The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover, E M Keeler, bedside table

I decided to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is sort of like saying that I decided to be deeply disturbed and conflicted, because I had read an incredibly vivid piece by Rebecca Skloot in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I. I was hungry for more work in her voice, so I picked up this book even though I had only a rough understanding and somewhat limited interest in biology and medical research.

But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not really about science and cellular tissue; it’s not even really about the tricky ethics of consent. I mean, it is about those things, and Skloot writes about HeLa and research labs and medical conferences and the way that different cells function both inside and outside of our bodies with such clarity and simplicity that the chapters that chronicle the advances in cellular tissue studies build up a suspenseful narrative in their own right. Skloot’s science reportage is meticulously researched and highly readable. But this isn’t really a book about science.

This is a book about life, and the real story here is the one about Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks. When Deborah was a little girl her mother died from an inconceivably horrible case of cervical cancer. Shortly before this, some of the malignant material in Henrietta’s body was taken, without her consent, for research, and her unknowing contribution changed scientific history. Deborah Lacks grew up without a mother, without knowing that the cellular tissue taken from her mother would go on to be the material that enabled much of modern medicine.

Skloot and Deborah forge a very complicated relationship as they track down the stories of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa. Where Skloot is white, in her mid-20s, university educated in both biology and the arts, Deborah is a fifty year old black lady who works part time and can’t afford even basic health care. This last is especially painful, given the contributions to medicine that her mother’s cells have enabled, and this sad irony is forefront in the minds of many of the surviving Lackses. The way that these women relate to each other, and form an incredible bond as they delve into the past to piece together the complicated history of HeLa and Henrietta is tumultuous and beautiful. Together they unearth both unknown tragedies and gifts. Skloot describes Deborah with such love that their unlikely friendship gradually over takes the rest of the book.

Skloot started a scholarship fund for Henrietta Lacks’ descendents, and her book goes a long way to realizing the Deborah’s dream of the world’s recognition of her mother’s unwitting heroism. I want to tell you more about Deborah, but I also want you to read the book and hear her voice, her story, for yourself. Overall, I think that this is a powerfully written account that needs to be told and told again.