The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Something not quite right


There’s something off in Rebecca Skoot’s *The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks*. It might be the wiff of pretension from the author – she’s the only one who over understood how to approach/respect the Lack’s family? – or maybe it’s that secretly this book is very much about Rebecca Skoot becoming the author she wanted to be and this goes more or less unacknowledged in the frenetic attempts to foreground that this story belongs to the Lacks family and that Skoot is “doing a favour” by writing it. As if she’s not benefiting from the story – from Henrietta – too. Oh sure, she tells us that she’s funding the research with credit cards and student loans, but this reader is skeptical. 

So yes – I’m concerned about the authorial tone – both the tone of the author and the author’s tone as one that has authority (wham bam!).

That said, the book presents an *incredibly* interesting and accessible account of the life of Henrietta Lacks and the history of the HeLa cell, cell culturation. It asks provocative questions about who owns biological materials, whether ‘life’ can be subject to patent and ownership in the first place, and who ought to benefit from medical advances that rely on human subject participation. It raises questions about the end of life, the bound between living and non-living material (indeed, one of the more interesting chapters looks at how HeLa has become its *own* organism, but unfortunately doesn’t go into much depth here).

I suppose the aspect I most enjoyed of the book was its ability to weave between the personal narrative of Henrietta and the scientific “biography” of the cell and the medical field (like the Biography of Cancer – this book allows that an unconscious living thing might be just as fit a subject of a biography as any person). The introduction to HeLa as something that is *everywhere* and the supportive player in much medical advance was humbling for this Humanities scholar: I didn’t know; I should have known.

But all the same. There’s something not quite right here. I want to cry “exploitation!” but the book goes to such painful lengths to promise that no one has been exploited, quite the contrary: everyone here are friends. And yet… I’m not convinced.


Leave a comment

Filed under Mystery, Prize Winner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s