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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

Average Customer Rating

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  •  
    Sara Handley 04-22-12 Member Since 2011
    ratings
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    9
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    Story
    "A Mother's Day Gift for Henrietta Lacks"
    Where does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    This book is one of the most intriguing I have listened to, and I have listened to many.


    What did you like best about this story?

    What I appreciated the most in the story is the author's dedication to the person of Henrietta Lacks. The story is told without sentimentalizing, but with respect for Henrietta and her family.


    What does Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    The narrators humanize the story to the point that I feel they are talking with me in my car. I wanted to call and tell them that I know how they feel.


    Any additional comments?

    I call this a Mother's Day gift for Henrietta because that's how it made me feel. Deborah Lacks wanted the world to know that her mother was important. She did not want her contribution to science to go unrecognized. Any one who has lost someone feels the same. I found myself crying with Deborah for her loss because I know what it feels like to lose a mother.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Darla A. Middlebrook Moose Jaw, SK - Canada 04-20-12
    Darla A. Middlebrook Moose Jaw, SK - Canada 04-20-12 Member Since 2008
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    "One Woman's history"
    Would you consider the audio edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be better than the print version?

    The two forms do not really compare. I listened, then read, then listen and read at the same time. The illustrations and pictures from the printed version were needed in order to understand some parts of the book. Especially when talking about the family.


    What did you like best about this story?

    The fact that it was/is factual.


    Which character – as performed by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin – was your favorite?

    The author.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    When Deborah & Zakariyya were given the picture of the cell culture from Henrietta's cells.


    Any additional comments?

    Everyone should read this book and think hard about what happens in the name of "medical research".

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Helene Osceola, PA, United States 04-16-12
    Helene Osceola, PA, United States 04-16-12 Member Since 2011
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    "Really interesting."
    If you could sum up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in three words, what would they be?

    Amazing, Informative, Interesting


    What was one of the most memorable moments of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    Her daughters transformation from ignorant to thirsting for knowledge.


    What about Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin ’s performance did you like?

    The voices were easy on the ears.


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    No, I kept it for my walks. The time and distance just flew by.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    SkyTigress 04-16-12
    SkyTigress 04-16-12 Member Since 2011

    SkyTigress

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    "How Science can be both evil and wonderful at once"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Yes. I would say this should be a required reading for all high school students.


    What did you like best about this story?

    The story of Deborah Lack's search and discovery of what happened to her mother and sister is heart-wrenching, at times bittersweet, astonishing or grotesque. It is made all the more amazing as Deborah tries to understand the advanced science behind an eternal cell line and tries to reconcile this with her Christian believe in resurrection and heaven. As you read, you experience not only current medical knowledge and high tech labs, but also the struggles of African Americans as second class citizens after slavery ended. The story of how Henrietta's life, morals and family were treated so brusquely (ignorantly?) by scientists while they used her cancer cells to protect millions of people from polio and begin the entire field of cell biology research is the sort of real life story that you only read about as fiction.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    JV CA 04-14-12
    JV CA 04-14-12 Member Since 2010
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    "Glad I read this"

    Well written -- shocking, astounding, and compelling. Read it for my book club and I'm glad it was suggested.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rhonda Wilsonville, OR, United States 04-12-12
    Rhonda Wilsonville, OR, United States 04-12-12 Member Since 2011

    I work with special needs families. I travel a lot and love audio books.

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    "Amazing Story for All to know"
    What disappointed you about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    That the family was never given health care insurance.


    Would you ever listen to anything by Rebecca Skloot again?

    Oh yes, she wrote this book in a manner that draws you in. You want to know everything about Henrietta and what her cells did and still do. Science class made fun!


    How could the performance have been better?

    I really cannot say unless it was a follow up on the family now.


    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    It never seams to amaze me that we treated people in this way. My heart aches for all the families who have to deal with racism still even today. We are better then that.
    The family should be given some sort of national award by the President..


    Any additional comments?

    I just tell everyone I know that they should read this book it is a story that all should know.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Alysia Redondo Beach, CA, United States 04-05-12
    Alysia Redondo Beach, CA, United States 04-05-12 Member Since 2012

    Just another girl with too many books and not enough time for them all.

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    "The Best this Year!"

    First let me start by saying...I loved this book! I loved the pace, the story, the history of the family and the history of medicine. Amazing! This book starts off with the story of Rebbecca Skloot (the author) and how she first questioned the life behind the name her professor quickly mentioned during a class. Her questions about the name grew into an obsession in finding out about Henrietta Lacks and the woman behind the cells that helped push modern medicine.
    Rebbecca tells the story with compassion, understand and with a bit of naive along with the help of Deborah Lacks, the other Lacks children, friends, and family members.
    There are few books out there that can be medically informative and hold my attention. I don't think any book has done that. EVER!
    The narrators Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin read this book with the easy and non-acting I love. They were in the book telling the story without acting the story out.
    The best part of this audiobook was the interview at the end of the book with Rebbecca Skloot.
    This has will be on my list of best reads for 2012.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kathleen 02-25-12
    Kathleen 02-25-12
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    "Perhaps my expectations were too high....."
    Is there anything you would change about this book?

    I am a scientist and work with HeLa cells every day. Some parts of this book were fascinating to me, but I think the author made her point quickly and much of the book was a rehashing of the injustice of obtaining and using Henrietta's cells without acknowledgement or financial benefit to her family.

    An important story and an important issue re the use of human samples in science.


    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jeanne 02-22-12
    Jeanne 02-22-12
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    "Excellent read!"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    I would highly recommend this book. It was an extremely well-written and well-presented story which blended human interest and science superbly. It doesn't just focus on the science of the gene cloning, but interweaves it with Henrietta's life. One of the best books I've ever read.


    What other book might you compare The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to and why?

    Not sure.


    Which scene was your favorite?

    When the author and Henrietta's daughter Debra go to find some the old medical records.


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    No, because it is really a mind-boggling story, especially since it is true. Lots to absorb.


    Any additional comments?

    This book moved me, awakened me to a part of American medical history I never knew, and made me proud to think I got to meet Henrietta Lacks through this reading. Listening to it also inspired me to find more books narrated by Cassandra Campbell. Hearing her voice added immensely to my first Audible book.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Corey Los Angeles, CA, United States 10-17-11
    Corey Los Angeles, CA, United States 10-17-11 Member Since 2007
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    "Truth is stranger than fiction"

    When they say that the truth is stranger then fiction they must have had this book in mind. At times it reads like a Crichton novel, the Andromeda Strain suddenly becoming tame after you realize that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is non-fiction. The history, life, and events surrounding Henrietta leaves you in awe, makes you frustrated with rage, and tugs at your most empathetic feelings. From the first page, to the epilogue this book had my rapt attention. I found all the lives surrounding the HeLa cells a mix of chaos, miscommunication, good intentions, ignorance, hope, and a longing to understand. There were so many unfortunate events that just continued to over lap that it left the cells in a world similar to where they started. A metaphorical cancer eating away at the lives around it. The history and lives of the Lacks family is tragic and you can not help but feel for them. As outsiders looking in it is easy for us to say, "I understand what is going on, why didn't *insert question". But looking at this from the Lacks point of view is terrifying. The world is out to get them and their suspicions are just reaffirmed by con artists, shifty doctors, and a lack of understanding. At the same time though, you can not lay blame on the original doctors for doing what they did. It was not out of malice that they took the cells, or out of greed. They did it with the best of intentions, but as my mother always said, good intentions pave the road to hell. The doctors/scientists were swept up in a breakthrough and before they knew it it was being produced on a massive scale.

    It is a riveting read and you find yourself learning a lot without even knowing it.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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