APRIL BOOK CLUB: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

It’s time to discuss April’s Literally, Darling Book Club pick, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot! Even if you didn’t have a chance to read along, catch up with our introduction here and join us below.

Before we dive into the discussion questions, I want to talk a little bit about the author Rebecca Skloot. Skloot first learned about HeLa cells when she was 16 and sitting in a community college biology class. Her professor talked at length about the accomplishments of HeLa, and basic structure of a cell. Just before class ended, almost as an afterthought, the professor mentioned “she was a black woman” and that was it. For Skloot, from that moment on “HeLa cells were omnipresent” (5). Who was this woman whose cells helped develop the drugs to treat herpes and leukemia and influenza and Parkinson’s disease, the “standard laboratory workhorse” in cell culture since the 1950s? After 10 years of research and befriending the Lacks family along the way, Skloot is finally able to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman behind HeLa.


These are paraphrased from the introduction post, for the full discussion questions click here.

1. What impact did the decision to maintain speech authenticity have on the story?

Skloot describes her writing style as creative nonfiction or literary journalism, meaning that fiction style of scenes and dialogue is set in a historically accurate world. Through thousands of interviews with family members and friends and doctors and assistants, digging through archives and even verifying the weather on the day Henrietta died with the National Weather Service, Skloot was able to piece together a fairly accurate picture of the woman who remained a mystery for so long, even to her own children.

The language authenticity is one of the things that sets Skloot’s story of Henrietta apart from any other, and added a level of genuineness that really makes the story come to life. Skloot is not the first (or the last) to be infatuated with the mystery behind HeLa, and much of the Lacks family struggle with Henrietta and her death stems from difficult experiences with reporters and doctors. Camera crews interviewed the Deborah Lacks, “prompting her from off camera to speak in complete sentences, and not wander off” (218), reporters would pound on the door asking questions but giving no answers, and many doctors did nothing but speak broadly and in tough medical terms. Skloot finally told the story that Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, had wanted to share for many years. Without the dialogue excerpts and recreated scenes, Skloot’s book just becomes another story about HeLa that completely misses human struggle behind the medical miracle.

2. As a journalist, Skloot is careful to present the encounter between the Lacks family and the world of medicine without taking sides. Since readers bring their own experiences and opinions to the text, some may feel she took the scientists’ side, while others may feel she took the family’s side. What are your feelings about this? Does your opinion fall on one side or the other, or somewhere in the middle, and why?

Throughout the entire book I just kept thinking, how could the Lacks family get burned so badly? While I think Skloot sympathizes with the Lacks family, she makes it very clear on numerous occasions that even though the doctors did take Henrietta’s cells without permission, that was standard practice at the time. Essentially it comes down to miss-communication. Many of Henrietta’s family and friends believed she was still alive, “I still wonder how many people they got in London walkin around look just like my mother” Deborah wonders aloud. Did the doctors at Hopkins kill Henrietta? Was she kidnapped? Did she even have cancer at all?

George Gey, the physician who takes Henrietta’s cells and successfully grows them in culture, could easily have become the villain of the story. But, Skloot emphasized the fact that Gey had no desire to release Henrietta’s information, “keeping patient information confidential was emerging as a standard practice” (107), so to protect her identity, “Gey created [a] pseudonym to throw journalists off the trail of Henrietta’s identity” (109), and reporters began to get it wrong, calling Henrietta “Helen L” or “Helen Lane.” Because of this, it took many years for the Lacks family to find out about HeLa.

There is no one to blame, really. I didn’t finish the book with a clear cut opinion, thinking “she was wrong” or “he was right.” Even now, this debate continues. Skloot explains, “today some scientists argue that it’s factually incorrect to say that HeLa cells are related to Henrietta, since their DNA is no longer genetically identical to hers” (216). The tension between the Lacks and HeLa made me think of author John Green, when he urged people to “imagine others complexly,” highlighting the damage that can be done when we see people as one-sided in his novel Paper Towns. I think Skloot did a great job of imagining all the players in Henrietta’s story complexly, and not just siding with history or with human interest. A lot of what happens between the Lacks family and the medical field is, in my opinion, a result of not seeing the other side from their point of view.

3. Is it possible to approach history from an objective point of view? If so, how and why is this important, especially in the context of Henrietta’s story

History is not always kind, and it is especially important to understand Henrietta’s story from the 1950’s Baltimore/American worldview. Would things have been different if Henrietta had come from a white family? Many of the Lacks family fears that Henrietta had been kidnapped were valid, rooted in the racial tension of the time. Sonny, Henrietta’s son, explains “John Hopkins was known for experimentin on black folks. They’d snatch em off the street…When it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps, or Hopkins might get us” (165).

4. Reflect upon Henrietta’s life.

In 1920, Henrietta Lacks is born in Roanoke, Virginia. One of 10 children, she grew up on a tobacco farm under the care of her grandfather. Her childhood is fairly picturesque, working in the fields, attending school and playing with her cousins. Henrietta married her cousin David or “Day” as he was called and had her first child at the age of 14. “On the nights Day worked, Henrietta and Sadie would wait until the door slammed, count to one hundred, then jump out of bed, put on their dancing clothes, and sneak out of the house, careful not to wake the children. Once they got outside, they’d wiggle their hips and squeal, scampering down the street to the dance floors” (43). Henrietta seemed like a stellar woman. Men lusted after her. She danced. Children loved her.  I can’t help but wonder if people would have said the same things about her when she was alive, or what she saw when she looked in the mirror?

My favorite thing about Henrietta is that she’d spend hours painting and taking care of her nails. After her death, it was her painted toenails that caused Mary, Gey’s assistant, to think of Henrietta as an actual person. “I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way” (91).

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I had “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” on my to-read a long time, not sure if I was willing to wade through what I assumed to be a detailed medical history or legal battle. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find the story of an ordinary family who changed the world in an extraordinary. I almost feel like I accidentally learned a lot about cell biology and bio-genetics. Skloot strikes the perfect balance between reporting the facts and telling a story, one you can tell she deeply cares about. She brings Henrietta back to life, though her cells continued on immortal.

If you’d like to check in on a recent update with the Lacks family, you can find an interview from October 2013 on the “Famous Tumors” episode of Radio Lab.

In May we’ll be reading “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green, so stay tuned!


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