My 9th book to read for 2012, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot was on my to-read list because it has been on the New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller List since the end of 2010.
When Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cancer in 1951, cells from her tumor became the first human cell line that scientists were able to keep alive in vitro, not dying after a few cell divisions. These ‘immortal’ cells were shipped to researchers around the world and used for conducting many experiments. As the book states, these “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.”
This was a very interesting book. I learned a lot about cancer research in the book but the book is so much more than that. It is impossible not to feel empathy for Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, as you go through this story but my heart really was moved by the devastation that poverty had on her and her family. In my middle class life I cannot imagine the horrors that her and her family had to endure primarily due to being poor but of course also exacerbated by being black.
The lack of education kept impeding the families understanding of what had happened to Henrietta’s cells and caused misunderstandings on both sides of any conversation.
The strange spiritual beliefs also made me ponder my own beliefs while trying not to be judgmental. Bible verses are used to explain the ‘immortality’ of Henrietta’s cells; promises of eternal life twisted to show that Henrietta is one of God’s chosen but I ‘know’ these verses are for all believers, not special proof-texts to explain anything else. The author said that these verses are the result of taking the Bible literally, I must disagree since for me ‘literal’ also means ‘in-context’. I want to conclude that mine is a ‘rational’ faith but am sure that my beliefs must appear just as ‘strange’ to others.
This is not a book about beliefs or education but about a family. In reality the immortal cells are just the glue that holds the story together and it is a very interesting story and highly recommended.