The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


book by Rebecca Skloot

annotation by Sarita Sidhu

Rebecca Skloot takes the disparate stories of Henrietta Lacks and her family members, the scientific research and breakthroughs based upon Henrietta’s cells (and the bioethics discourse they engender), the scientists themselves, and her own salvation, and combines them all into one braided narrative.

Skloot reveals in the prologue (2) that she was in danger of not graduating from high school, until she became captivated by the black woman from whom HeLa cells had been taken in 1951; her biology instructor had stated “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” yet when Skloot asked him questions about this black woman he told her no one knew anything about her. Also in the prologue (5, 6), the author shares with us the information she was able to glean from magazine articles written about her in the seventies, and it leaves us wanting a lot more. The author takes us on her journey to discover the human being behind the cell line, and the backdrop to this investigative journalism narrative is the history of slavery and the Jim Crow era.

She explains “…when black people showed up at white-only hospitals, the staff was likely to send them away, even if it meant they might die in the parking lot. Even Hopkins, which did treat black patients, segregated them in colored wards, and had colored-only fountains” (15).

The book is a treasure trove of interesting facts across a range of subjects, including the origins of the white robes associated with the domestic terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan: “To discourage slaves from meeting or escaping, slave owners told tales of gruesome research done on black bodies, then covered themselves in white sheets and crept around at night, posing as spirits coming to infect black people with disease or steal them for research. Those sheets eventually gave rise to the white hooded cloaks of the Ku Klux Klan” (166).

When Skloot writes about the science, she does so in a way that is both engaging and accessible: “Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg…The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street” (3).

As well as utilizing similes, there is irony when the author brings the characters in the book to life through their own words, complete with dialect: ‘“if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense”’ (Deborah, 9). In addition, Skloot’s vivid descriptions appear throughout the book: “Cliff…was about six feet tall, even with several inches of slouch, his light brown skin dry and weathered like an alligator, his eyes sea green at the center, with deep blue edges…his hands coarse as burlap” (119). And she uses their actions to inform us about character: “ When Henrietta’s cousin Emmet Lacks heard somebody at Sparrows Point say Henrietta was sick and needed blood, he threw down the steel pipe he was cutting and ran looking for his brother and some friends. They were working men, with steel and asbestos in their lungs and years’ worth of hard labor under their calluses and cracked fingernails. They’d all slept on Henrietta’s floor and eaten her spaghetti when they first came to Baltimore from the country, and any time money ran low. She’d ridden the streetcar to and from Sparrows Point to make sure they didn’t get lost during their first weeks in the city. She’d packed their lunches until they found their feet, then sent extra food to work with Day so they didn’t go hungry between paychecks” (83, 84).

The author also makes good use of humor throughout: ‘“He showed up at that meeting with no background or anything else in cell culture and proceeded to drop a turd in the punch bowl”’ (154).

Skloot deals with the pain, confusion, and anger of the Lacks family with sensitivity and compassion. She is able to gain the trust of the family, especially Deborah, through persistence and patience over the years.  We see the progress Deborah made in her understanding of the medical research when she responds to Christoph’s comment regarding the contamination of lab cultures by HeLa: “That’s what happened over in Russia, right?” (262). Although Deborah had made it clear she wanted to continue with school, she could not afford to do so. The link between poverty and the lack of opportunity to realize one’s potential is made very clear in the book.  It was interesting that Deborah finally felt ready to ride with Skloot on their journeys of discovery, instead of driving her own car (301). Unfortunately though, she died before that could take place.

As well as demonstrating the artful use of the aforementioned literary elements, Skloot taught me that complex, multilayered narratives can take a very long time to piece together. It took the author a decade to conduct the research for this book, and the writing itself took additional time. She embodies the act of bringing reverence and love into our creative nonfiction writing projects, and the book resonates with her commitment. She showed me how, as writers, we can direct flood lights onto obscured subjects and people. And although we clearly cannot change what has already transpired, our intervention may change the historical arc going forward, for the better. By the end of the book the complex ethical questions around the commercialization of tissue research and ownership of the cells continue, but the establishment of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation by Skloot is a gratifying outcome.