The Immortal Henrietta

It’s taken me a while to pick up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because the appeal of reading about a woman’s cells and how they have changed medicine was not great for me. In the hands of Rebecca Skloot, this book is so much more than that. It’s the story of the great lengths Skloot went to to discover who Henrietta was and to present her as a fun loving, compassionate, and incredibly strong person who endured incredible pain, misdiagnosis, and barbaric treatment for her extremely aggressive cervical cancer.  It’s the story of how Henrietta’s family reacted to the knowledge that her cells were taken without her permission and used for great good and for profit, while they never received any remuneration; in fact, ironically, most of them can’t afford healthcare. It’s a story about ethics, race, and class.  Skloot treats all the characters she encounters on this journey with tenderness and dignity, and interesting characters they are — the superstitious and determined Deborah who never stopped missing her mother or her sister who died mysteriously in the Hospital for the Negro Insane, the volatile Zakariyya whose anger shaped and limited his life, cousin Gary who channels God, the fearless Mama Speed who runs a kind of mean grocery store and dreams of creating a Henrietta Lacks museum, and Skloot herself whose courage and humanity finally uncovered the woman behind HeLa, the most famous cells in the world.  Skloot has given Henrietta the recognition she has long deserved and given Henrietta’s family an understanding of some the mysteries that have haunted them all of their lives.

One comment on “The Immortal Henrietta

  1. I also put off reading this book for months, thinking “How could this possibly hold my interest for several hundred pages?” Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s about American history on so many levels; civil liberties, ethics, and medical history; and a compelling story about a family written with care, accuracy, and respect. One of the most important books of the past few years.

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