The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks / 1400052173
I was really excited to read this for a book club; I'd heard that the book was really wonderfully written and informative. Now having read it, I'm really struggling with my review: how do you rate a book that has a great first half but which I only finished because I didn't want to show up to book club not having read the whole thing?
The first half of this book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, and how she came to be so incredibly important to the field of modern medicine. The chapters that cover the technology used to work with her cancer cells and which give a sort of 'history of modern medicine' overview are extremely interesting and informative, and well worth the investment of this book, I think.
There's a lot of valuable discussion of the ethics of medical research, and how our understanding has grown and changed over the years. For instance, Henrietta's cells were used without compensation because the mentality at the time was that charity care in a free hospital meant that the patient's cells, once 'donated' for their own diagnosis, could then be used without permission and compensation for research. Whether or not this is fair to the person from whom the cells originated is a complex question that we've answered differently as a society over the years, and I appreciate the balanced look provided in the "science sections" of the book.
Unfortunately, in the second half, this book tails into a sort of autobiography of the author as she follows Henrietta's surviving family and children around the country. And it's this half that is something of a slog to wade through. Everything discussed here is interesting, but it becomes repetitive quickly as the author covers and recovers the same ground (Henrietta's cells were taken without her permission; her surviving children have not been compensated adequately), and several members of my book club thought that the author toots her own horn enough to be seriously distracting.
Worst of all, there's a feeling in several places that the author is carefully editing and editorializing the 'facts' in order to work peacefully with the family -- in the chapter where the children are abused by their new step-mother, for instance, you'd be forgiven for assuming that their father dropped off the face of the earth, because I'm not sure he even appears in that chapter once the new step-mom moves in. And, again, when Henrietta's daughter complains that she wants the scientists to tell her what her mother was like, and the things she enjoyed, it's frustrating as a reader to not be able to ask why her father (and indeed the community at large) isn't able to tell her these things -- after all, Henrietta and her husband grew up together in the same house!
The second half of the book is framed in a sort of moral crusade: the family should be compensated for their mother's cells because they can't even afford proper medical care! I sort of agree with everything in that sentence EXCEPT the "because". I think the family should have universal health care regardless of whether or not they hit the genetic lottery in terms of their mother, and I also think they deserve some kind of compensation for all they've been through. I think by linking those two issues in a cause-and-effect sort of way, however, really obscures all the other poor people in Henrietta's community who are also being denied health care on a daily basis.
I guess, in the end, I liked what I learned in this book, but the way it was presented made me feel like the author was pushing an agenda and a 'version' of history. That makes me uncomfortable in a supposedly non-fiction biography / science text, and so I'm not sure how much I personally recommend this past the first half.
~ Ana Mardoll
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