Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

There’s a lot going on in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I both learned a lot of facts and considered a lot of ideas from it.  I came away believing that it is just a little too scattered, and that a little more focus on a smaller topic set would make it more powerful.

Rebecca Skloot sets out to tell the story of the person from whom the longest running cultured cell line in cancer research was taken.  Along the way she talks about the research uses to which the cells have been put, the ethical quandries raised by taking those cells without permission, the increasing commercialization of cell lines for research and the rights of donors in them.  There’s also a theme of the different levels of care provided to poor and Black patients as compared to richer White patients, and the history of research hospitals exploiting those poor patients.  Sometimes that exploitation takes the form of actively infecting people with a disease to see the effect.  That causes an unsurprising suspicion from the poorer members of society.  One can understand the thinking: “if they don’t infect me with something, maybe they’ll only sell my cells.”

As if those weren’t enough Immortal Life also a biography of Henrietta Lacks, the narrative of how that biography was dug out of the distrusting community by our intrepid reporter, an investigation into the difficult straits of the Lacks extended family, and a buddy movie starring Lacks’s daughter and the reporter.

All that is presented in an involving way, and the development is clear and well organized.  That said, there are only so many changes of viewpoint and tone that a reader can take in a couple hundred pages.  There is too much to take in from too many perspectives.

The other side of that coin is that none of the topics receives the depth of coverage it deserves.  There’s a book in here about the exploitation of the poor by government research and the distrust and hatred it has bred.  There’s a discussion to be had about the state of the medical saftey net and services than can break cycles of abuse that are not being provided by our government and the human and financial toll that is taking.  There’s a history to tell about this specific family, its members, and in particular, Lacks’s daughter. And then there is the HeLa cell line from Henrietta, including all the scientific and ethical questions it raises.

Unfortunately, we get just the trailer versions of all that.  They are good trailers, but any one of those topics deserves the space to breathe and be explored in its entirety.

Despite my concerns, I think Immortal Life is worth reading.  It forms an interesting nexus between a lot of issues and ideas, and a reader may leave the book on a very different trajectory than they arrived at it from.


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