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
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
"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)
A very informative and thought provoking book. Hats off to the author for her consideration of everyone involved and her sensitivity of the issues surrounding human tissue ownership and research. Thank you for writing a biologically informative book from a humanitarian perspective, and in a format that the general public can understand and appreciate.
The narrators performance here was real and enormously engaging - But, most important is the incredible content of this story. Told from a well-balanced position of support for advances in medical research, while maintaining a focus on the human element and far-reaching impact of the ethical questions raised by Henrietta's story.
Skloot has done an amazing thing with this book! Enough science to create understanding of the issues at hand, with emotional insights that deepen the listeners connection to the real people behind HeLa. Also, an eye-opening glimpse into the reality of the educational divide between doctor or scientist and patient or subject, and the legal & ethical questions surrounding informed consent.
All in all, a great non-fiction work that kept me listening with any spare moment I could find!
My second time through the book and it has the same strong effect on my mind and heart. The plight of the human race as brought about at its own hands never ceases to amaze me. Everyone has a stake in the outcome of lives we touch - directly or indirectly. This helps us to see how personal and widespread that is. A special read that will put new perspective on a wide range of moral, ethical and social concerns while reorienting how we place credit for scientific progress and the need to continue searching out the solution for equity therein.
Skloot does a wonderful job of combining the heartbreaking and inspiring story of Henrietta and her family with the complicated and fascinating history of cell culture science.
I love to read Biographies of Women, Business Leaders and Experts in their field. I love Historical Fiction with well developed characters.
The narration was compelling. The author did such a good job of mixing just the right amount of science with the human emotions of Henrietta's family
Learning the truth about Elsie broke my heart
The emotion came through as well as the wonder of Deborah and Rebecca's journey
Medical Mystery, Family Drama
I'm not a person who has ever been interested in science. Something about this story made me want to know more about Cells, Cancer and how our bodies work.
Science really isn't my thing. Any time someone starts talking about cells or atoms I slip into a coma so I'm not sure what motivated me to buy this book but I'm glad I did.
I enjoyed the fact that it was more of a story than just a collection of facts. It triggered thoughts on ethics and morals and I found myself thinking about this book even on my "off time".
Good listen - glad I did!
I love the story, very entertaining, well performed. I highly recommend to anyone with an interest and biology nursing science medicine or history
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