Broadway Books, 2010, 328 pages
I usually avoid trending books, so it took me five years to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Hype deters me, as if something that appeals to the masses couldn’t also be genuinely good. Immortal Life set me straight. Nonfiction at its finest, the book braids the author’s journey into the Lacks family’s confidence, scientific history, and life stories about Henrietta and her family members into a single seamless narrative. The applause this book received was well-earned.
Henrietta Lacks, a black woman descended from slaves, lived near Baltimore in the forties and fifties, raising her five children and scraping out a life for herself well below the poverty line. She died at the age of 31 after about 10 months of battling cervical cancer. In the years following her death, and unbeknownst to her family, her cancerous cells (named HeLa) were cultured in research labs around the world, teaching doctors and scientists about how cells function, inspiring vaccines and multiplying endlessly until they were so plentiful that, if laid end to end, “they’d wrap around the earth three times.” In the meantime, Henrietta’s family was trudging along, poor and uneducated, freckled with abuse and divorce and crime. Upon finally learning about what had happened with Henrietta’s cells, the family felt cheated, angry and bitter at a system that seemed to making millions on the cells their mother had left behind.
Into this comes Rebecca Skloot, a white and presumably well-to-do college student studying biology in the 1980’s. She found herself drawn to the absence of any story behind the mysterious Henrietta Lacks mentioned in her first biology class and, after some digging, discovered that no one seemed to know much at all about the woman whose DNA thrived decades after her death and whose biopsied tissue changed the face of medicine forever. Intrigued, she eventually started a decade-long hunt for the life story of Henrietta Lacks, committed to simply telling her story to the world that was already benefitting from her in dozens of ways. Rather than stifling her own role in teasing out the long history of Henrietta’s “immortal life,” Skloot includes herself in the story as a key character, honest about the family’s initial distrust of her, the bonds she eventually forged with several of them, and the journey they took together to uncover the truths behind Henrietta’s life and death.
Skloot tells more than an informative story of a woman’s whose cells changed the course of medical history. She opens the privacies of one family tree, reminding us that our own family histories are also tangles of emotions, truths told and untold, hodgepodges of partial understandings about events long-past. Immortal Life will be salient to doctors, scientists, researchers, and medical students. But it transcends the bounds of science reminding us that any life is, in its own way, immortal because everyone leaves something behind.