Book review – “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

I’d been reading some books about writing non-fiction (to try and improve my own writing) and I came across this book, extensively cited as a fine example of the genre. It’s a chunky book that I intended to skim read, with a view to getting an idea about structure and the concept of writing about a personal journey, but I quickly became engrossed in the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, mother of five from Virginia, who died in 1951 at the age of thirty-one from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without either her consent or knowledge, the surgeon treating Henrietta took some of her cancer cells and passed them on to a colleague who was trying to find cells which would survive long enough outside the human body to be useful for research. The idea of doing this without the patient’s consent seems shocking to a 21st century reader, but remember this occurred at a time of segregation and ethical concerns and patient rights were concepts not widely considered to be essential elements of medical practice.

Henrietta LacksThis may have been unremarkable and probably happened more than we care to imagine, but for what happened next: Henrietta’s surgeon had noticed how rapidly her cancer cells had grown, but when George Gey, the scientist to whom he had sent the cells, received them, he found that they divided and reproduced at a rapid rate, and, most remarkably, seemed extraordinarily robust outside their host, unlike all other cells he had dealt with. Gey soon forwarded cells to other colleagues working in the field and they too found the ability of these cells to thrive truly remarkable. HeLa (the name given to the cells) was born and they quickly became an essential part of research worldwide into therapies not just for cancer but for polio and HIV to name but a few. It is thought that around 50 million tonnes of HeLa cells have been cultivated since 1951.

 

Meanwhile, Henrietta, died and left behind a widowed husband and five young children, two still in nappies, who would never have any memory of their late mother, and one with severe disabilities who would later be committed to an institution. They were poor; Day, Henrietta’s husband, tried to scrape together a living for the family as best he could while Henrietta’s sisters helped with the children. The family would know nothing of what had happened to Henrietta’s cells.

Rebecca Skloot, the author of this book first learned about the HeLa cells in a science class, but it was not until several years later, reading a research paper that her interest was truly piqued and she decided to do a little more digging. She tried to get in touch with the family and was at first rebuffed, but she became increasingly fascinated, obsessed even about HeLa, and the woman behind the headlines, and what had happened to her family. Eventually, she built a relationship with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who had been an infant when her mother died, and a woman who had never come to terms with her loss.

This book is not just the story of Henrietta and her family, and her cells, it is the author’s journey of discovery of the truth about medicine and science in the second half of the twentieth century. It is also a story about racism and health inequality, about exploitation and greed. The author put years of her life into this book and a glance at the references pages will show you the huge amount of research that went into producing it. It also raises some interesting questions about ethics and consent which may surprise you – you might think the answer to the question “who owns discarded parts of our bodies?” is obvious, but when the complexities of the proposition are explored we see that it is not quite so straightforward.

I expected to skim through this book in a few hours, but I found myself captivated by the story and by the issues it raised. Perhaps there are some bits the author could have left out, but I think it is also pretty clear why she couldn’t!

Recommended, especially if you have any interest in the world of medicine.

Have you ever found yourself becoming engrossed in a book that you didn’t expect?

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Book review – “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s funny how things happen sometimes; in the last week there has been a political controversy in the UK (yes, I know, another one!) about an adviser recruited to the Prime Minister’s office who got into trouble over eugenicist views he had expressed online. The individual concerned seemed a bit cross that he had been held accountable for things he said in his “past”, which he presumably he thinks should be discounted as youthful ramblings, but given that he is only 27 years old, “the past” is a pretty relative concept. I have a new insight into views about eugenics thanks to having listened last week to an excellent serialisation on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week programme of Dr Adam Rutherford’s new book How to Argue with a Racist. If you haven’t come across this yet, I would definitely recommend it. Adam Rutherford is a broadcaster, scientist and genetics expert and in this book he sets about exploding some of the myths around concepts of genetic inheritance. Listening to this book has actually saved me money, as I am no longer tempted to do one of those DNA testing kits! I am not a scientist but in other aspects of my professional life I am required to understand what constitutes good research and it is clear, even to a lay person, that there is no place for the broad generalisations about race, class and IQ (itself a deeply flawed concept) in social policy.

Henrietta LacksBy the strangest of coincidences, I have also just read two books which also explore issues of race and class. Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Skloot’s book is a detailed and complex account of one woman, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Virginia who died in 1951 from aggressive cervical cancer. The cancer cells from her body were special and unique because they were the first ever cells that were able to not only survive outside their host, but were able to continue to thrive and reproduce, at a rapid rate. This perhaps accounts for the very aggressive nature of Henrietta’s disease. Scientists used these cells, known universally as HeLa cells, to create trillions and trillions more of them, which have been used ever since, worldwide and have been directly responsible for the development of life-saving drugs and treatments, for example for polio. The key to the story, however, is that Henrietta died without ever having been advised about or consenting to the use of her cells in this way, neither did her family, and none of her surviving relatives have been given any financial compensation. What makes the story all the more shocking, however, is that Henrietta died at a time of segregation, and almost certainly did not receive the same level of care and respect as a white woman would have done. I will write more about this book in a future post because it is a fascinating story.

The Water Dancer imgThe other book I have been reading, The Water Dancer, concerns the story of Hiram, a black slave also in Virginia in the mid-1800s. His mother was also a slave, but his father was a slave-owner, who allowed his son some elementary education after his mother’s death and then, when he was in his teens, gave him the special status of being the personal servant to his white half-brother, Maynard, the heir to their father’s estate. Hiram is also the grandchild of legendary slave Santi-Bess, one of the original transported Africans who is said to have had magical powers (Conduction), although it does not become entirely clear what these are until towards the end of the book. The first significant glimpse of this is when, whilst chaperoning Maynard on a drunken night out, the two young men somehow end up in the river. Maynard drowns but Hiram somehow emerges alive. The events which follow Maynard’s death eventually afford Hiram the opportunity to escape slavery via the Underground and he soon becomes an agent of that cause. It is not a straightforward choice for him, though, as he is forced to confront traumatic memories of his mother, who died when he was very young, and to face the many complex facets of slavery, its consequences, its victims and what it means to be free.

The book is unlike other treatments of slavery I have read (for example Washington Black, The Last Runaway) as it uses magical realism techniques as a way of differentiating between the enslaved and everyone else; Hiram, and some of the others involved in the Underground, still carry within them the songs and the stories of their ancestors, giving them access to a higher power, something which the others (the whites) have lost due to their self-brutalisation. The novel also takes a more nuanced view of the segregated society than I have seen before – within the enslaved group, there are some who are more courageous, more committed, more able and more educated than others, plus there are the ‘tasked’ (slaves) and those who have secured freedom. Within the, let’s call them the ‘whites’ group, there are the ‘quality’ (slave owners) and the ‘low’, the ‘hounds’ (slave hunters) and there are also a number of non-African-Americans involved in the movement to free the slaves. This is a more complex study of American society at the time and a more satisfying one.

The novel builds to a nail-biting denouement. It is at times brutally realistic, neither does it spare the reader’s emotions on the journey it takes us through. There are a range of good and bad endings here and that feels right. There is also a sense of no ending, the struggle to defeat racism goes on. Given the events at Downing Street this week, it is clear this is the case.

I recommend The Water Dancer. I also recommend every other book mentioned in the above review.

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