Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Skloot, Rebecca.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.   New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

As much as I blasted The Help  for how it handles the ethics of being a listener to and conveyor of someone else’s stories, I would like to laud The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for its respectful handling of the life of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and others associated with the life of the HeLa cells.

But before launching into my encomium on this point, let me assure you that this is a fascinating book for other reasons, as well.  Here’s why: 1) You’ll learn about the HeLa cells and lots of other cool medical stuff.  2) You’ll meet people who refuse to tell their stories and appreciate their courage when they relent. 3) You’ll empathize with your narrator who’s trying to make sense of conflicting information amidst reactions of hatred, confusion, and paranoia. 4) You’ll get a glimpse into what can and can’t be done with the fluids and matter taken from you during lab appointments and checkups. 5) You’ll marvel at the immortality of one Mrs. Henrietta Lacks, who now has a name, a history, and a legacy.  You will realize how much we all owe her.

Now for the hospitality encomium.   I marvel at how Skloot simultaneously conveys the frustrations of dealing with one reluctant story teller after the next without suggesting that you should feel sorry for her struggle.  Unlike The Help, The Immortal Life focuses on how hard it is for the Lacks family to trust this journalist, this stranger—for so many valid and invalid reasons—instead of how much patience and determination our beleaguered narrator must have in order to tolerate the misinformed, prejudiced, and uneducated.  From the beginning to the end, Skloot never loses sight of the medical, social, and personal injustices that Henrietta, her family, and her descendents have suffered.  However, and more importantly, Skloot does not depict them as the saints, sinners, and saviors that Trudier Harris objects to in so many African American representations.  Skloot portrays some of the Lacks family members as angry, suspicious, and vengeful.  Although they appear ignoble at times, they appear authentic all the time.  Instead of justifying or condemning them for their flaws, Skloot explains them–without judgment.  Implicitly, she asks us to consider if the medical community had taken, disseminated, profited from, experimented with, and cultivated your mother’s cells during its poorly diagnosing and treating her case, wouldn’t you be furious? On top of that, if you didn’t understand the medical procedures, ethics, and legality, wouldn’t you be confused and even paranoid?  And if you couldn’t pay for your own health insurance while millions of vials of your mother’s cells are being sold for profit and vats of your mother’s cells are being regenerated all over the world without attribution, wouldn’t you be vengeful?  You probably would; and they are, as well.  Their story, Henrietta’s story, her cells’ story, and many others’ are told authentically—flaws and all.  It’s not necessary to admire any of the participants in the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, including our intrepid narrator/journalist.  It is important, however, to identify and appreciate the concessions and contributions they ultimately make.

I commend Rebecca Skloot for being the perfect host to those whom she has welcomed and the perfect guest to those who have welcomed her in the telling of their stories.  As I consider Skloot’s story of their stories,  I keep reevaluating the hospitality I afford others when I tell my tales and listen to theirs.  Perhaps, we could all regenerate and circulate that hospitality worldwide, creating our own immortal lives of hosts and guests.

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