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[Saturday Reads] Race, Ethics, and What It Means To Live Forever

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.

This book was selected for one of my IRL book clubs. I have heard of this narrative nonfiction for awhile now, and realized that the timing is absolutely perfect given our current reading theme.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

Written by Rebecca Skloot
Published by Broadway Books (2017, first published 2010).
ISBN: 0804190100 (ISBN13: 9780804190107) Literary Award: Ambassador Book Award for American Studies (2011), Audie Award for Nonfiction (2011), Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction (2010), Wellcome Book Prize (2010), Puddly Award for Nonfiction (2011), Goodreads Choice Award for Nonfiction and Debut Author, Nominee for Favorite Book, Favorite Heroine (2010). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I did not know who Henrietta Lacks was until I read this narrative nonfiction. I suspect, however, that those who are in the medical profession would be very familiar with HeLa, the very first ‘immortal’ human cells grown in culture.

HeLa Cells – click on the image to be taken to the websource.

This is a dense book that I initially thought would take me awhile to finish. Most of the scientific aspects simply flew over my head, a lot of the references lost to me. However, Rebecca Skloot managed to make the story a little less about science, but more about the woman, Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells unknowingly changed the face of the entire scientific community.

The contribution of HeLa cells, which can divide for an unlimited number of times given suitable environmental conditions – was totally unprecedented at the time. The fact that Henrietta Lacks (and her family) did not know her cells were being harvested for research is really the human element throughout the story. There is palpable injustice here marked with a lot of good intentions that paved the way for significant scientific discoveries and treatment, including the polio vaccine, research on viral infections, cancer, and AIDS among others. However, there are also myths and misconceptions brought about by a lack of awareness of what it means to have one’s cells be considered “immortal” and what this signifies to Henrietta Lacks’ family who could not even afford medical treatment of their own.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

As a social scientist who does research for my professional ‘survival’ in the academic setting, I am painfully aware of the tedium ad infinitum that accompanies going through the Institutional Review Board to secure permission, ensuring that our research is ethical and above board, and will do no harm to our potential participants, and that we go through the entire processes of obtaining their informed consent. At the time of Henrietta Lacks, there were no clear procedures in place. People were supposedly acting in good faith, the medical professionals and scientists from Johns Hopkins who provided free treatment to coloured people claimed that they did not profit off of Henrietta’s cells, allegedly. All they had in mind was scientific advancement, and ensuring that as many people as possible would be made privy of the wondrous elements of HeLa.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

This book also made me reflect on our moral and social responsibility as scientists: is it still all about the pursuit of truth wherever it leads us without fear of oppression as Galileo once said? How about the pathways towards that pursuit of truth – and what it would mean to people who have been ‘used’ without their awareness, permission, consent. What is clearly considered unconscionable now was regarded as morally ambiguous, and totally uncharted territory (much like the HeLa cells) during Henrietta Lacks’ time.

While this was not a book that I would have readily picked up and read on my own, I enjoyed reading Skloot’s voice that remained objective yet heavily involved and invested throughout. There is also an extensive backmatter filled with footnotes and references, making this riveting nonfiction story still an academic treatise, even more so because of its human element. I liked how Skloot inserted herself into the narrative, reflecting on the many difficulties she had to encounter to get Henrietta Lacks’ family to trust in another White person’s ‘good intentions.’

For those who may be interested, here is an official trailer of the HBO adaptation based on Skloot’s very detailed biography of Henrietta Lacks:

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

2 comments on “[Saturday Reads] Race, Ethics, and What It Means To Live Forever

  1. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but using her cells wasn’t considered morally ambiguous at the time since she was a black woman. Scientists experimented on black people all the time without their consent because white scientists thought they had ownership of black people’s bodies and could do whatever they wanted with them. I mean, I’m sure there’s another way they explain it but that’s basically what it boils down to. That, and since they considered black people less than, it would really be no different than animal testing is today.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: [Saturday Reads] Round Up of My Literary Journey and My Best in Books Across Quarterly Reading Themes – Gathering Books

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