Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Image via Goodreads
Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot

Release Date: February 4th, 2011
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Source: Bought
Genre: Non-fiction, biography, science


Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons. 

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not really about Henrietta Lacks, rather, it's about the issue of tissue rights.

I am not a fan of the book. I think it's great that Skloot could bring about a public awareness to bioethics and that the world now know the existence of a woman behind the HeLa cells. However, I did not appreciate how Skloot uses Lack's family as a tool to achieve such a goal. Also, in doing so, Skloot established a negative image of the Lack's family as a stereotypical black family.

The sons of Henrietta Lacks are often portrayed as violent and simply wanting money. Deborah Lacks, who was also Skloot's main source for information, was portrayed as ignorant and at times, frivolous.

This book is a required reading for my literature unit in uni. Through that unit, I was introduced to the "nice white lady" trope. That is, there is always a "nice white lady" to help guide the helpless, ignorant people of colour and 'save' them from their dilemmas. This trope is actually quite common in today's literature and film. I do feel that this trope is quite present in this book.

Perhaps Skloot's intention was noble. Perhaps Skloot does intend to seek justice for the Lack's family. However, her techniques used in executing their story often cast the Lack's as ignorant, naive and helpless. There were also a lot of personal details on the Lacks's family that do not have any relevance to the subject of the story.

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