The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Book Review

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, is a story about how Lacks’ cancerous cells were taken from her body without her knowledge or permission. Those cells, known as HeLa cells, became the world’s first immortal cells. The HeLa cells are very important to science and medicine. They played a key role in creating the polio vaccination and have been used in cloning and other medical research. They have been bought and sold by the billions, yet Lacks’ family remains poor and can’t even afford health insurance when her cells have done so much for the health industry. By the time Lacks’ family found out that her cells were still alive, the cells had already been to space. There is no doubt as to the magnitude of importance HeLa cells have to the science industry, they’re a biological celebrity.

Skloot learned about these cells when she was sixteen. Her biology class, taught by Donald Defler, was discussing the cells and she was instantly intrigued. She wasn’t sure why at the time, but now she believes it is due to her father’s medical history. Skloot recalls asking the teacher multiple questions, including questions about Lacks’ family. The story stuck with her until nearly a decade later when she took her first writing class. The first thing she wrote in that class was about the story of Henrietta Lacks. Her curiosity and intrigue for the story eventually persuaded her to write the book.

Skloot spent years researching the topic and spending over a thousand hours interviewing family and friends of Lacks. She also interviewed lawyers, ethicists, scientists, and journalists who’ve written about the Lacks. Skloot devoted her time and money to really uncover everything about the story, not only for the books sake, but also to quench her unending curiosity. This, along with Skloot’s credentials as a narrative science writer, makes her amply qualified to write this story.

The thesis and reason for Skloot writing the book was to uncover the unique story and the ethical dilemmas it presents. Skloot wanted to inform the world of the situation and bring light to it. She wanted to tell about Lacks’ family and how they feel about the entire situation and what they have been through, and Skloot did just that.

When reading the story, the first thing that one would notice is probably the voice. Sometimes you might have to read a quote a couple times before you understand it. That is because Skloot didn’t change quotes and rewrite them to make them easier, she wanted to keep the voice of the family true. At first it seemed like it was badly written, but after a while I enjoyed it, it helped me understand the family’s deep character. In the end I think Skloot made a smart choice by keeping the quotes accurate, the depth that it added to the story helped keep you interested, especially towards the end when the text started to get dry.

While I was reading I found myself having to sort of force myself to continue, while it was a good book and told a great story, it wasn’t exactly something that grabbed you and made you want to continue and find out what’s next. For a non-fiction book it was entertaining, but I believe Skloot could have done a better job of keeping readers hooked and leaving some of the interesting facts for the end of the book. The book appeared to be written like a news story rather than a book, where the interesting stuff came first and it slowly got less and less appealing.

Afar from the readability itself, I believe Skloot did a good job at writing the book and covering all aspects of the story. She didn’t take any shortcuts or leave any stones unturned, I believe that this book is the leading resource for information on Henrietta Lacks and her family. Though journalists have told the story before, nobody has gone as far or spent as much time as Skloot did on this book. It took Skloot a decade to go through the entire process of researching and writing the book.

Her sources were all credible and helped her completely visualize the story in her book. She used a tape-recorder and took vigorous notes during interviews. Skloot also used a tactic I found interesting called throw-away questions. The idea of throw-away questions is to ask questions that aren’t important or that you already know the answer to so that you can stall the person and give you time to take down notes while they answer the question.

When you look further into the book, it brings up more questions. While it may seem like it’s just a book about Henrietta Lacks and her family, at its heart it is much more. It is about ethics, and medical ethics to be exact. Skloot talked to multiple lawyers about medical laws, and the legality of the situation. It is illegal to take somebody’s possession without their permission, it is stealing, and your body is under your possession. Whether legal or not, however, it is ethically wrong to take cells from somebody’s body without their consent.

People tend to believe that just because something is legal, means that it is ok to do it. Not everything legal is still ethical though. As public relations professionals, we often tread the line of ethics. Skloot brought to light all these questions about what is or isn’t ethical. Even if the book wasn’t good, and it is, it would still be a good thing that this story was brought to mainstream attention.

Thought the history of the story is still a painful subject for the Lacks family, they are happy that the story is out and are pleased with the book. Throughout the process of writing the book, Skloot has developed a special friendship with the family. Skloot has even set up a foundation for the family and family’s like theirs as a way of giving back. She didn’t want to benefit from their story without returning the favor. She donates a percentage of the profits she makes from the book and anything else related to the family, including the film adaptation that is currently being planned.

Though the story can get dull at times, Skloot wrote it well and factual. She took the utmost care with making sure the story included all the details and facts. She wanted it to be so accurate that she went as far as keeping the quotes from Lacks’ family exactly the same. By doing this it gives the book more character and voice, and allows us to understand the family and how this all has affected them. I can confidently say that no other person could have wrote the book as well as Skloot did.


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