Kathleen's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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's review
Jul 18, 2010

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Read in February, 2011

My thoughts on this book are kind of all over the place. I feel for the Lacks family, I really do. It's hard to read about the poverty and lack of education and the cavalier approach towards informed consent in the early days of Johns Hopkins Research Hospital. The fact that the HeLa cell line is the foundation of so much valuable research is rightfully a source of pride for the family of Henrietta Lacks. I don't think they will ever see monetary compensation for their mother's cancer cell line, however. That horse left the barn a long, long time ago.

Furthermore, I don't feel the admiration for the author of this book like I think many others do. She wanted to make herself out to be different than all the rest of the people who wrote about the woman behind the HeLa cell line but I only saw the similarities. Yes, she has established a scholarship fund for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks but I got tired of hearing again and again how she financed her research herself. I think the exploitation is there, just prettied up a bit with a lot of self-congratulatory descriptions of how HARD she had to try to talk to the family and how MANY times she called asking for interviews. At times I felt like she badgered them worse than the unethical people who had come before.

The sadness of this story is really about the devastation of a family when its unifying force, a strong mother, is removed. Piled on with more sadness about the appalling institutional conditions for mentally handicapped patients (talking about Henrietta Lacks' oldest daughter) back in the 50's and you have tragedy on top of more tragedy.
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Susan I totally agree with you. It seems like the author was doing the same the institutions did many years ago to their mother, except a different gain. This time in a book. What ever you call it is still exploitation. But, never the less I learned about more than I would like about our health system and how it works. But, I also saw how far we have come since the 40's and 50 to 2010. It is mind blowing. To see that is was less than 50 years that have changed science. I was born in the late 50's and I am in the medical profession. To reflect on the medical and science field is just awesome and like I said before mind blowing.

message 2: by Jodi (new) - rated it 1 star

Jodi I agree about the author. The story seemed more about how hard she worked to track them down than anything else. Frankly, while I feel for the family, I was done hearing about them about 1/3 into the book.

Megan I got the sense that the reason all of that was included was because she needed to show how reluctant the family was to speak, to trust, to explore this part of their mother. When Dale slammed Rebecca up against the wall and demanded to know who was paying her, despite repeated reassurances that she was financing this herself (which I only saw mentioned twice, maybe three times in the entire book), she was showing how much this whole thing had messed up the family, how not having their mother around and all the differing stories about her cells has created a paranoia that was incredibly difficult to break through. I think that in telling this family's story she has, in a way, given them some form of hope. And she did give them more information than anyone else did. She may not be a saint here, but she did create a compelling book about the devastation this practice has wreaked on this family.

Susan But, unfortunately this has happened to many families I am sure. I don't want to preach, but it is not fair to single one family out. I am sure they are not the only one. The only difference she publicized it. They will most likely get the help they need, what about the nameless others? Unfortunately there should be regulations about this. Still there is not. But, if it wasn't the anymous biopsies over and over again, scienc would not be where they are today.

Megan It is impossible to talk about all the nameless others. Why is any book about one family written? To tell the story of that one particular family. At least this family got their time in the spotlight, if it's that big of a deal that they all get the spotlight I recommend writing your own book.

Susan I am glad she wrote the book don't get me wrong. But, I just feel sorry for many others that don't get any help. That were used by the system as well.

Alcina Thanks, I didn't notice that badgering thing until you mentioned it. However, I do feel this book has high value and that she provided some healing to Deborah, at least, through helping her to understand the science behind it. But I really appreciate your critique.

Nicole I completely agree. I was unimpressed with the novel, and felt she spent the majority of the time exploting the famiy's lack of education and emphasized their simplicity. I felt guilty just reading some of the sections.

message 9: by Liz (new) - rated it 3 stars

Liz Kathleen, I was thinking the same thing throughout! I also felt like some of the author's descriptions had to be fictional despite her assurances at the start of the book that it was all true. I just couldn't envision overweight people described as being so ill and suffering from ailments and walking with canes to then be so comfortable sharing hotel beds and poring over scattered documents or jumping up and down and running with excitement. Those small discrepancies led me to think that other bigger areas weren't as true as the author wanted them to seem, too.

Heather I'm just a few chapters in and can't agree more! I don't think the author emphasizes enough that informed consent was a completely different thing in the 1950s for everyone. Or that science does not usually compensate anyone for their donations. I feel for the family but I feel far more for Henrietta who never had a chance. I'm incredibly grateful for her contribution to science and the scientists like Salk who gave the entire human race a better future.

Bette Ha I 100% agree with you. I was disturbed by the author's presence in the book that I couldn't get my head into the second half (present-day) as much as the first.

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