Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I just finished the wildest story that I have ever read, and all of it was true.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells a tale I was unlikely to be interested in, at first, since its focus is the origin of the HeLa cell, one of only a few cells that not only grows in culture, but multiplies. I don't really care much about nonfiction science stories, but this one was different.

Skloot tells the story of a young black woman from the South who had her cancer cells taken and experimented upon; neither she nor her family were the wiser, even long after Henrietta had died and the cells had become so remarkably important that every lab in the nation had a sample of them, leading to the development of vaccinations and treatments for polio, AIDS, syphilis, and a number of other diseases. The book is about the fight over the cells but also about the family tormented by their mother's "immortality." It's a story of eugenics, degeneracy, lies, rocket-ships, violence, forgiveness, trust, and faith.

Since most of the surviving Lackses never had more than a third-grade education, Skloot's journey to find the truth about Henrietta is long and hard, as she fought to win the trust of a group of people who both never understood and couldn't trust the science that made their mother immortal. Plagued by their own demons, the Lacks family members suffered from paranoia, depression, anxiety, rage, and high blood pressure -- none of which, ironically, they could afford to have treated, despite their mother's important contributions to science. Their story is hopeful and heart-wrenching. I would strongly recommend it, even if neither science nor nonfiction are genres you typically embrace.