Imagine your mother. I mean, really think about her. The color of her hair, her eyes, the sound of her laugh, what she looks like when she’s angry. And not just a little angry, but REALLY REALLY angry, like, you-stole-her-car-and-filled-it-with-bees-and-drove-it-into-a-lake angry. What makes her laugh? Is it your dad? You? Maybe it’s fart jokes because WHO DOESN’T LOVE A GOOD FART JOKE.
Maybe, for whatever reason, you can’t picture her. Maybe you never knew your mother, maybe you WISH you didn’t know your mother, I don’t know, but if you can’t see your mother, hear her laugh, smell her perfume, INSERT MORE CLICHES HERE, you have something in common with Deborah Lacks, someone you’ll grow to care about when (not if, WHEN…there is no if) you read this book.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of a poor, black woman who died in the 50s, just riddled with cancer, and the cells she unknowingly donated to science during her treatment. Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment, like so many did, suffering a great deal in the process (seriously, think of how terrible cancer treatment is today and then multiply that by 1000), but her donation to science led to the polio vaccine and a better understanding of the human body.
These cells, called HeLa cells, were taken from Henrietta without consent, and grew and grew and grew and are now present in labs all over the world. It would be years before Henrietta’s children would know anything about this, years before they would know a piece of their mother was still living. Deborah Lacks, who was only a toddler when her mother died, would spearhead this journey, with the help of the book’s author, Rebecca Skloot. Skloot spends countless hours with the Lacks family, compiling interviews, medical history, and family lore, to weave together the story of Henrietta Lacks, who she was, how she lived and died, and how HeLa cells came to be one of science’s most important assets.
It’s been a long time since my high school biology classes, but the way the science is written in this book is so engaging. Skloot presents everything in a matter-of-fact manner, but there’s a tinge of humanity present in every word. After all, HeLa cells may be commonplace in every biology textbook, every lab, every scientist’s brain, but Henrietta Lacks was a human being, first and foremost. She was someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, and someone’s mother. She was SOMEONE, not just cells on a slide.
I was surprised at how strongly this book affected me. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I finished it. I can’t imagine having grown up not knowing my mother at all, let alone later discovering that some scientist had taken a piece of her and that piece, that living piece of her, was still out there somewhere. There’s a moment, late in the book, when Deborah and her younger brother are invited to Johns Hopkins to look at HeLa cells under a microscope, and Deborah holds a vial of her mother’s cells in her hands, cupping them gently, trying to warm them, and, realizing that this was the closest she’d been to her mother since she was a baby, I had to put the book down for a moment to catch my breath.
This is a story of questionable medical practices, scientific achievement, and how race and consent placed a significant role in both, but mostly, it’s the story of one woman’s quest to know, really know, the mother she’d been robbed of so many years before. The science will hook you, but the humanity will keep you reading.