“Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus-and at the very same time-that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.”—
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ~ by Rebecca Skloot
We need to file this under facts about American History they don’t teach you in school.
“My philosophy is, once you understand what structure is, then you can talk about characters and narrative arcs and how to fill in the story. But for me, structure can just completely make or break something.”—Rebecca Skloot, in an interview on her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (h/t somethingchanged)
“But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors? Don't make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don't get a dime. I used to get so mad about that to where it made me sick and I had to take pills. But I don't got it in me no more to fight. I just want to know who my mother was. ”— Deborah Lacks, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“Skloot practically announces her racism on the first page of the book when she insists that her writing “is a work of nonfiction. No events have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated” (xiii). We can all agree that this is an impossibility. Skloot was not there to witness majority of the important events that she recounts. While she has ostensibly taken pains to write objectively – stringing together “more than a thousand hours of interviews with family and friends of Henrietta Lacks, as well as with lawyers, ethicists, scientists, and journalists”…” and “archival photos and documents, scientific and historical research, and the personal journals of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks” – the style and content of the story is ultimately the result of her choices (xiii). As Salman Rushdie once wrote, “Description itself is a political act” (“Imaginary Homelands” 1982). Skloot’s “descriptions” are loaded with political implications and consequences. Indeed, the whole of the Lacks family, including Henrietta herself, can speak only through Skloot. She is the only agent. She has control over the voices – and, not completely unlike the doctors, Henrietta’s body. I offer, for instance, this painfully explicit passage: "Henrietta went to the bathroom and found blood spotting her underwear when it wasn’t her time of the month. "She filled her bathtub, lowered herself into the warm water, and spread her legs. With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find: a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening of her womb." (15) If nobody was in the bathroom with Henrietta, or even knew that she was in there, how can Skloot know that Henrietta “spread her legs” and “slid a finger inside herself”? My freshmen giggle and blush when this passage is read aloud. It’s not that they find it humorous; their giggles and blushes are evidence their negotiation of a body on display. Not a fictional body, according to Skloot. It is a real one. And so my students feel, I venture to say, a bit like a voyeur caught in the act. ... It should be clear by now that my criticism goes beyond the basic question of “who is allowed to write the other?” It is about how we write the other. We have to consider the assumptions we make not only about the other but about ourselves and our author-ity has writers. In her afterward to the Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison recounts her own dilemmas with representing her black characters and their language; she writes “My choices of language (aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black American culture into a language worthy of the culture” (Afterword 1994). Morrison obviously questions her position as a writer and her relationship with both her characters and her audience. Unlike Skloot’s all-knowing narration, Morrison breaks a silence while admitting that there is always going to be a quietness. Freshmen reading Skloot’s book should know that neither David nor Deborah Lacks were able to read Skloot’s narrative; they both died before the publication of the book. Henrietta’s consent and approval has long been lost. The rest, they say, is silence. The stark hierarchy established between Skloot and her subjects does little to convince me that Skloot truly questioned her position as the author-ity of the narrative. Undoing the racism of this book would be as simple as Skloot acknowledging the unarguable fact that much of her narrative is a lie, a work of historical fiction, by her own definition of “non-fiction.” ”—Rebecca Kumar, “An Open Letter To Those Colleges And Universities That Have Assigned Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks As The ‘Common’ Freshmen Reading For The Class Of 2016,” Brown Town 8/28/12
Books Are Magic: World Book Night & Basic Human Connection
Tonight, I handed out about 25 free books to strangers for the first inaugural World Book Night USA. I offered a teenager a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. “What’s it about?” he asked.
“A woman who has cancer, and then her cells are used to make all sorts of scientific advances. Then the author tries to find that woman’s family and learns a whole other side to the story.”
“Is it fiction?”
“No, nonfiction. It really happened.”
“I’ll read it. Or my mom might like it. She’s a cancer survivor.”
“My mom had cancer, too. I bet you’ll both like it.”
“Did she survive?”
“For a while. Then, no. She fought like hell though. And she helped medical research, too.”
“Thanks for the book.”
“I hope you enjoy it.”
Books are magic, people. This is a conversation between me and a total stranger I’ll never see again.
Rebecca Skloot to Speak on her Bestseller, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"
Adelphi University Ruth S. Ammon School of Education’s Robert and Augusta P. Finkelstein Memorial Lecture and College of Arts and Sciences’ John Hope Franklin Distinguished Lecture are pleased to present award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot, author of the bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, on Monday, October 17, 2011, at 5:30 p.m. in the Thomas Dixon Lovely Ballroom in the Ruth S. Harley University Center, 1 South Avenue, Garden City, NY. This is free and open to the public.
Ms. Skloot will discuss her most recent book which tells the story of a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 but left behind an immortal line of cells known to scientists today as HeLa. These cells were harvested without Henrietta Lacks’ knowledge or consent and have contributed to scientific advancements including the polio vaccine, treatments for multiple cancers and viruses, in-vitro fertilization, and space travel’s impact on human cells. Ms. Skloot guides readers through Henrietta’s life, death, and immortality. Additionally, the work has raised important questions about religion, bioethics, medical care, memory, and history.
Ms. Skloot’s lecture is part of Adelphi Community Reads, a yearlong investigation of the Skloot book, coordinated by the AU Collaboration Project. Events are designed to engage both students and community members in conversation about the book: freshman seminar and FOrE classes, President Scott’s Reading Circle which will host two brown bag discussions (October 5 and November 9), and an online book club and blog moderated by Bradley Warshauer M.F.A. ’11 will feature Adelphi President Scott’s ideas and questions raised by this work. The Adelphi community and Levermore Global Scholar students will also be coordinating activities with the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health related to education, health care access, and housing issues. For the full schedule of events and activities, visit http://events.adelphi.edu/au-community-reads/.
Tickets are not required to attend this event. Seats for all events are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and are open to all members of the public. Copies of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are available in University libraries and multiple language copies are in Swirbul Library.
For more information about this and other events on campus, please visit adelphi.edu, or call the Cultural Events Hotline at (516) 877-4555.
About Adelphi University: Adelphi is a world class, modern university with excellent and highly relevant programs where students prepare for lives of active citizenship and professional careers. Through its schools and programs—The College of Arts and Sciences, Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, Honors College, Ruth S. Ammon School of Education, University College, and the Schools of Business, Nursing, and Social Work—the co-educational university offers undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as professional and educational programs for adults. Adelphi University currently enrolls nearly 8,000 students from 41 states and 60 foreign countries. With its main campus in Garden City and centers in Manhattan, Hauppauge, and Poughkeepsie, the University, chartered in 1896, maintains a commitment to liberal studies in tandem with rigorous professional preparation and active citizenship.
#25: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
I’ve been talking about this book non-stop since I started reading it and everyone I know is slowly starting to hate me because of it. But this book is so amazing and addicting and above all, endlessly fascinating. Can’t recommend it enough.
“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”—
Elie Wiesel from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremburg Code
Read this at the beginning of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, on my list of books to read.