Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Last night The Writers' Center brought Rebecca Skloot to the Carmel Public Library. She spoke about her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the ten years she spent researching the story of HeLa cells and the family of the woman from which they were cultured. She spoke about how, as she delved further into the story, she unwittingly and reluctantly became an integral character in her book.

The author began by giving us basic information we needed to understand the story. HeLa cells were the first cells able to be cultured and sustain growth; until then all cultured cells were short-lived. The cells were originally sliced -- without informed consent -- from a cervical cancer tumor that grew in Henrietta Lacks, a poor, African-American woman who lived in Baltimore. When it was discovered that the cells were virtually indestructible, forever growing, they began to be mass-produced and shipped all over the country, finally giving scientists a way to experiment on cells outside of the body and ushering in a new frontier in scientific research. The cells played an integral part in the development of the polio vaccine, were the first cells to have their genes mapped, and were instrumental in the development of countless life-saving drugs.

This book is non-fiction but it reads like a novel, three narratives braided into a whole. Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family; she delves deep into the astounding contribution Henrietta's cells made to scientific research; and she describes her relationship with Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, as they search together to uncover information about the cells.

In explaining why this particular topic captured her interest, Rebecca Skloot told of how as a sixteen-year old, she saw her father take part in a controversial medical study. It was fascinating to connect the dots backwards through time and picture her as an impressionable teenage girl who would one day tell such an important story.

At the end of her talk the author explained how she structured of her book, which bounces back and forth through time. She said she read lots of novels with disjointed chronologies to get a feel for this structure, but in the end found a template in the movie "The Hurricane". She ended up storybooking the movie on color-coded index cards and then arranged similar parts of her book right on top.

I'm so glad I read this book -- it's an important story -- but I must admit that I found of the science tedious. There is just so much information in there! Then again, so much of what I cared about in the book didn't have to do with science or the history of medical experimentation. I loved reading about the Lacks family history, all the way back to the tobacco farming slaves who were Henrietta's ancestors. Along with all the science, this was the story of the lives of the Lacks family who, despite their strange brush with posterity, struggled and endured great hardship. Their story is what stayed with me.

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