The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not the book I thought it was, though it’s probably the book IRead the full review at Working for the Mandroid
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....more
I’m not really sure where to start with this. I don’t usually read non-fiction because it lacks any need for imagination or some new place that I canI’m not really sure where to start with this. I don’t usually read non-fiction because it lacks any need for imagination or some new place that I can lose myself in. It’s reality. Like going outside or reading a newspaper or watching CNN. This book in particular was a harsh reality: a treatise on the abuse of medication in patients, the sad state of urban mental health centers, and above all, a bleak, raw confessional about Norah Vincent’s own history of mental health issues. When you think there’s a hint of light coming from around the corner, something else disturbing or depressing comes up to block it.
According to Vincent, this book started as an investigative journalism piece, where she would admit herself into three very different types of institutions: an under-funded urban hospital ward that treated mostly the homeless; a private clinic in the Midwest that served a middle class white clientele, generally suffering from depression and boredom; and a private less conventional treatment center that catered to the upper class, mostly people who had been sent there under court mandate to get clean from drug and alcohol abuse.
Somewhere around the beginning of her first stay, her own precarious mental state crumbled and what could have potentially been an interesting examination of how mental health is treated in different areas of the country turned into an examination of one person’s mental health and how it was treated in different locations. Things took a much more personal turn very early on and increased in disturbing detail until Vincent is more or less using the book itself as personal therapy. By the end, the personal nature of the confessions Vincent was making were uncomfortable and disturbing. ...more