Two book clubs this week. Two bestsellers. Two great discussions. But only one good book.
The two books were “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot and “State of Wonder,” by Ann Patchett. The only connection between the two books, other than my book clubs, was that they both involved some discussion of medical testing against the will of the patient. In “State of Wonder,” this was one of 200 or so themes in the book, and in “Henrietta Lacks” it was the central theme. You can probably deduce at this point which book I liked. This post will be about “Henrietta Lacks” and later today, I’ll post another about “State of Wonder.” Five posts in a week. Take that, April slump.
Skloot’s narrative non-fiction story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cancer cells is the best book I’ve read in months. Maybe years. I’ve wanted to read it for a while—and gave it as a gift to my mother-in-law last year—so I was thrilled when it was chosen this month. Skloot was ambitious with this book, and it could easily have backfired. She wove together the story of Henrietta, Henrietta’s children and family, her doctors, and her cells. And Skloot then attempts the triple axel—she includes her own story. She nailed it.
The quick background on Henrietta Lacks: In 1951, at age 31, she was a poor African American woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She visits nearby Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where doctors attempt to treat her. A doctor takes a sliver of her tumor and discovers that Henrietta’s cancer cells are “immortal.” Lacks dies soon after, and unbeknownst to her or her family, her cells—called “He-La”—are now grown in labs all over the world and have been used in experiments that have cured diseases like polio and undoubtedly improved the health of millions. Henrietta’s family discovers this about her cells many decades later and suffers great pain coming to terms with the fact that Henrietta’s cells are ubiquitous, but Henrietta is still gone.
Though no easy effort, Skloot tells us this story. She explains the science, lays out the ethical debate over tissue sampling, and tells of the scientific victories that came from the He-La cells. That alone would have been a strong book. But the story of Henrietta and her descendents is just as powerful. We meet Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and Skloot’s writing about her is honest and stark and passionate. Deborah is poor, struggles with mental and physical health problems, and is tortured by a lack of understanding of the connection between Henrietta and the He-La cells. Skloot and Deborah bond in an uneasy but beautiful friendship and so we get to know Skloot also. Anytime an author inserts him or herself into a story like this, readers should be skeptical. It worked in this instance—how she earns the trust of Deborah and Henrietta’s other descendents is its own marvelous story. (By the way, Skloot’s personality shines through in the “Acknowledgments”—very charming comments about her friends and family and the gratitude she expresses to those who helped her with this story.)
The medical ethics debate is the obvious jumping off point for discussion. Did the doctors have the right to take her cells and use them without her permission? Did she consent by giving the OK to be treated? Should patients have the right to tissue that they “abandon” at a medical facility? Did the family deserve some financial benefit from all the work done with their mother’s cells? I could go on, and it’s why this book is perfect for a book club. I didn’t have a difficult time with the ethics—tissue samples aren’t body parts and I don’t know that we maintain some rights to them once they leave our bodies. I shudder to think that people would find a way to capitalize their tissue if they felt it would be valuable. And that would have disastrous consequences for science. The tragedy here was that Henrietta’s family suffered so much in life (for reasons having nothing to do with the cells) and then when they found out about the cells, they were angry and confused and hurt. It does seem wrong that they lived in poverty without health insurance, and their mother’s cells made drug and science companies millions of dollars. But then, I think it is wrong that ANYONE lives in poverty and without health insurance.
What struck me most about this book were the parallels to “The Help.” In both books, a white lady tells the story of poor and uneducated African Americans who suffered greatly but had significant influence on the lives of others. “The Help” was criticized by some for being “too easy” and smoothing over some things that would make some—well, let’s face it, white people—uncomfortable. The movie adaptation was worse in that regard, by the way. But “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” pulls no punches. It does not end neatly and happily. We meet flawed individuals and though we see glimmers of hope, we are reminded over and over again that life isn’t a fairy tale. The Lackses lived difficult and complicated lives and Skloot lays it all out there. Thank god. The similarities are strong, though, and I believe that when you hold the two books next to one another, “The Help” pales in comparison. Of course, one is fiction and one is non-fiction, but without question, the story that will stay with me is the story of Henrietta, and not the story of Aibileen.
Finally, I’ll say that the word immortal is used in a couple of ways in the book. Immortal can refer to the cells and their ability to grow in culture. It can also refer to something spiritual. As such, it is the word that perfectly emphasizes the disconnect between the doctors and scientists and the Lackses. Many of the scientists and doctors in the book, save for the courageous Christophe Lengauer, see only the scientific definition of the word. But the family struggles and desires to understand the spiritual side—that they believed their mother, a real person, was granted some sort of immortality. When her cousin sings and prays with Deborah, we witness a spiritual connection to Henrietta up close. We end the book knowing it is not just the cells that were immortal. It’s a beautiful moment.
You will want to read this book. And probably whatever Rebecca Skloot decides to write next.
Thanks for reading.