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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Audiobook

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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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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  •  
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 08-10-13
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 08-10-13 Member Since 2012

    Always moving. Always listening. Always learning. "After all this time?" "Always."

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    "The Secret Life of an American Cancer Cell"

    About a month ago, I donated blood at the American Red Cross. I'm there about every other month - or exactly at 56 days, depending on how persistent those cheerful calls, with their underlying tone of urgency, are. Last time I was there, there was an addition to the binder of forms I needed to review: a disclosure that my blood could be used for research, and if I didn't agree to that, I shouldn't donate.

    I was puzzled: why the consent now, since Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" had been published in 2010? I hadn't read the book, but I had followed the debate about informed consent. I didn't really think about how the Lacks family felt about Henrietta's cells (called HeLa) living in labs twice as long as Henrietta herself did. I sure didn't think about HeLa economics.

    On June 13, 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled that naturally occurring genes cannot be patented in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Docket 12-398. On August 7, 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced that they had reached an agreement with Henrietta's descendants to use HeLa cells with the informed consent of a board, including two of her family members.

    I heard an interview with Skloot shortly after on NPR, and decided it was time to read/listen to "The Immortal Life." I was astounded by the sheer tenacity of HeLa cells (cancer cells from an especially aggressive form of cervical cancer caused by one of the HPV viruses, strengthened by untreated neuro-syphillis) and by the research and discoveries based on those cells. HeLa was instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine, tests to identify cancer, studies on chemical toxicity . . . and so much more. When I checked PubMed as I wrote this review, there were 76,057 peer reviewed articles with HeLa mentioned in the abstracts.

    Skloot's careful research, wonderfully descriptive writing, and absolute respect for the Lacks family was evident. Skloot described the family and some of its very memorable members, especially Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who really wanted to know the HeLa story - but was also afraid to find out everything, for good reason. Skloot avoids a sociological analysis of the Lacks family, which is good - that would have made them a 'study', not real people. There was an overarching irony: despite the invaluable contribution Henrietta made to medicine, most of her surviving family did not have medical insurance.

    Skloot was careful to use the actual dialect and pronunciations of the people she interviewed in the Audible book. I don't know how it looked in writing, but it made a good listen. The narrators, Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, worked well together.

    I'll still donate blood, of course - but from now, my imagination of what my cells are doing won't be limited to surgeries involving people who have the same blood type.

    This Audible book doesn't come with a downloadable reference guide, but there are pictures of the Lacks family and a lot of the scientists mentioned in the book available on Google Books.

    [If this review helped, please let me know by pushing Helpful. Thanks!]

    48 of 59 people found this review helpful
  •  
    mike 02-24-13
    mike 02-24-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Overwritten and Overly Dramatic"

    I found the premise of this non-fiction book fascinating. It teased the idea of immortality as a possibly attainable thing and teased that one woman's cells were responsible for some of the most important advances in medicine. But after reading the book it became clear that these teases were for dramatic effect and, while not untrue per se, take the facts out of context. Lacks' cells aren't immortal really. Rather, the amazingly aggressive cancer cells that killed Lacks are "immortal". And those cells aren't really immortal either, they still need to be maintained to be kept alive and multiplying. As a by-product, those cancer cells contain Lacks' DNA. And to be clear, the cancer cells haven't caused the advances in medicine. The scientists who developed the processes and treatments were the heroes. But it helped to have an aggressive, self-replicating virus to make experimentation easier.

    Other problems I had with this book were the needless details about Lacks' relatives. I understand that due to the stubborness of the family, they wouldn't consent to the writing of the book without some of this information being brought out. They wanted Lacks' story to be told (but they also wanted to sue people for violating her privacy when they tried to put Lacks' name and family DNA information in medical journals - ???).

    However, some of the information is simply filler (the fact that one of Lacks' children went to prison for murder is a complete waste of time). The only reason why I believe Skloot put these stories in is because, as she admitted, she had a sheltered life prior to her experience with the Lacks family and this was her first time actually interacting with members of another race and lower socio-economic means than what she was used to. She found it interesting.

    Towards the end of the book Skloot even tries to defend her reasoning for putting this information in the book. It comes off as apologetic, which seems that someone (possibly her publisher or editor) tried to tell her it was a bad idea. She should have listened.

    But the biggest issue I had with the book also happened towards the end of the book. Skloot shifts her telling of events to include herself as a participant. She begins to tell the reader about some of her research and interacting with Lacks' family. The entire tone of the book changes and it almost sounds like a fictional novel. Skloot writes more than just about going to certain facilities and speaking with people. She goes on about her feelings and, at one point, has a religious experience. It's unimportant, self aggrandizing and damages any impartiality that she had about any of her research. It also caused me to question how impartial she was in the conveying of any of the information in the book. In an age when fair and balanced journalism seems to be harder to find each day Skloot should be ashamed of this particular writing choice.

    I picked up this book for the possible scientific information inside and about Lacks as a curious by-product. I presumed that a certain amount of information about Lacks' history was necessary to give the book a human aspect that would prevent it from becoming a scientific journal bore. However, I didn't buy this book to hear about the shenanigans Lacks' children got into after she passed away or about Skloot.

    You'd be better off reading the free Wikipedia entry (if you still feel like spending, donate to the website). You'll save time and get a clearer understanding of the facts.

    3 of 3 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
  •  
    Jean Santa Cruz, CA, United States 04-02-12
    Jean Santa Cruz, CA, United States 04-02-12 Member Since 2016

    I am an avid eclectic reader.

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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.

    7 of 8 people found this review helpful
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    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.

    7 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joan Midland, MI, United States 12-29-11
    Joan Midland, MI, United States 12-29-11
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    "Excellent story, but not for audio"

    This is an important story. It is thoroughly investigated and well written. BUT, it is not s good audo book b/c of all the detail. Do yourself a favor -- clear your schedile, and settle in w/ a good old fashioned HARDCOPY.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mark Winter Springs, FL, United States 05-25-11
    Mark Winter Springs, FL, United States 05-25-11
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    "Amazing but dry"

    Heard about this book on NPR's 'Fresh Air.' The story of Henrietta's 'HeLa' cells are mind blowing, the way they have impacted our lives in so many ways. This story really becomes the story of Henrietta's family, who are unfortunately extremely naive in terms of the impact her cells have had on medical history. One feels very badly for them, and frankly, whenever I have to sign a concent form in a Dr.'s office, I'm super sensitive to any verbiage stating my cells can be used for commercial purposes. The bummer about this is the amount of (boring) detail the author gets into tracing the legacy and history of cell culturing in our society. Great research, but at times reads like a science book.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Diane United States 02-22-11
    Diane United States 02-22-11 Member Since 2015
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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.

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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
  •  
    Paula 05-07-10
    Paula 05-07-10
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    "loved it!"

    One of those "truth is stranger than fiction" stories that really lives up to the hype.

    10 of 12 people found this review helpful

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