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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Book Discussions > August 2014 Book of the Month: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Elizabeth (persephone17) This month was a free for all on what book we were going to read, and it came down to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a nonfiction book. Here's a synopsis for those who haven't heard of it:

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

I've had this on my to read list for a long time, and can't wait to start reading it with everyone! We've never read a sciencey nonfiction book, and I'm excited. As always, post your questions/comments/reviews on here; let's get a big discussion going. Happy reading!

message 2: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim (thepeachmartini) | 2 comments I'm in the middle of this book...I find it absolutely fascinating on many levels. The story itself is amazing, but the manner in which medical issues were handled "back in the day" are both terrifying and mesmerizing.

The only thing that bothers me somewhat is how the author comes across as patting herself on the back, while simultaneously stirring the pot among the family members. Maybe my attitude will change as I get deeper into the book...

Elizabeth (persephone17) About to start this soon! I hope it's as great as I've heard.

Sarah | 15 comments Kim, I also kind of came away with mixed feelings about the role of the author in the story. I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks around the same time that I read The Help and the horribleness of that book and its white savior tones (both from the author and in the characterizations) made some of the actions and narrative choices of the author even more glaringly wrongheaded. But, as it has been quite awhile since I read it, Henrietta Lacks' story and the ethical question of whether good is still good when it began with such blatant disregard for the autonomy and dignity of a woman like Henrietta Lacks are the parts that stuck with me.

Chandrika (chachiachoo) | 27 comments Lookie! The Lacks family is in the news!!

@Kim and @Sarah- regarding the role of the author, it's kind of the same feeling I got from reading Orange is the New Black. I mean, on the one hand, it's good to acknowledge one's privilege and not claim to be completely blind. Regarding the Lacks family, the author at least realized that any interaction from researching the family's history would itself affect their future. When the author is writing about herself and her interactions with other people, it's understandable that she'd try to paint herself in the best light, while "objectively" pointing out everything else around her. I guess it's the reader's responsibility to take anything written autobiographically with a grain of salt?

Chandrika (chachiachoo) | 27 comments Though I will say, it did grate a bit when Skloot kept telling the Lackses that she couldn't give them any money because she was broke and taking out loans, when, in effect, she was using the legacy of the HeLa cells to further her own career, just like George Gey. Yes, she got their permission, but she also hounded them for months until they'd talk to her... Is it really consent if someone literally won't leave you alone until you talk to them and tell them them your entire family story?

message 7: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Fregni (jessiczar) | 1 comments I totally agree with that, Chachi!

Sarah | 15 comments @Chachi-OITNB is a good comparison. I think a lot also has to do with the choice of writing in the first person - of necessity, it centers the author (which is completely understandable for OITNB), but I haven't figured out whether that was the best choice for Skloot. If she had chosen third person, it would have better centered the story on Henrietta Lacks herself, but then there wouldn't have been the almost accidental reveal in the book that people (including the author) were still taking advantage of the Lacks family in various ways.

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

Kim (thepeachmartini) | 2 comments @Chachi - I totally agree with your 2nd post...and @Sarah, I agree with your thoughts on whether or not the author chose the best POV for telling this story. I think you're hard pressed to find a neutral POV when dealing with anything that involves ethics...but it might save your readers from thinking you're taking advantage of the situation.

All in all, it was an interesting read - I'm still fascinated by the medical practices of that time...and thankful for how far we have come (and shaking my head at how far we still have to go).

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