Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

It’s funny to think that Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks –  a barrier-breaking nonfiction bestseller about the real woman behind the world’s most prolific cell line (HeLa) – included one very crucial element that our previously reviewed book The Night Circus so desperately needed: a timeline at the beginning of each chapter. That way, Skloot’s narrative leaps between decades look less meandering and more like what they are: an illustration of all the praiseworthy research she deserves to show off. It shows how much the story bends back in on itself (because I respect you all I won’t make a comparison here to DNA’s double-helix shape), how deeply our perspective twists into the most intimate crannies of a life we not only never knew about, but never knew to think about.  Once you’re exposed to the reality of Henrietta, it’s hard to look away.

There is, admittedly, not much more that can be said about a book that’s been so universally well-received and tirelessly documented. What Skloot has injected into the scientific community is a balance of literary dedication, social politics, medicine, and something I wouldn’t hesitate to call heart. Often, I know, that latter term gets tossed around, making its genuineness questionable; we wonder if a novelist isn’t just gift-wrapping an emotion he hand-picked to manufacture. But Skloot’s level of detail is the very proof that the heart is there, because the first third of the book seems largely like an endless back-and-forth, will-they-won’t-they wait for the approval of the Lacks family to have their story told by “some white lady.” It almost seems like the story of Henrietta’s childhood was a relief for Skloot to insert right at the start to distract us from the needling volley of Deborah and Day Lacks’ revelations and censorship. Brilliantly, our author has engineered a frustration for the reader that’s as close as she can simulate to the titular family’s own as they wait decades to hear the real story of their mother.  What is presented to us with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is simply a level playing field: news to us all.

Just about everyone on earth can somehow relate to the HeLa cell line – if you’ve ever had inoculations, for instance, or a transplant, or a skin graft, or a host of other things Henrietta’s tissue was present for. In spite of this, the sociological elements of the book are what I’ll remember most, because (is this out of line?) the fact that Henrietta was an underdog minority on every level – a poor, black, mostly uneducated female – makes her story almost eerily ripe for the chronicling. So much so that it’s almost appalling it hasn’t been seized upon before.  And then, of course, the potential for commercial outrage surrounding Henrietta’s untold story – the timeline of that mysterious, one-photo woman – having been put on hold since 1953 for presumably more important medical pursuits like Michael Jackson’s autopsy reports – there’s a collective feeling within such neglect, a feeling of, “she deserves better.” And that we do, too. The public, as they say, should know about this. And when you add all this up, there was not one thing working against this book on its path to bestseller.

Unless, of course, you listen to the ladies of my local book club. They all thought that Skloot’s voice was too dry to deliver what is otherwise a remarkable exposition. Pretty unanimously, they felt that they read Skloot’s book for the information alone, not any particular way Skloot herself presented it. Though I don’t agree with them, and not just because I enjoyed the flow of the prose. I can’t agree because Skloot is so inextricable from the story she has excavated; the story wasn’t sitting in the annals of history waiting to be stumbled upon and recorded. The exploration involved an intrapersonal set of minute calculations, steadiness, and patience on par with any archaeologist brushing the dust from ancient remains. There was red tape and real emotions to be considered in mining the HeLa cells for their story. That we have a bestseller today is solid evidence that the dig was a success, and one through which Skloot necessarily shines.

It’s almost like reading In Cold Blood if Capote were interviewing the Clutters’ cousins instead of their killers.  But maybe that’s an odd way to end a book review.

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