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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a deeply unsettling book. In many regards - most notably in the tragic injustice committed against Mrs. Lacks and her family, with her cells taken from her without her permission, and the emotional pain and lack of recompensation that this inflicted on her family, but also too in the questions that it raises about whether we too are victims of, on a much lesser scale, such an uninformed theft of our biological data. The way that it discusses the intense problems association with cellular research through potential contamination, and the pain and suffering physically involved in cancer, just make for additional spectres throughout the book.

But despite this, it's far from a sad book. What makes Rebecca Skloot's work so compelling is the sympathy, the compassion, and understanding with which she treats her subjects, and particularly the person of Henrietta Lacks, with such compassion and understanding. This shows up in little traces: her daughter, Deborah, is one of the most compassionate characters in the book, whose energy, changeability, and spirit all burst through the pages, as well as her deep and genuine concern for her mother: when there is a word in a dictionary describing her mentally incapacitated younger sister, the author carefully makes sure to write the page so as to omit it, under a promise to Deborah that it wouldn't be included. This shows itself too in how it presents the scientific beliefs of Deborah: it would have been easy to write away her fears of her mom being blown up in bombs and rocketed up into space as a quaint sort of ignorance, confusing the cells and the body of Henrietta Lacks, or the lurid ideas of them being merged with mice or other creatures to produce horrible mutants. But these were all ideas that came to Deborah because she read popular science articles: they really did mention ideas like this and blurred the line between science fiction and reality. And the childhood of Lacks is written with such a charming style that it breathes all of the good, the bad, and the nostalgic of the old south.

This connection to Henriette makes the suffering and pain which she experience as she died, and then the emotional travails of the family, all the more tragic: it is a book which talks about the good, the bad, the ugly, of the Lacks family, which pulls no punches in describing them and their painful story, and which gives a true sense of sympathy for all of their struggles. What's more, they are in context, since we grow to understand just how much in the way of significance and change was brought about through the creation of the HeLa cells and their revolution upon the biological fields. The strands of personal tragedy, and the story of science, and woven together brilliantly to complement each other, with a skillful use of chronology that drives the story along with real panache.

A great popular science book, which cogently and effectively explores the impact of the first "immortal" cancer cells which would be used again and again for scientific research, a probing look into medical ethics, and a deeply human and sympathetic look at the sacrifice and loss which made it all possible, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an excellent, readable, and engaging biography and journalistic exposé, one which makes you think about your own relationship to medical science and its practices.


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