a little bit as well, which made me uncomfortable.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in Baltimore, who developed cervical cancer in the early 1950s and died soon after she began treatment from John Hopkins Hospital.  During this treatment, a piece of the tumor on her cervix was removed and sent to a lab, which started growing the cells and found that they would not die, which was and still is very unusual for human cells growing in a lab.  Over the course of the last 60+ years, these same cancer cells, tagged as HeLa, have been used to find treatments for diseases, shot into space, cloned, blown up by atom bombs, and in so many other bizarre experiments.  In this book, the author dives into the history of the cell line as well as the story of how the Lacks family has been affected by HeLa over the years.

Rebecca Skloot is an amazing scientific journalist.  She clearly tells a complex story involving dozens of scientists, a family with a multitude of relatives and decades of scientific research and controversy in a way that makes it fascinating and easy to understand.  While I knew about some of the awful research unknowingly done on minorities, the elderly, prisoners and other at-risk populations, Skloot dives into the bleak history of some studies I’d never heard of, including some that involved injecting healthy people with cancer to see if it was a virus.  Like almost everything else, the history of science is colored by unethical decisions and people who think they are above rules of common decency.  The author brings some of the more disturbing cases in the medical research field to light.

She also tells the story of her own decade long journey finding out the history behind the HeLa cell line and the mysterious Henrietta Lacks who unknowingly donated the cells.  I’m normally not into author self-insertion, especially when there’s a clear subject being discussed that doesn’t need to have the journalist involved to convey it.  This book is not an exception.  There are clever and entertaining anecdotes in her adventures to understand the history behind HeLa, but it’s also the part that becomes so incredibly repetitive that I took a week and a half long break in the middle of listening to this audiobook.  I found myself yelling, "I don't care!" at the stereo a few times when it came to the author's own story.  Often times the story of Rebecca Skloot gets in the way of the story of Henrietta Lacks, which seems to defeat the purpose of the book to begin with.

The biographical parts of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks allow Skloot to put faces on the story, but from the very beginning, the members of the Lacks family are framed as victims.  While I can understand why Skloot framed the story in this manner, I found it a little condescending.  I liked the history of immortal chicken hearts and descriptions of how cell lines are created and maintained, the development of practices used to initially grow HeLa cells and the effects the cells had on the entire field of biology.  Then again, I’m a complete nerd.  Others might find the human side of the story more compelling than the scientific babble.  I found it a little overbearing and devastating to enjoy it.  The later part of the book is almost all about Deborah, Henrietta's youngest daughter, who feels almost like a caricature of a woman, which muddles up the parts I found more interesting.

I really enjoyed the narration by Cassandra Campbell.  I’ve only listened to a handful of audiobooks so far and I think Campbell is my favorite narrator.  Her voice never grated on my nerves and didn’t distract from the story.  The occasional insert by Bahni Turpin was a bit distracting though.  It wasn’t used enough to feel naturally integrated when she did appear.

I don’t really have much more to say about this book.  I enjoyed parts and felt bored by other parts.  I think that might just be the standard for scientific-based non-fiction books though.  If you want a real-life character drama, but also enjoy learning about science and history, I think you’ll really enjoy this book.  If you're just wanting the history part of the story, other sources might be better options.

B-

Great account of a particular part of scientific history and the ethical dilemmas that arose; a lot of drama involving an angry family who feels cheated and abused; great story telling that feels complete (if not a little bit too complete)