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)
This book is a fascinating exploration of medical science and one that everyone should read. We take advances in medicine for granted and this book will make you look at that in a new way. Unbelievable and well told!
I loved this book! It is by turns an autobiography, a biography of a family, a history of medical science... tackling issues of identity, consent, medicine, race, class...
The performances by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin are both superb in this book as well!
In particular, Deborah (though she frustrated me at times), and Rebecca, for being persistent and determined enough not to be put off by a (reasonably) suspicious family.
There were many. Putting them down would do a disservice to the author...
READ THIS BOOK! I seriously don't know what took me so long to read it, but now that I have, I am SO glad I did! Well-written, with shining performances by Cassandra Campbell (who, at one point, sounds close to tears herself) and Bahni Turpin.
I'm a teacher; I should read more than I sew.
Liked the BEST- Wow, what an incredible story of a woman who has changed medical science and it's research! Thank you, Henrietta.
Liked the LEAST- TOO much time dedicated to her daughter and the relationship built with the author.
I thought Campbell did a wonderful job reading and I especially enjoyed Turpin's accent.
My family was also involved in something that had a major impact on how we live today; my family also received zero recognition for the effort of my grandparents, until recently. Many members of my family are also very bitter over the subject. I grew very tired of hearing about how "we deserve compensation" in some way over the course of the audio book. For chapters upon chapters, the author reported Henrietta's family's mistrust of white people, the medical system, and irrational fear of science- I heard my own family members voices in my head, and I was ready to switch off the book so many times.
Like I stated in my title, I may be biased. I loved the story of Henrietta during her life, her cancer story was moving, the research and what came of it was AMAZING, but I think the author could have left out a lot about Henrietta's daughter and son.
I learned so much about our evolution of history, science, medicine, culture, ethics and morality while being completely enveloped in this engrossing story of Henrietta and her immortal cells. I laughed and cried, was furious and filled with joy as I listened. The story was masterfully told, unfolding in such a way as to keep the reader (listener) absolutely captivated from the first paragraph to the last. I love this book!!! It's probably my all time favorite. The narrators were fantastic.
One of the most important books I've read in a very long time. Thank you Rebecca Smoot!!! I can't believe I have never heard this story. I plan to share it with everyone I know. Especially young people. Again Thank You
I believed this book would be more about science than anything else......boy was I wrong! The author was able to tell both the scientific story and the story of the family seamlessly. #Bravo!
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