I’d finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks just in time for my book club meeting! It could not have turned out better and I was primed and ready to discuss with the women in my group.
I wasn’t the only one who’d never heard of HeLa before we read this book. Only one person in my book club had heard of HeLa cells or knew anything about Henrietta. I had seen the book countless times but never bothered to turn it over and read what it was about.
Skloot was a very active character in her own book. We were fascinated that she could remember something a community college professor said to her in high school and be so driven by it later in life. What an impactful educator! Skloot had a great relationship with the Lacks family, especially Deborah. I think I would have lost my patience more than the one time Skloot did! They really appreciated that she taught them what they didn’t understand and that she was patient when it came to answers. Her style of writing the book was great for a topic that could be so dense. She kept the ‘science-y’ parts moving and flowed well between times and places so that we didn’t get bored or lost as readers.
Race was obviously a big part of the story. What we wondered is if the modern part of the story would have been any different if Skloot was black. We think the family might have talked to her sooner. They said a few times that white people only came poking around when they wanted something and they were all very distrustful of Rebecca at first. We don’t know if she would have been as successful with the hospitals and getting information there. Being so starkly different from the family made her seem more like a researcher.
It was hard to hear about Henrietta’s upbringing and life. She lost her mother when she was so young, it mimicked Deborah’s distraught feelings about her mother. But it wasn’t just Henrietta, but her whole family that suffered so much. We wondered how Henrietta’s experience in the hospital would have been different if she was white. If she was the same socioeconomic status, we don’t think her experience would have been much different. She still wouldn’t have had the money to pay for a lot of treatments and would have been viewed as a charity case. If she’d been middle class, her treatment would have been the same (it was all they knew), but we think she would have been better educated about what was happening to her and her family would have been more involved in the treatment steps.
We all loved Deborah’s dedication to her mother. Unlike her father and brothers, she wasn’t worried about the money she could get from her mother’s legacy, she just wanted people to know what Henrietta had done. I was particularly moved by the explanation of why the family thought Henrietta was an angle. It was a really beautifully drawn comparison.
The scene where Zakariyya and Deborah seen their mother’s cells was really moving to all of us. To anyone, it would be a moving experience, but for these two, who didn’t understand well what cells were and only knew what they saw was a part of their mother, it effected them in a different way. It was so great that they were able to have a positive experience at Johns Hopkins.
Of course, we had to talk about the ethics of selling human samples. We agreed with one of the proposed solutions, which was a part of the profits going back to disease research. If there’s so much money to be had from selling these cellular samples and always a need for research money, why not shade the ethically grey area with using the money earned to fund the disease research? It seems like a win-win situation.
Our next book will be another disease-focused read with Still Alice by Lisa Genova. We need a happy read eventually!
Until next time, write on.