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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | [Rebecca Skloot]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first immortal human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years.
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Audible Editor Reviews

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is both a story of scientific progress and a biography of the poor Southern family whose matriarch, Henrietta Lacks, made that progress possible. It is also a critical exploration of the interplay between science, race, class, and ethics in the United States. Finally, it is, at times, the personal narrative of Rebecca Skloot, a reporter who worked for 10 years to learn these stories and to tell them. Cassandra Campbell’s performance captures the full range of tone in these elegantly woven narratives. She delivers what the story demands of her, uniting several storytelling styles into one single, dynamic voice.

In her narration, Campbell makes particularly masterful use of distance and proximity. At some points in the story, she has the cool tone of an investigative reporter, duly noting the gruesome evidence of patient mistreatment at the Hospital for the Negro Insane in the 1950s or the horrors of medical malpractice in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. When she tells the stories of the members of the Lacks family, her voice is warm and compassionate, but still carries the distinct distance of a biographer/observer. And, at a few rare but poignant moments in the story, Campbell’s voice sounds exposed and intimately close to the listener’s ear, as the narrative brings us inside Skloot’s own struggle to understand and cope with the uncomfortable truths and thorny issues Henrietta’s story raises.

Bahni Turpin, who performs the dialogue for all the members of the Lacks family, supplies those voices with more than the appropriate dialect. Though she speaks for several different characters — some of them appear only briefly or infrequently in the story — Turpin manages to give unique weight and depth to each. Her portrayal of Zacharia Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest son, is perhaps most exceptional in its taciturn conveyance of anger, love, and pain. —Emily Elert

Publisher's Summary

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first immortal human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years.

If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons - as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bombs effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now, Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the colored ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henriettas small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta's family did not learn of her immortality until more than 20 years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family, past and present, is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

©2010 Rebecca Skloot; (P)2010 Random House

What the Critics Say

"One of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time…The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks…floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of Erin Brockovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Andromeda Strain.…it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)

"Writing with a novelist's artistry, a biologist's expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force." (Booklist)

"Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about 'faith, science, journalism, and grace.'...A rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people." (Publishers Weekly)

What Members Say

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Performance
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  •  
    Rena M 04-16-10
    Rena M 04-16-10 Listener Since 2005
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Great book, great narrator"

    I am a scientist, and I enjoy reading books about science that would also appeal to the general public. This book is wonderful: I really enjoy the interweaving of science with the lives of the people in Henrietta's family. It is so interesting to learn about the history of the family, as well as about all the things that these cells have been used for, and all the things they have been involved in.

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kay broken arrow, OK, United States 01-04-12
    Kay broken arrow, OK, United States 01-04-12 Member Since 2014
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    "Author became too involved"

    The beginning of this book was interesting and kept me listening. I learned some interesting information about cell research. But sadly by the time I began listening to Part 2, my interest was waning. The trials and tribulations of the Lacks children (mainly as adults) took over the story and became tedious. I think Skloot became too involved with the family, thus losing her objectivity and was unable to write an unbiased story. I finished the book but was disappointed with the final 1/4 of the book.
    The narrators did a fine job and their delivery helped me make it to the end of the book.

    6 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jean Santa Cruz, CA, United States 04-02-12
    Jean Santa Cruz, CA, United States 04-02-12 Member Since 2015

    I am an avid eclectic reader.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "What are your legal rights to your body?"

    This is a well-written non-fiction book, that provides back ground information about unfair treatment of minorities by medical research. Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin did great job with the narration of the book. The story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is interesting and the discovery and care of the Hi La cells. One major item about the family is the lack of education played a major role in their understanding and ability to control the situation. The book accomplishes its goal of promoting proper documentation of biological tissue research. It raises the question of ownership of our own tissues and whether or not we have proprietary rights to our bodies in situ or in vitro. This question needs to be answered NOW not in the future. The other teaching of the book was how important education is to each individual. This is an absolute must read book for everyone on this planet.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mark 03-25-10
    Mark 03-25-10 Member Since 2011

    I LOVE BOOKS! I have a service business (large salon). 'What are you reading' is heard all day everyday.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Rebecca, what an AWESOME job"

    Exceptionally well wrought!! A history, biology and genealogical story cleverly wrapped in well narrated format. I truly enjoyed this listen and appreciated the author's painstaking patience with the Lacks family and the in-depth explanation of the HELA cell's science. It's hard to imagine a biology lesson being presented in any better arrangement. Thanks and BRAVO Rebecca!

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    glamazon The Coast of Rhode Island 03-16-10
    glamazon The Coast of Rhode Island 03-16-10 Member Since 2014

    glam

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Can you sell your cells?"

    This is a necessary book - aside from informing us about what seems today like the the dark ages of cancer research and the reported unfair treatment of minorities by the medical community in the era of Henrietta Lacks, it's time we all became more enlightened as to the fate of our body products once we part with them in a doctor's office, lab or hospital. This book raises important issues as to the space required for storage of all discarded tissue, which is unlike printed material that can be converted to digital format.

    As an historical novel there are bound to be characters that are not "likable" nor relatable in the usual fictional sense. This family was troubled in many ways, in addition to the implied racial implications, the possible malpractice issues regarding the HeLa cells, and losing any financial stake in the success of the HeLa cell line. The family came to Baltimore to be part of the then growing steel industry. They were originally from a bare bones town in Virginia, having farmed their own tobacco crops after indirectly inheriting the property after being emancipated from slave status. There were some hard workers amongst the marginal characters, but basically this was a hard-strapping family who had to make do in order to survive. And several of them fell by the wayside to crime and mental dysfunction.

    The book is well-written, even with the frequent disjunctions in time periods. It can be difficult to follow the genealogy and plethora of major and minor characters, and the myriad mentions of various studies. But all that is mere technicality.

    The book accomplishes its goal of promoting proper documentation of, and credit for - financial or otherwise - biological tissues that are saved and used for research. It raise the question of ownership of our own tissues, and whether or not we have proprietary rights to our own bodies, in situ or in vitro.

    10 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    JOHN Plantation, FL, United States 03-12-11
    JOHN Plantation, FL, United States 03-12-11 Member Since 2003

    Audible Member Since 2003

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    "Meticulously Researched, Wonderfully Written"

    Rebecca Skloot spent ten years of her life researching and writing this book. At the time she had no way of knowing just what she was getting herself into.

    The HeLa cell line is one of the most important and studied subjects in the world of medicine and biology, but practically nothing was known about the person from which these cells were named, Henrietta Lacks. In fact, for years even the name Henrietta Lacks was intentionally obscured by the fictitious names of Helen Lane or Helen Larson.

    Skloot was a young student at the time she became interested in the mostly anonymous Henrietta Lacks, who died at the age of 31 from a terribly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her cells were extracted, without permission or informed consent, becoming for all purposes the first line of "immortal" human cells living outside of the host body. The author decided to attempt to put a human face on the donor of the cells which played a vital part in such scientific advances as in the cure for polio, aids research, genetic discoveries, cancer cures, drug developments, to name just a few. However, learning the true story of the Lacks family two generations after the death of Henrietta turned out to be quite the daunting venture as Skloot tenaciously uncovers layers of family suffering, mistrust, ignorance and exploitation.

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a real-life story of family and all that goes along with it, good and bad. It is in-part a tale of mystery that walks into real human drama, tackling many difficult issues of racism, bio-ethics, privacy and profiteering.

    This book is perfectly narrated and is one of the best audio books I have encountered in quite some time. Do not miss this one!

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Valerie Berkeley, CA, USA 06-07-10
    Valerie Berkeley, CA, USA 06-07-10 Member Since 2012
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    "Haunting"

    A Heartbreaking story that details the illogical justification used by scientists and the market establishment they created to reason away that an individual's biological material is not their own or something they can uniquely own and patent or trademark but instead can only be patented and trademarked by a scientist or corporation (manufactured individual). This woman from America's racial and economic underclass's unique and special biological cells pioneered science and are now sold as the property of a corporation. She died in poverty and her progenitors and spouse struggled and suffered greatly as the medical and science establishment exploited their ignorance while making huge advancements and wealth with the immortal cells of this poor woman without even giving proper public credit or respect.

    8 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 04-14-12
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 04-14-12 Member Since 2005

    Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

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    "Many stories in one"

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, like many compelling works of nonfiction, was written to tell one story, but, in its creation, uncovered several others. On the surface, Rebecca Skloot's book is about a line of cells, extracted from a single cancer patient in the 1950s, that went on to be the most widely studied human cell line in the world. On another level, it's about an evolving debate over the medical ethics of cell and DNA ownership. How much say should patients have in the use of their own genetic material? How does society balance the needs of medical research against concerns for privacy and individual autonomy?

    On still another level, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about race relations in America, about uneven levels of white privilege and black privilege when it comes to access to information and advocacy. It's a story about casual exploitation by a scientific establishment that was trained to compartmentalize and not think of its work in personal terms. Finally, it's a story of a family struggling to find emotional and spiritual closure after the years following the death of their mother, who continues in a strange and somewhat mystifying afterlife.

    If the book had simply been about science and ethical questions pertaining to the cells of Henrietta Lacks, I might not have found it more than mildly interesting, but the human element gives the story many more dimensions. I think Skloot did an excellent and honest job of conveying how one poor, black family from the rural South perceives science and medicine. Of course, they understand and care about the basic things that most Americans do, but their views are colored by a history and identity that, I, a well-educated, middle-class white northerner, simply haven't lived in. It was a fascinating and ultimately hopeful exploration beyond stereotypes and into how human beings really relate to questions that can never be entirely viewed in clinical, medical terms. You get to know Henrietta's extended family, and to view her life and unintended contribution to science as they do.

    Overall, the book felt like an extended episode of This American Life, in that it didn’t explore (or resolve) any issue in great depth, but was engagingly put together and taught me a little about a lot of different subjects. Since it’s not a long read, I’d say it’s well-deserving of its awards and your time.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Diane United States 02-22-11
    Diane United States 02-22-11 Member Since 2012
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    "The best book I've heard this year!"

    This book is interesting, well written, and important. I learned so much about the science of cells, as well as the human side of this kind of research.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    B.J. Minneapolis, MN, United States 01-11-11
    B.J. Minneapolis, MN, United States 01-11-11 Member Since 2010

    I hear voices. But maybe that's because there's always an Audible book in my ear.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "This is one of the best."

    This meticulously researched and written book is at the top of the heap. The writing, through spare, is perfect for the subject. The narration is spot-on. Where some non-fiction can lag, the author did an incredible job of actually bringing the story along. No matter what you think about medical research or bio-ethics, this book will make you rethink your stand. If you don't care about those issues, reading about Henrietta Lacks alone is worth the time. Simply brilliant in every possible way.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
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