Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksIn 1951, a tissue sample taken from a woman being treated for cervical cancer in the colored ward at Johns Hopkins became the first cell line successfully cultured and kept alive. The woman, Henrietta Lacks, died. The cells, named HeLa, lived. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of both--and particularly of the Lacks family and the impact this story had on them.

It's an incredible story. From a science point of view, these cells allowed us to cure polio. From a social point of view, what are the ethical implications of using people's cells without their knowledge in the furtherance of medicine--especially when you add race and class into the mix? From a religious point of view, what happens to us after we die? What is body and what is spirit? From a personal point of view, who was this woman, and how did her death/immortal life affect her whole family? And from the intersection of them all, what happens when you discover that your mother, who has been dead for umpteen years is still, in some ways, alive?

Henrietta seems alive and active throughout. When her cells are responsible for curing polio, it's because her cousin once suffered from it and "She always did say she wanted to fix it. She couldn't help me because I had it before she got sick, but she saw how bad it got. I imagine that's why she used them cells to help get rid of it for other folk." When her cells contaminate other cell lines, it's because "My mother was just getting back at scientists for keepin all them secrets from the family."

Those secrets are oppressive. There's an incredible scene towards the end of the book when Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, receives prayer from her cousin, Gary, while the author, Rebecca Skloot, watches and takes notes.

Looking at me, Gary said, "[Deborah] can't handle the burden of these cells no more, Lord! She can't do it!" Then he raised his arms above Deborah's head and yelled, "LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS!" He thrust his arms toward me, hands pointed at either side of my head. "GIVE THEM TO HER!" he yelled. "LET HER CARRY THEM."

I sat frozen, staring at Gary, thinking, Wait a minute, that wasn't supposed to happen!

Ah, but it did, and so many more things besides.

It's an incredible book. Rebecca Skloot writes both with clarity and great sympathy. Certainly it feels to me the she does carry those cells for the whole Lacks family.

I was especially grateful for the "Where are they now?" section at the end--but don't read it until the end (as I did); it will give away some things you won't want to know until you get there. It's sometimes painful to get there. But you'll want to get there. It's very much worth it.

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