When I was casting about looking for something to listen to on audio, I remembered that many readers had loved this book and that it had indeed earned a top spot on many “best of” lists. My good friend Sandy convinced me that audio was the way to go with this one, and so I set off with it, never knowing just how strange and compelling it was going to be. I found myself making up reasons to drop my print read and putter about the house trying to get more time with this incredible book that had me shaking my head in amazement and sorrow. It was a story I found incredible and that raised some frightening questions and suspicions in my mind, but at its heart this was a story of family. Be they broken or in bondage to wills outside their own, it was the story of the Lacks clan that really made the most impact on me. The audiobook was narrated by Cassandra Campbell with interludes of narration from Bahni Turpin. Both narrators did an amazing job, and Campbell in particular came off with just the right note of inquisitiveness and incredulity in her performance.
There were really two parts to this book. One part focused on the science behind the discovery of Henrietta’s cells and the other told the story of the Lacks family and the impact that these discoveries had on them. The cells in themselves were incredible, and it seemed, indestructible. They grew at an alarming rate and were so hardy and tenacious that they had the ability to grow even in places and ways they were not wanted. Medical men made millions off of these cells and they’ve been used in almost every form of medical research known in the world today. In the 50’s and 60’s the reports given to the public about these cells were not only misleading, but they had the cast of a bizarre Twilight Zone episode about them. News reports purported that the cells could create insidious life forms and clones, and read by a nation of unsavvy readers, the cells became sinister to some. The real truth was that these special cells, harvested from an unknown woman, were fast growing and useful for many different medical purposes in a way that none before them had ever been, and this in itself was a new phenomenon.
The part of the book that focused on Henrietta’s family was a decidedly less invigorating story. Henrietta was uneducated and married young. She had a philandering husband and a large group of children. The family and extended family were extremely poor, and when she was first diagnosed with the cancer that killed her, she was no stranger to health problems that were left untreated due to financial difficulties. Her treatment for cervical cancer was short-lived but intense, and by the time she died, her body was akin to a chemical dumping ground. It was heartbreaking to realize that she left behind children who were neglected and abused, but what happened after their eventual maturity bordered on the heinous. Henrietta’s family was never educated about the cells that the medical professionals took from her body. They never received any compensation for them, and even accolades came late in the game. Though all this caused a myriad of confusion and problems for the family, it was her daughter Deborah that took the emotional brunt of all this upheaval. Deborah’s story of ill-treatment and confusion broke my heart, for she seemed to suffer from an emotional cancer that mirrored her mother’s in its aggression, and Skloot’s eventual friendship and work with Deborah unveiled a world of confusion, helplessness and pain that the family was never able to recover from. I found it intensely wrong that the Lacks family could afford so little medical care when their matriarch’s cells were a gift that the medical community could never have done without.
Towards the end of this book, Skloot educates the reader a bit about tissue disposal and donation, and these sections had my blood boiling. A person has no rights to the medical refuse that they leave behind after a procedure or a blood draw, and these samples can be used for research and profit at the whim and will of those who collect it. Normally, I would have never been bothered by this, but after reading Henrietta’s story, this brought up frightening and untoward possibilities to my mind. Many have sued for the rights of their discarded tissues; readers of this book will be shocked to discover just how far these battles went and of their eventual outcome. The rational side of my mind says these things aren’t a big deal in the context of everyday life, but the emotional side of my personality needs only to look towards Henrietta and the legacy of suffering left to her children to tell me that this is indeed an important issue.
This book will probably make it to one of my top spots of the year. It had all the intrigue and mystery of a suspense thriller but with a much more complicated and muddied outcome. It was the kind of book you can’t help but talk about and bring up in every conversation. It was that good. If you haven’t read this book, I urge you to do so. Not only will it enlighten you in so many important ways, it will expose one more reader to a woman and family that deserve to be remembered and even celebrated. A highly original and impressive book, and very strongly recommended.