The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

henrietta

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.

 

 

 

Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature

skin

book by Dorothy Allison

annotation by Sarita Sidhu

Through this collection of inspiring essays and other writing produced over the years, Allison distills the essence of her life; the hard-fought battles that helped her to forge a ‘…meaningful politics…’ (35).

Truth, lies, and identity are themes which dominate this anthology in which she gives the reader access to her interior life, so we understand the emotional and intellectual struggles she went through as she navigated a hostile and dangerous world.

With a courageous candor that grounds her work, the author tells us that: “I have known I was a lesbian since I was a teenager, and I have spent a good twenty years making peace with the effects of incest and physical abuse. But what may be the central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in Greensville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family, a girl who had left the seventh grade the year before, worked as a waitress, and was just a month past fifteen when she had me” (15). She continues: “My family’s lives were not on television, not in books…There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it did not include us, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze us in. There was an idea of the good poor―hard-working, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable. I understood that we were the bad poor: men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from working too many hours and bearing too many children…We knew ourselves despised. My family was ashamed of being poor, of feeling hopeless…” (17, 18).

Against all odds, the author goes on to be the first person in her family to graduate from high school, and then the first to go to college. This was facilitated by the family’s move to Central Florida in the 1960s.

Allison shares the harrowing experiences of being held up twice in the chapter Never Expected to Live Forever. She begins with the story of being held up on a street, and smoothly transitions to an earlier occasion during her college years when she was robbed at a dairy store, where she worked to help cover costs. The author repeats the phrase that was whispered to her on the street “I don’t want to hurt you” (37), to dramatically bring the reader back to the first incident (42).

In the next chapter Gun Crazy Allison shares her desire to own a gun and shoot like all her uncles. Her uncle Bo tells her “Girls don’t shoot” (46). The topic of guns appears again in the subsequent chapter Shotgun Strategies, in the context of confessional dreams of shooting sexual abusers. It was at this lesbian consciousness-raising group that the author began, for the first time in her life, to talk about the beatings and rape she endured at the hands of her stepfather. It was also here that she learned for the first time that violence and abuse spanned all classes in society.

“The world told us that we were being spanked, not beaten, and that violent contempt for girl children was ordinary, nothing to complain about. The world lied, and we lied, and lying becomes a habit…What I have taught myself to do is to craft truth out of storytelling” (55).

In her quest to belong, to find validation, Allison found all available theories on class and race inadequate and self-serving. And, to her utter despair, she also found that her sexual identity which had been historically labelled as ‘deviant desire’ did not fit into the feminist theoretical construct of ‘lesbian’ either. She described herself as “…a transgressive lesbian―femme, masochistic, as sexually aggressive as the women I seek out, and as pornographic in my imagination and sexual activities as the heterosexual hegemony has ever believed” (23). In the service of truth, she had no choice then but to endeavor to create a complex identity for herself, and to write herself into the literary canon from which she was missing. She states: “If Literature was a dishonest system by which the work of mediocre men and women could be praised for how it fit into a belief system that devalued women, queers, people of color, and the poor, then how could I try to become part of it?” (171)

Her commitment to “…break the public silence that has maintained so much private terror” (119), and write about her sexuality explicitly produced a backlash within society at large, but also, shockingly, within the feminist movement. This is detailed in the chapter Public Silence, Private Terror. When I read about the Barnard Sex Scandal of 1982 (105), I did not recall reading about it on earlier pages, so I was eager to discover the details. The tension grew, until Allison finally revealed everything two pages later.

Allison tells us: “I believe in the truth. I believe in the truth in the way only a person who has been denied any use of it can believe in it. I know its power. I know the threat it represents to a world constructed on lies…I know the myths of the family that thread through our society’s literature, music, politics―and I know the reality. The reality is that for many of us family was as much the incubator of despair as the safe nurturing haven the myths promised. We are not supposed to talk about our real family lives, especially if our families do not duplicate the mythical heterosexual model” (215). Regardless of the personal cost, she implores: “…Imagine me. I was born to die. I know that. If I could have found what I needed at thirteen, I would not have lost so much of my life chasing vindication or death. Give some child, some thirteen-year-old, the hope of the remade life. Tell the truth. Write the story that you were always afraid to tell” (220). She also states: “The first rule I learned in writing was to love the people I wrote about―and loving my mama, loving myself, was not simple in any sense. We had not been raised to love ourselves, only to refuse to admit how much we might hate ourselves” (237).

I could continue to write about the author’s use of simile in the chapter Bertha Harris, a Memoir, and how she lovingly and beautifully weaves the stories of “The two most important women in [her] life― [her] mother and [her] first lover…” (225), or about the humor sprinkled throughout the pages, but then I run the risk of this annotation becoming as long as the book itself.

As a feminist with working-class roots I picked up this book hoping to find myself on its pages. Unlike Allison’s own quest to see reflections of herself in literature she read, I was not disappointed.

I hope I can both emulate Allison’s courage and find the love (or at a minimum the empathy) I need to write the story I am afraid to tell. The story I wish I could have read growing up.