Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

“It’s about cells!” my professor gleefully said when I asked her for a brief synopsis of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Oh god, I thought, it’s about science.  My gut reaction was to tune her out, but I had to pick a book to use in my Writing & Rhetoric course, and the clock was ticking.  I had to choose a book that incorporated primary and secondary research in a creative way, and this seemed to be as good a choice as any.  Needless to say I didn’t begin the book with the highest of expectations.

The book surprised me.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me think about science and creative nonfiction in a whole new way.  Author Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black tobacco farmer who developed cervical cancer and was treated at John Hopkins in the early 1950s.  While at Hopkins, tissue was taken from Henrietta’s tumor, and from that tissue came the first ‘immortal’ human cells grown in culture.  HeLa cells would be used in developing the Polio vaccine, cancer research, and the cells were even sent up in the first space mission.

Henrietta and her family were never told.

In fact, Henrietta died shortly after the initial sample was taken, and it wasn’t until the mid-70s that her family discovered what scientists had done with the cells.  To this day, the family has never made any money off of HeLa, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Lots of people, myself included, learned about HeLa cells in freshman biology class, but few people ever stopped to consider where the cells came from: that’s where Rebecca Skloot comes in.  Skloot spent 10 years writing this book.  The book is full of meticulous research, interviews with the Lacks family, and Skloot’s own experience of uncovering Henrietta’s story.  With an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Skloot is able to tell the story in an informative and engaging manner that no one has been able to do before her.  Even my students, who had been nonplussed with my previous reading selections, enjoyed the book.  Rather than traditional research papers, my students had to write ethnographic inquiry essays and the book became a model for writing about a question related to a community/culture, uncovering the answers, and telling the reader about it in a personal way.  

I was lucky enough to meet Skloot during a talk and signing with Mary Roach at the Harold Washing Library last month.  During the talk, Skloot said that she never considered becoming a writer, and only took a creative writing course at her undergraduate university because it fulfilled the school’s foreign language requirement, which in some ways makes perfect sense.  Anyway, Skloot gave up her dream of becoming a veterinarian and began writing.  She’s now working on a new book regarding the ethics of animal testing.  During the signing, Skloot was patient, talking to everyone who got a book signed, including me.  I was delighted to see that she signed all the books with a purple fountain pen.

So even if science makes your eyes cross, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  You’ll find that the book is about much more than “just” cells (and even those end up being pretty cool too).

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