Friday, April 16, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Well, I finally have a book to write about. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a detailed, empathic homage to one woman's life and legacy. Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells were excised without her consent during treatment for a deadly cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951. Skloot conscientiously presents both sides of the argument regarding the ethics of retrieving this specimen, a common practice at that time. Dr. George Gey's lab at Hopkins, where Henrietta's cells ended up, had an important mission: to grow the first line of immortal cells, a colony that would reproduce infinitely, thumbing its nose at death. Up until that point, no cell sample retrieved anywhere in the world had survived; amazingly, Henrietta's cancer cells (soon dubbed HeLa) reproduced like rabbits and have never stopped. Author Skloot is not the first person to write about the HeLa line and the medical innovations it led to (the polio and HPV vaccines are two), nor is she the first to address the ethical issues of black patients vis a vis medicine. I would bet, though, she is the first person to mine the resonant theme of motherhood that saturates the story. Skloot became friends with Lacks' daughter, Deborah, during the ten year genesis of the book. Deborah's dialogue about her mother, who died when she was just a toddler, is the best part of the narrative. She has no memories of Henrietta and pines for her; the fact that her mother's cells are alive and thriving, simultaneously delights and horrifies her. Deborah relishes the scientific achievements her mother's genetic material has led to, but she shivers at the sensational news stories about Henrietta--her clones walking the streets of England, for instance. (Skloot has to set her straight about this tall tale.) In one chapter Deborah and her brother Zakariyya visit Johns Hopkins to see HeLa for the first time. It is 2001, and viewing that clump of cells, the physical essence of their mother, momentarily satisfies Deborah's hunger for her. A physical part of her mother lives on.

This chapter made me think about the physical memories children retain of their mothers. My mother died sixteen years ago, and I still miss her five foot three-inch roly-poly frame. Apparently, she was pretty when young, but I don't remember her that way. To me, she was soft and accessible, big-bosomed with nails bitten to the quick by a sharp mouth. You always heard from this mouth when you did wrong. As a child I used to smell her skin, usually while resting or crying in her arms. Her scent was delicately salty, like a kind of good cured meat. My own skin smells very much the same, I think. Maybe I miss her physical presence, her body and voice and scent, because she filled any room she entered with this energy. Those who knew her would agree--she was not a retiring sort like her daughter. Since she's been gone, our rooms just aren't as lively. How could they be? Don't get me wrong, she wasn't perfect--her opinions grew stronger as she grew older and grayer, and we did butt heads, more than a few times. And, eventually, her own heart and brain cells unexpectedly failed, and she died at the age of 62. Abruptly, that dynamo of candor and character was gone. I guess I'm lucky because in my mind she lives on robustly, never having wasted away to almost nothing as so many daughters have to witness. So when I think of the word "mother," I think of hugging her body--the unique body and mind of Mary Alberta. The Henrietta Lacks' family has an radiant multi-colored picture of their mother's cells, given to them by an atoning Hopkins researcher. I have my own memories of a pillowy middle and salty arms. That body was mine.


  1. Elizabeth,
    I loved reading your loving description of Mary. It brought back so many memories for me. She was one of my favorite people.