Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is definitely one of those stories - it's a nonfiction work about Henrietta Lacks, who in the 1950s had cervical cancer and had some cells taken from her body (without her permission), which then turned into the immortal cell line called HeLa which has been use in a lot of medical research since. The story of the development of HeLa is interwoven with the story of Henrietta's family and how unjustly they were treated and affected by their mother's cells.

I read this book because it was one of the few books I had on my e-reader that I hadn't read when I was in Vancouver (I usually only use my e-reader while traveling or when reading Australian books I can't buy physical copies of here). Awhile ago my parents and my brother read it, I think as part of The Book Faeries rotation, and the comments they'd made on it intrigued me. Although I think the only comment my brother gave was, "Did you know they ship cells in the mail?"

I'm not a scientist at all, but the medical and science stuff that was in this book was easy to understand and absolutely fascinating. It was interesting how many questions the book brought up about ethics in medical research and what the author calls in the afterword the "tissue issue", as well as the commercialization of research and science. All of this stuff was new to me, and just made me realize how incredibly strange (and awful) the world is. One of my favourite things about reading nonfiction is how it blows my mind open and exposes me to new worlds, and this book definitely did that.

I have to say, though, the most compelling part of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for me was the story of the Lacks family. Henrietta died not too long after her cells were taken from her, and her children didn't even find out their mother's cells had been taken until twenty years later. The book chronicles the story of Henrietta's childhood, her cancer diagnosis, her death, and the lives of her children and just how awfully they were treated and misled by all of these medical researchers who used and abused them. The book even included the journey of the author and the family (in particular Henrietta's daughter Deborah) discovering how Henrietta's cells were used in science, since even up to the point of the author's research the family still hadn't been told much. The inclusion of the story of the family is done incredibly thoughtfully and carefully, and makes Henrietta and her descendants the protagonists, not her cells, which I think is important.

One of the common themes of the book is how the children wanted Henrietta's contribution to science to be properly recognized, and while I'm sure this book has done a lot in that direction, I was surprised how many people hadn't heard of this story when I told them what I was reading. The book makes her sound so famous, I figured everyone had heard of Henrietta Lacks by now. Anyway, I would definitely encourage you to pick up this absolutely incredibly complex and fascinating story.

Check it out on:

Also fun fact: the book has been made into a made-for-TV movie on HBO which premieres on April 22.

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