Wednesday, May 18, 2011

226 (2011 #31). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot,
read by Cassandra Campbell with Bahni Turpin

In 1951, cancer cells were biopsied from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman undergoing treatment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.  While Henrietta died from the cancer later that year, her cells live on today, are known as HeLa, and are used in scientific research.

Author Rebecca Skloot spent ten years researching and writing this book.  She used a "braided narrative"* structure where she interwove three main narratives, moving back and forth in time:
  1. Henrietta's background, life and death;
  2. the history of the HeLa cell line in science, cell culture, and research, leading to  medical breakthroughs while also raising ethical questions; and
  3. the story of Henrietta's survivors and descendants, especially her daughter Deborah, and how they came to grips with what happened to their mother's cells, which they did not learn about for two decades.
It's easy to follow because each chapter includes in its title the range of years it covers.

There are also a couple other storylines, too:
  • the author's own journey in the writing of the book (in the seven-page prologue and beyond, as Skloot ended up becoming a character in the Lacks' family's story as she tried to earn their trust), and
  • issues of biomedical ethics as related to human tissues (primarily raised in a 14-page afterword).
Skloot used primary sources and numerous interviews to tell Henrietta's story.  There's not a lot to it, because she died so young (age 31).  She also did a good job with the story of HeLa (making it understandable to laypersons), her own story (as much as it was necessary to the family storyline), and the ethics afterword.  She presents the stories fairly, allowing the reader to draw one's own conclusions.

Even without the afterword, 21 pages of end notes, and an eleven-page index, the book comes in at 300+ pages.  The braided narrative ends with chapter 28, but there are ten more chapters with nearly 100 pages after that, all about Henrietta's relatives, mostly about Deborah, with whom Skloot bonded.  The Lacks family does not come off well, in my opinion, even with  (or perhaps because of) Skloot's objectivity.  It's kind of like watching a train wreck.  This was the least interesting part of the book for me.

Some of the most interesting aspects of this book are how Skloot wrote it.  In an interview with Goodreads in November 2010, Skloot gave some examples of other braided narratives:

When I was working on this book, I knew I wanted a braided structure, to twine three narratives together, so I spent a lot of time reading fiction—not nonfiction!—that had this kind of build. A Home at the End of the World, The Hours [both by Michael Cunningham], and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich—but actually, the most influential to my own story was one that you might find a bit surprising: Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. I also watched movies that were set up like this, like Hurricane with Denzel Washington. The important thing to any of the books or movies I looked at was that they jump around quickly in time. That was the most important thing, I finally realized—because if Henrietta's story is told in a purely linear manner, the reader is completely lost as to why modern events relate back to what happened to her by the end. 
She also used a system of color-coded index cards to help her organize and interweave her three main narratives.

Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin (who reads some first-person passages by Deborah) do an excellent job voicing this book, just as they did in The Help

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook and a hardbound copy were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]


  1. They did a feature about this and Henrietta Lack on the CBS Sunday morning show a while back. Very interesting story. The family did not come off well in the feature either.

  2. Tracy, thanks - here is a link to the segment you mentioned.

  3. I am thoroughly enjoying this book about someone I have never heard of but whom the world has greatly benefited from. This book is not a cut and dry documentary of cell research, but has inspired me to research into the subject a little further. I had heard about the horror stories of human research done without the subjects consent such as the Tuskegee Experiment and know of the African-American distrust of medicine because of it. This is the story of a woman's cells that helped create so-called modern miracles but her children to this day do not understand what was done with those cells or why. Some doctors are very good and talking down to the less educated and have an "I know what is best" attitude toward their patients in general, and while some may find it hard to believe that a physician would leave the patient and family in the dark, I know it is not that far-fetched, "just sign this paperwork" is something I have experienced myself. So while this book may not be an
    "unbiased" presentation of the facts, it is very enjoyable and could spark interest in science amongst young and old.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Brasil! Actually, I feel Skloot did a very good job of presenting all sides of the story. And I agree with you that many doctors talk down to their patients, even the well-educated.