In the summer of 2010, I spent several weeks on a committee to select one book for a community to read together. Libraries all over the country do this each year, hoping to create avid readers through exciting dialogue and programming. Our task was to review some of the more remarkable titles of the past few years to find a compelling read that would somehow engage the entire community. We were given the following parameters: the book must be available in all formats and be no longer than 300 pages, the topic must gather a wide readership, and the author should be approachable for a public appearance. Oh, yes, and we may or may not want to link the book to the 10th Anniversary of 9/11.
After several weeks of tossing out the names of our favorite titles only to have them struck down for not meeting one requirement or the other, our committee was no closer to deciding on a book than we'd been on that first afternoon. Finally, one of the librarians suggested a nonfiction title that was currently on the bestseller list. What's more, the author was known for wanting to make public appearances in connection with her work. We wondered about the format requirements, but decided they would probably be in place by the time we actually needed the book. So, that evening I went out to buy science writer Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks published in 2010 by Crown Publishers.
I have to tell you from the onset that I am one of those people who--when faced with a nonfiction work of over 300 pages-- will go straight to the photos in the middle of the book before actually beginning to read. I know that I do it because I am wired for interesting characters, a narrative hook, and a story that unfolds. Too many works of nonfiction meander through dates and events like an uninspired history lecture. From them I have learned to take solace in the middle of the book photos, hoping somehow to postpone the inevitable rushing stream of facts by finding my footing on solid pages filled with faces and names.
I'm glad I started with the photo browsing, but not for the usual reason. From the opening quote to the closing discussion of medical ethics, Rebecca Skloot never loses sight that she is writing about a person with a story.
Here is the Elie Wiesel quote that sets up the story:
"We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead. we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph."
Maybe you already knew about HeLa, but I had no clue. She is famous to anyone who studies cells. But Henrietta Lacks(from whom HeLa came) was a 39-year-old mother of 10 who died of cervical cancer in 1951. During her treatment for cancer at John Hopkins and without her knowledge or consent, cells from her aggressive tumor were removed from her body for study. Before that time, scientists had been trying for years to keep cells alive in culture, but the cell lines all eventually died. Henrietta's cells(HeLa) reproduced an entire generation every 24 hours, and they have never stopped. They became the first immortal cells ever grown in a laboratory.
So, where is the unfolding human story in this? Skloots learned of the scientific marvel of HeLa cells in biology class where a teacher called the immortal cell line "one of the most important things that happened in medicine in 100 years." He told the class that the woman from whom these cells were taken was named Henrietta Lacks, and almost as an after-thought added that she was black. After learning that these cells were used to develop drugs to treat everything from leukemia to Parkinson's disease, Skloots became curious about the woman behind the cells and her family. She asked her teacher if Henrietta Lacks had a family. Did they know about how useful her cells had become in science labs? His answer was, "I wish I could tell you, No one knows anything about her." But he spurred Skloot's interest by offering extra credit if she would do some research on the person. 16 years old and enrolled in that class to catch up in school, she took him up on the challenge.
Even though Rebecca Skloots went on to earn a degree in biology, the seed planted in her mind about Henrietta Lacks eventually led her to an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. Her need to know the story behind the cells was now morphing into her master's thesis. Skloots went on to be published as a science writer in The New York Times, Discover, and Popular Science before compiling all her research about HeLa into the force of creative nonfiction that is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
While the author advises her own creative nonfiction students at the University of Memphis not to put themselves into the story, perhaps some of the most effective passages in the narrative are when Skloots interacts with the Lacks children, gaining their trust, feeling their grief and outrage, and joining them in their quests to learn about and face the actual cells from their mother. When Deborah Lacks breaks out in welts over her excitement at seeing her younger sister's asylum records for the first time, Skloots begins to wonder if her involvement with the family is bringing them more harm than they can handle.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a sad story of a mother who had to leave her own children in dire circumstances while her cells went on to save the lives of those she never knew. Pharmaceutical companies and research labs prospered from use of her cells while her children were carried off to mental institutions, abusive step parents, prison, and abject poverty. The book concludes with a medical ethics discussion that will surprise you. Patient rights are still very murky when it comes to tissue ownership.
In the end, my one book, one community committee decided that this book was not going to be available in the required formats in time to be our selection. And that is too bad, for It is a fascinating, heart-breaking, eye-opening read that has great potential for beginning dialogue on many issues.
Rebecca Skloots has set up a foundation for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks. No doubt she wishes that this human story-- with its significant anguish--will finally have its measure of triumph.
(This review originally aired on Around Cincinnati on February 13, 2011. To listen to the post as an mp3, go to the audiolinks to the right on this page.)