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)
Well researched insight into the fascinating world of tissue culture and the research that depends on them with a timely reminder of the human face behind all such research. Good review of the problems associated with the ethics of such research. Beautifully read. An excellent listen.
Sound mix of a family's story, medical research and who Henrietta Lacks actually was. I read this book one week before I participated in the Climb for Cancer in Phoenix. Sad that I didn't know who Henrietta was before this. I am a cervical cancer survivor and I owe my life to her. I am glad Rebecca took the proper time and research to produce this book. To the Lacks family thank you for your patience in understanding the contribution Henrietta made. So sorry you had to endure the ignorance and uncivil times in American history.
It should have been much, much shorter.
Personally, if I have any tissue removed, I don't care what the doctors do with it. I think everyone is better off if it is all just anonymous.The author says, "someone is taking part of you and some people have a strong sense of ownership..."
If you have a strong sense of ownership over your tissue, then maybe this book is for you.
They read well.
Everyone, but Henrietta. That would have made it a more enjoyable newspaper article.
Never stop learning!
I liked this book because it is very well researched. It is well written although it did not follow a linear chronological account of the events--that's impossible unless one focuses on only one aspect of this very complicated and thorny history.
The author brought about the human element of the HeLa cells. This is the story if a woman, her family, and an expose on the evolution of ethics is medical research.
Thank you for a great account and a wonderful narration!
Exceeded my expectations. I didn't expect it to be so heart warming. The focus on the daughter was a very nice addition. Factual, interesting and engaging. This is one book I will read again. Great job to the writer. Highly talented.
Say something about yourself!
I'm not sure where to start ... While listening to this audio I found myself sometimes uttering a tsk or a sigh, even a huh and a nod or shake of my head. It was not a standard science book but a well told story of a small cluster of cells and the effects it has on the world of science and the family that was related to said cells. I loved this book! A must read for sure.
I have not read the printed version. The audio version was excellent!
When Deb and Rebecca learned about Elsie Lacks.
Excellent! Job well done ladies!
I loved that it made me feel so strongly for not only Henrietta, but her family and also the author of the book. It is an unexpected story of not just one person, her line of cells, and science - but the story of a family grappling with the death of their beloved matriarch and how they long to feel a closeness with her.
I would compare this book to Devil in the White City just based on the genre it falls into, narrative nonfiction, and the quality of the writing. Of course, the two subject matters are far apart. If you're looking for something that has a similar subject matter or based in the development of medicine, you should look at The Destiny of a Republic. That was fascinating based on medical advances made through one person's (granted it was a president) injuries.
I have not had the pleasure, but I would love to listen to their narration in other books.
Yes - it certainly became very hard to stop and start when I just wanted to keep going.
This is just an excellent book and narration. If you enjoy narrative nonfiction, then you will like this book a lot. I certainly did!
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