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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

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  •  
    J. C. Edens Georgia, USA 01-12-14
    J. C. Edens Georgia, USA 01-12-14 Member Since 2015

    Been on/off with Audible since '07, when I found myself long-term in China, desperate for English language books. Love a good story.

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    "Impactful story, great narration, WOW."
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    I read this audiobook a couple years ago, but recently pegged it for my upcoming April book club reading, so I'll get to read it again, and this time discuss with friends. When I read this the first time, I was gushing about it to everyone. Highly recommend as a great read on women's health, 20th century medical history and innovation, changing medical rights and legal rights to our own bodies, and a saga of one African American family still struggling with a legacy that would confuse many. The author's own role in this story is also a great component, as she must navigate these complex, heavy waters.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gettica 01-07-14
    Gettica 01-07-14
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    "This book is actually worth the hype"
    Any additional comments?

    I tend to avoid reading books that everyone tells me that I'll just LOVE. This was a book club read and I went into reading it expecting to either be grossed out by the medical aspect or to feel manipulated by the racial aspects of the story. Ms Skloot plotted a narrative path that presented both the characters and the facts in a way that made me think and care deeply about this issues raised by HELA cells and about the Lacks family. Her self-described passion to understand Henrietta's story shines through in a big way. Impressively written.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kaci 01-06-14
    Kaci 01-06-14
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    "Great read!!"
    If you could sum up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in three words, what would they be?

    This book was well written, constantly interesting and also educational!


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

    The end was memorable and sad.


    Which scene was your favorite?

    Henrietta giving a public speech.


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

    When Henrietta learned of her sisters history.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Thomas Chapel Hill, NC, United States 12-28-13
    Thomas Chapel Hill, NC, United States 12-28-13 Member Since 2013
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    "parts outstanding"
    Any additional comments?

    parts of this are amazing, but other parts i feel were pretty boring and long winded, and the emphasis on her family seems overblown.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Cristie Belgrade, MT, United States 12-20-13
    Cristie Belgrade, MT, United States 12-20-13 Member Since 2014
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    "Extremely eye-opening!"
    If you could sum up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in three words, what would they be?

    Ironic injustice worldwide.


    Which scene was your favorite?

    When Debras angry brother was taught and shown about his mother at the lab and him tearing up when he saw the colorful picture the doctor gave him.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    It made me cry aloud many times when telling of the abuse of so many members of the family.


    Any additional comments?

    I really loved it & would highly recommend it. It opened my eyes to the way things used to be in society and are still in some parts of the country.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    History Buff Maryland 12-18-13
    History Buff Maryland 12-18-13 Member Since 2012

    Grace

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    "A Must Listen"

    I am so glad I listened to this. Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin were marvelous at bringing this story to life. The Author's Note at the beginning of the story set the tone for the book (and many people who "read" the book skipped this)...the afterword tied up many loose ends. And finally, the interview with Rebecca Skloot at the very end anchored the book in reality, where it belongs.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Patti 12-14-13
    Patti 12-14-13
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    "Well worth reading!"

    This book is non-fiction. It intrigued me and I couldn't wait to listen to the entire book. I thought it was fascinating. I highly recommend this book!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mediamaverick Seattle, WA 11-29-13
    Mediamaverick Seattle, WA 11-29-13 Member Since 2011
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    "Excellent book"
    Would you consider the audio edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be better than the print version?

    I first read the print edition of this book when it was first released in paperback, but when I saw that Cassandra Campbell narrated the audible version I decided to purchase and listen (again).The story is fascinating, though troubling. I'm glad the Lacks family has finally been given some input into how her cell lines are used going forward after they came to an agreement with the NIH this past summer.The book is both a fascinating chronicle of scientific research but explores the issues of health care access and attitudes toward individual privacy, an issue of increasing import in today's world.I absolutely adore Campbell's narration and found listening to the book a second time around an equally satisfying experience.


    What did you like best about this story?

    I wouldn't really call this book a "story" as it's a much more complex narrative than such a term implies. It's both an exploration of a woman's difficult personal history and the intersection of that history with an ongoing evolution in genetic research. It's the juxtaposition of the two elements that makes it a particularly powerful work of non-fiction that's both heartbreaking and compelling.


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

    For me, Campbell's narration is wonderful in terms of both range and nuance. Turpin was fine.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    Henrietta's story made me sad....she had a tough life and died a very sad and painful death.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Shaher detroit, MI, United States 11-13-13
    Shaher detroit, MI, United States 11-13-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Wow"
    Where does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    Thought it would be somewhat boring since it is a biography of sorts. However, it was, not only thoroughly entertaining, but highly thought provoking.


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

    The debate of ownership and the rights to one's own parts.


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

    Added a nice does of reality while not bringing any attention to a race issue.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    Pure wonder at the contribution to science from Henrietta's cells.


    Any additional comments?

    I've read a lot of fiction. This real piece of history is far more amazing!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Angela Catirina Los Angeles, CA 11-03-13
    Angela Catirina Los Angeles, CA 11-03-13 Member Since 2015

    Catirina Bonet Designs

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    "Thoughfully Written, Well Researched....Brilliant!"

    I'm listening to this book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. I've had numerous friends the past few years dealing with a variety of forms of cancer and I found it while searching book titles on the subject. I'm not sure I recommend it as reading if you are dealing with the issue or are close friend or family but it is a true story of monumental historic value for scientific research, ethics, and human consequence. The breadth, depth, and scope of the story of the events, of the life an ordinary woman who has left an extraordinary impression on science is truly monumental. I'm only half way through it and I'm not certain if I think it's more triumph or tragedy but I do think it's highly recommended reading material.

    I am a huge fan of the writing of Dava Sobel because she tells the historic stories of science from a truly human perspective and tells them in the form of biography that reads like a well written novel. Rebecca Skloot is equally gifted. It's a thoughtfully written and researched account. If you are interested in science or if you are not. If you believe in Western medicine, or if you don't. It is a thought provoking tale. I think it would be great reading for middle and high school students as well, with the exception of a couple of chapters that are sexually explicit and parents may want to censor.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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