It's odd when a book detailing a medical breakthrough that has saved countless lives reads like a tragedy. But that's how Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" comes off..... probably intentionally. In Skloot's excellent, gripping and exhaustively- researched book the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells that miraculously survive and divide (in every sense of the word) to this day is laid out in full. Henrietta Lacks, a young wife and mother, came to Johns Hopkins Medical Center in 1951 because she felt a "knot" in her lower pelvis. She had cervical cancer, for which she was treated. Also (and herein lies the controversy), cancer cells were scraped from her cervix without Lacks' knowledge nor permission and sent to a medical research lab. The cells' incredible rate of growth led to many countless medical breakthroughs in cancer, blood pressure and heart conditions. Scientists previously could not test medications on human cells because cell lines tended to die off after a few cycles of reproduction. Not the HeLa line, as Lacks' cells were called. And thus medicine advanced by massive bounds in a relatively short span of time.
The history of Henrietta Lacks and the wounds felt by her family even now in the present day is hard to read but gripping. Would Lacks have been treated differently by the doctors at Johns Hopkins if she had not been a poor black woman? Her family says yes. Johns Hopkins says no. Skloot takes a more nuanced approach, acutely aware of her whiteness as she attempts to tell a black woman's story without being accused of appropriation. It's a very delicate line.
Skloot uses an interesting device where the medical boom in America that the HeLa cell line produced is told interspersed with chapters about Henrietta Lacks' family and the family's sad downfall after the death of Henrietta. The story of the Lacks family transcends medicine and even race. It is a story about the utter destruction that children experience when they suddenly lose their mother.
Not a single one of Lacks' four children escaped trauma after their mother died. Henrietta Lacks' widower husband married another woman who was extremely abusive towards their children. Their father never intervened or even seemed to care when his new wife beat and starved his children. The oldest child, Elsie Lacks, was diagnosed with "idiocy" and sent to an insane asylum. Judging from descriptions of Elsie by her contemporaries Elsie was probably a nonverbal autistic child. Elsie's sad fate in the "Hospital for the Negro Insane" is too awful for me to detail here. Suffice it to say that the "hospital" functioned as a de facto concentration camp. Elsie passed away at fifteen years old, according to records scraped up by Deborah Lacks and Skloot. Elsie's family never knew what happened to her.
Henrietta's oldest son emerged relatively unscathed, joining the army and marrying a woman who became a protector and mother of sorts to Deborah Lacks, a young girl who desperately needed a protector. Deborah herself suffered an adolescence filled with sexual abuse and outright rape from both a male friend of her father's and her male cousins. Deborah later endured an abusive marriage with a drug-dealing husband. When Skloot later meets Deborah Lacks, Deborah is a grandmother, divorced, and warmly surrounded by her community and her grandchildren. But it is clear that Deborah Lacks still bears the scars of her childhood abuse and the sudden death of her mother. Skloot describes Deborah Lacks suddenly suffering a psychotic break during a road trip, requiring a detour to the hospital. More sadly, Skloot describes to Deborah Lacks how the HeLa line cells are being cloned. Deborah Lacks asks hopefully if they can clone her mother and bring her back to life. Though in her sixties and a grandmother, Deborah Lacks still longs for her mother, wondering if Henrietta Lacks in her neat skirt, collared shirt and late-forties woman's suit jacket can somehow step out of a petrie dish and hold her little daughter once more. Skloot has to disappoint Deborah Lacks again. No. They can only clone the cancer cells. Not Henrietta Lacks herself. This sad exchange stuck with me far longer than the pages of medical successes in Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
In the end the title "Immortal Life" comes off as a tragic irony. Henrietta Lacks was a matriarch and mother and a caretaker to many young black workers who left the South and moved to Baltimore for jobs. But she missed so much of her children's lives because of her early death from cancer. And her family suffers so much for it. Deborah Lacks passed away before Skloot's book went to press but her children and grandchildren remain to carry on Henrietta Lacks' legacy. If there is any hope to take away it is through the Henrietta Lacks Foundation (http://henriettalacksfoundation.org) where Henrietta Lacks' grandchildren and great grandchildren are going to college and starting businesses with help from the foundation's funds. It is small compensation for what Henrietta Lacks gave the world, but it's something.