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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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Performance
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  •  
    Elaine 07-08-14
    Elaine 07-08-14 Member Since 2012
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    "what a pleasant surprise!"
    What did you love best about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    I loved the growth of the author as she follows the leads, but does not add to the harm done to this family. The tempo of the story keeps you listening.


    What did you like best about this story?

    I was happy to learn about the importance of this woman to all of us. I am sorry that the importance of her genes is not common knowledge.


    Have you listened to any of Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin ’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    no, but they did a very good job here.


    Any additional comments?

    Because of this book I have widened my reading habits. I am glad I have.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    C. Robertson 07-07-14
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    "Compelling Story"
    What did you love best about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    Behind any scientific advancements that we might eventually take for granted there is a story. And there are people behind the story more interesting than any fictitious characters.


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

    The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, which I also really loved. If you like TILHL, you will like The Ghost Map which charts the spread of a cholera outbreak in London and also touches on medical ethics, theories and policies


    Which scene was your favorite?

    The hotel room scene towards the end with the scuffle over the medical records folder where Rebecca loses it is pretty unforgettable. I would have lost my patience long before then!


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

    The last 1/4 of the book was incredibly moving and touching after she got the buy-in from certain family members. Can't say any more without making it a spoiler!


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gloria 05-29-14
    Gloria 05-29-14 Member Since 2013
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    "Interesting"
    Would you consider the audio edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be better than the print version?

    Definitely


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

    They performed the voices in-sync


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

    There were many because I work in the healthcare field and I was amazed at the treatment of blacks. I was amazed at the primitive ways that cancer used to be treated.


    Any additional comments?

    This story changes you. It gives you more knowledge and understanding of humans and science. It has a good ending. I'm glad the author had to re-write the ending. There were dry parts because the author gets very sciencey. However, this book was truly awesome. I cried during some parts. Other parts my mouth was on the floor and I was saying "Oh my gosh." The author is very insightful. This is many years of work for her and it is beautifully crafted and well put-together. I think it's credit worthy and it's definitely worth a read. I couldn't stop listening.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Erin M North Woodstock, GA United States 03-17-14
    Erin M North Woodstock, GA United States 03-17-14 Member Since 2013
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    "How does civilization not know this story?!"

    This was one of those stories I came across and couldn't believe I have lived 35 yrs never having heard this name. This name needs to be taught in all science curriculum to do her justice!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amazon Customer Berkeley, CA 03-09-14
    Amazon Customer Berkeley, CA 03-09-14 Member Since 2012
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    "Beautifully written and narrated"
    Where does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    Probably one of the best books I read.
    An amazing science story, interlaced with the biographical memoirs of the Lacks family. It takes the reader to the dark years of racial segregation ( and not so long ago that is!) and the advent of cellular cultures and science. Touches to interesting issues such as bioethics, informed consent, tissue culture finances, patents... You'll find yourself amazed, horrified, saddened and delighted at the same time. Amazing.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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    Sara 02-17-14
    Sara 02-17-14
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    "A Must Read"
    Would you listen to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks again? Why?

    The history in this novel was unknown to me before. I learned so much, particularly about Hela cells - still being used to this day. A nicely tied together background of the history of informed consent, the consequences of being poor and black in the 1950's, and the medical strides made to date in conquering cancer. If you have a medical background or interest in novels with medical jargon you will love this book. If you have no interest in medicine you will enjoy this book for it's historical significance and moral issues.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Happy Peter 02-13-14
    Happy Peter 02-13-14
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    "A fascinating and important book!"

    I loved this book. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. You get history, science, human interest. It's funny, intellectually stimulating and at times tear jerking. An important story about our history and it's relevant today. I also had the pleasure of listening to a lecture by the author. Rebecca Skloot is a most impressive and resourceful woman! I highly recommend this book!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Paolo BALTIMORE, MD, United States 02-08-14
    Paolo BALTIMORE, MD, United States 02-08-14 Member Since 2015

    Just a reader with too little time on their hands to read, so I listen!

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    "A Medical History, A Family Portrait"
    If you could sum up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in three words, what would they be?

    Informative, dramatic and engrossing.


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

    The one scene when Deborah sees her mother's cells for the first time. There was some genuine emotion there that transcended her Skloot's writing.


    Which scene was your favorite?

    The same one I mentioned about the memorable moment.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

    A secret medical history and the untold story of the world's most famous cells!


    Any additional comments?

    The narrator was a little dry in this one, and I don't blame her only because medical science can only be so exciting on tape.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tina Nibley, UT, United States 02-05-14
    Tina Nibley, UT, United States 02-05-14 Member Since 2013

    I'm a mom. I have drama in my life. I don't want books with the F-bomb, nor graphic violence. I read for fun and to bring my family together. I read for reducing stress levels. We have never had a television in our home and our children are now mid twenties to 19. We listen together and look for belly-wrenching laughter. So what is it like to live without a TV? Awesomely educational and inspirational. Each new book is a marvel.

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    "Incredible! An awful lot I didn't know."
    What did you love best about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    This audio book covers much material and a great, long story. I was shocked to learn what happens when we part with our tissue at a hospital or medical office. I wonder where my tissues are, where have my organs gone? Have you ever asked to take them home? I have, and I have also declined to take home what was offered. One dentist refused to give us the tooth that was extracted because it was a biohazard, we wanted the tooth. Yet when my greatly enlarged tonsils were removed I declined to take them home. I didn't want to look at tonsils the size of jumbo, in-shell pecans labeled TONSILS.

    Henrietta's story made me wonder if my cells are still in existence somewhere. The thoughts that our cells are our cells, long after they part from our bodies, is something most people would agree upon. This story is a thought provoking story. How will we, as a whole society, allow cell culture to remain helpful but not invasive to our personal lives? Will cell growers be able to choose how their cells may be used? What happens when technology advances and our cells could be used for experiments that we could not have foreseen and given advance permission? Is it right to have blanket release forms that require our permission or we are denied medical care? I'm not sure how the care of the patient, including potential income from use of their tissues, can be resolved to please most, but I will state that being granted a patent on tissues that do not belong to the patent applicant is wrong. The breast cancer patent really frosts me!

    I do highly recommend this book. It is a good starting point for awareness and discussion. I think the narration is exceptional! Wow!


    Have you listened to any of Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin ’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    The Help, another book I recommend.


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

    This was a moving book. Plan on trying to get in a lot of listening time because you won't want to put it down.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Heather Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada 01-25-14
    Heather Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada 01-25-14 Member Since 2013
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    "Three stories in one, and all are compelling."
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    This is at the top of my list for audiobook recommendations. It's easy to follow, well performed, and fascinating. There is the science story - the quest for, the prolific growth of, and the business of immortal cells. A human story - children discovering that part of their mother lives on. The author's quest - to reveal the life behind the immortal cells and to lay out the ethical breaches in their history. It's a few months since I finished listening and it has stayed with me more than most books.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    Rebecca Skloot, the author. She did a great job of talking about what she was doing without giving the impression that the book was about her. Her persistence is remarkable.


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

    Cassandra Campbell has a good reading voice and pacing. Having Bahni Turpin read some of the dialogue made an easy division between narration and characters. I wish more audiobooks would make use of multiple readers.


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

    No; it was too long. However, I found it easy to pick up where I left off.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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