Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks was a young black woman, wife and mother of four, who died a horrible death from one of the most brutal and aggressive forms of cervical cancer that can be imagined.  During the 1950's medicine was different in oh so many ways, and as was fairly standard protocol, a surgeon removed cells from the tumor before beginning treatment and tried to grow them in culture.  Remarkably, they did grow as HeLa cells and have continued to grow in a fairly unique way that makes them perfect subjects for a limitless range of research endeavors into disease and other medical questions.  Rebecca Skloot looks at that science in a very accessible way, but also considers who Henrietta Lacks was and what happened to her family after Henrietta's death.  Pivotal to the story is Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who is a fragile middle aged woman by the time Rebecca meets her, and who is desperate to find out about the mother who died when she was very young, but whose cells continue to live.  I give Skloot credit for not judging Henrietta's faithless husband David, but simply stating the facts, and allowing most readers to find him severely lacking as a husband and father.  The story of Henrietta's sister Elsie's life and death in an instution for the black insane is truly horrifying.  Because there is no way to answer the question, Skloot rarely if ever asks whether the stories would be different if the family hadn't been black, but it hangs in the air.  She doesn't take a political or polemical approach to the many complex issues she raises, but opens up a number of questions for consideration or discussion.  Skloot seems like a smart, kind and lovely woman.

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