The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a rollercoaster. I started this biography in September… September guys. Sure my first year of college was hectic and I had boat loads of work, all the time, but it has never taken me this long to finish a book. Yet here we are. Author Rebecca Skloot first learned about Henrietta Lacks while studying Biology in community college. The most that Skloot’s instructor told her of Lacks was that she had a terrible case of cervical center and died in 1951. Scientists had been trying to keep cell cultures alive outside of the body for a while and didn’t succeed until Henrietta’s cells from her cervix landed in millions of laboratories across the world. The magic in Henrietta’s cells were that they were constantly reproducing new generations every 24 hours. Meaning that Lacks’s cells are IMMORTAL and are still reproducing today.
The not so magical part of Henrietta’s life was that her (HeLa) cells were stolen. While scientists who used Lacks’s cells to create pharmaceitucal drugs are profiting from medicines that treat herpes, influenza, and a multitude of other diseases, Henrietta’s daughters, sons, and grandchildren can not afford healthcare. The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks took readers on a journey of Henrietta’s life growing up, her experience with trying to receive decent healthcare in a segregated world, and the lives of her husband and children today. Skloot intertwines her conflicts of tracking the Lacks family down and earning their trust with Henrietta’s story. For me, Rebecca’s constant reminders of the family’s skepticism toward her and sometimes unwillingness to cooperate with her wishes diluted the biography. As a journalist, I understand how inserting personal opinions and recounts of situations can strengthen a piece of writing (I mean, that’s what this blog is all about) but in this historical context facts were way more intriguing than personal opinions. Not to mention that the Lacks family had more than enough reasons not to trust Skloot (like having doctors “test them for cancer” and then disappear without telling their results or making money from stories written on the family without even attempting to offer the family any royalties).
Despite my personal distaste with the author merging her journey with the Lacks family’s struggle for Henrietta’s recognition, Rebecca Skloot created the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to raise money for Henrietta’s descendants for education, health care, dental care, and other necessities which is good. I’d rate this book a 3 out of 5. I definitely liked the biography for it’s history of Henrietta: the hardships she and other Black people faced while trying to receive healthcare and informed consent as well as it’s tellings of the condition of her family today. But my dislike for her perspective on the family largely outweighed the parts I enjoyed. Hopefully the movie adaptation takes an impartial approach. I recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for any readers that enjoy science and or Black history. Be prepared for a bore in the middle but nonetheless there’s a lot of great material to learn from this book.