Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Finally Got Around to Reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (a true story)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, sat on my bookshelf for several years until I finally...sold it.  Yep.  I didn't think I was ever going to read it.  So when we moved out of our house on Terreno de Flores, I lumped it in with a bunch of others and went right down to Recycle Books.  And that was the end of that - so I thought.  Several years later, I'm sitting with cousin Besi talking about books.  And she tells me (I don't know how it came up) that I need to read H. Lacks.  Well, I bought it again and put it with the other 2 dozen or so books that are sitting in my TBR pile.

Then a couple of weeks later, I'm with cousin Besi and cousin Patti.  We're talking about Lacks, and Patti says what a good book it is.  That did it.  I was already convinced.  But the 2nd high rec made it my next book.  Was it as good as they said it was?  Pretty much.  A 3.25/4 is a darn good grade in my book.

Do you all know what this book is about?  Let me quote the back cover:

Her name is Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa.  She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells - taken without her knowledge in 1951 - became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more.  Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can't afford health insurance.  This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

The most intriguing part of the book for me was how the author, a girl in her late 20s, convinced Henrietta's family to trust her.  They had every reason to basically distrust anybody from the "establishment" after how they were treated by the medical community. And, yet, Rebecca was able to convince Deborah, Henrietta's daughter, to do just that.

The whole concept of the book is fascinating.  But if I have any criticism, it's the same one I had with The Martian.  The medical (vs. scientific) explanations are a little bit too detailed for me.  It also took me a while to get into it.  I made a note that said:  "67 finally started to pick up."  Once it did pick up, though, I was definitely engrossed in it.  And the criticisms are pretty minor.

Just a little bit past the 1/2 mark, we learn about the rise of the white sheets used by the Ku Klux Klan.  That was creepy.  We also learned about Johns Hopkins, the founder of the namesake hospital.  And how he came to start that hospital.  There was a lot of interesting history spread throughout the book.  Check out page 194, line 23.  You will be stunned by the number of patents that were registered based on the HeLa cells.  I was re-stunned when I saw the number again!

You know, it's interesting that I read this book dispassionately throughout - until the end.  In the last 10 pages I cried twice, when I wasn't even close to waterworks prior to that. Obviously, I was emotionally connected even though I didn't realize it.

I would say that this is a story well worth reading.

P.S.  There's one scene when the author is talking with Michael Rogers, who was a young journalist with Rolling Stone back in the mid-70s.  At one point, we see that Rogers house was burned up in the Oakland, CA fire of 1991.  Actually, my parents were only about 2 miles from that fire.  In fact, there was a period of time when we didn't know if they would have to vacate.  It turned out that they didn't, but it was a very scary fire.


  1. Well gosh. I have bypassed this book for a long time as well, but maybe I should read it also!

    1. I know. Sometimes it just takes that one extra push.

  2. I read this book several years ago and liked it a lot but had a little trouble with the way the author approached the family - it almost felt like harassment to me. I'm glad she told the story, though - it's an important one.

    1. I never thought of that. But I would say that ultimately Deborah could not have been bullied into talking to Rebecca if she didn't want to. I have to agree with you, though, that Rebecca was very insistent!

  3. I've read every positive review of this one but still can't generate enough interest to add it to my pile. I fell like with every review I learn more :)