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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Audiobook

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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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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  •  
    david ortega 01-02-16 Member Since 2014
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    "Very interesting"

    I enjoyed the story and bonus interview with the author at the end. Thanks for a well done audio book!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CHET YARBROUGH LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 12-31-15
    CHET YARBROUGH LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 12-31-15 Member Since 2015

    Faced with mindless duty, when an audio book player slips into a rear pocket and mini buds pop into ears, old is made new again.

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    "LACKS"

    This story is much more than a history of a person’s life. Rebecca Skloot skewers choices of the medical profession with the story of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. Skloot tells Henrietta Lacks’ history through fascinating interludes with Lacks’ family members that are bruised and battered by the story’s disclosures; none more than Debra Lacks Pullum that dies just before publication.

    The medical and legal issues raised in this book are a must know subject for any conscience bound person. Skloot’s history of the Lacks’ family pumps life into an ugly story of human arrogance.

    Henrietta is a young black mother of 5 children in the 1950s. She dies of cervical cancer at the age of 31, leaving her children to a life of poverty in a poor area of Baltimore, Maryland.

    The cervical cancer that took Henrietta’s life, by luck and circumstance, became the source of an immortal cancer cell that could reproduce itself without apparent end. This cancer cell’s ability to reproduce became the basis for medical research that continues to this day as a medium for medical testing of everything from polio to the common cold. Cultures of these cancer cells have been delivered to medical facilities all over the world.Costs for a vile of the cells exceed $200 to as much as $10,000 per specimen.

    By the end of Skloot’s book, a listener knows the Lacks family, the reality of poverty, the consequence of neglect and misunderstanding, and the unfairness of life. The Lacks family received no recognition, let alone compensation, for the use of Henrietta Lacks HeLa cells. The Lacks family story exposes a dark side of medical research and human experimentation.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    JJ 12-30-15
    JJ 12-30-15 Member Since 2014

    Long car rides have rekindled my love for 'reading' I like a good history book, thriller and - most importantly - zombie fiction.

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    "Gripping and Sobering"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Absolutely. My wife got me to read it after she finished it in paperback. I was skeptical at first but the story really drew me in. You feel connected to the Lacks family and all that they've endured. The scientific/medical ethics exploration is very interesting as well.


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

    There are some many memorable moments in this book. One powerful moment was when Deborah Lacks discovers the history of her sister Elsie. So many other good ones too!


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

    This book is more of historical recounting than character fiction. That being said, discovering Deborah Lacks was probably the best part of the story, character-wise.

    One comment about the narration. For some reason they only included Bahni a few times in the narration. It's unclear why this is the case and I'm not sure it added anything to the story. I would have preferred either more of Bahni for the Deborah speaking parts or removing her altogether. This strangeness was the only reason I didn't give it 5-stars.


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

    HeLa, the woman who changed the world


    Any additional comments?

    Whether you're aware of Henrietta Lacks' cells or not, this book is essential reading to understand your medical rights (or lack thereof). It's thought-provoking and even disturbing, and a must-read.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Chris Sheffield Philadelphia, PA United States 12-29-15
    Chris Sheffield Philadelphia, PA United States 12-29-15
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    "ok"
    Any additional comments?

    It was a very interesting story, told in an entertaining way. However, I wouldn't recommend this book if you listen to books while running, or any other exercise. Wasn't so thrilling or "page-turning"

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sananda 12-20-15
    Sananda 12-20-15
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    "Everyone should know the story of Henrietta lacks and her family!"

    If you haven't already, READ THIS STORY!!! I don't know how everyone have not heard this story by now.
    He-La cells should be as known about as much as Cancer itself. As a clinical research student learning about medical/drug trials and such, I am appalled that this topic has not been revealed to me in school.
    Well, Thank you Ms. Skloot - You've helped this family's story see some true light. From the controversial manner in which the cells were obtain, the amazing breakthroughs in medical history due to these cells and even the heart wrenching ordeals each family member endured, the Legacy of Henrietta Lacks needed a stage & a spotlight and I hope the light continues to grow brighter for the Lack family.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jessica 12-10-15
    Jessica 12-10-15 Member Since 2014
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    "A great story everyone should read!"
    Would you listen to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks again? Why?

    Yes I would. This story is so fascinating and gives such a vivid portrayal of the characters and the situation faced by Henrietta and her family that I think I would likely pick up even more detail every time I read it.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    The daughter was my favorite character because she was so relatable (to an extent). She faced some difficult circumstances; she wanted to know more about her mother (just like the reader); she was an emotional roller coaster to behold.


    Did Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin do a good job differentiating all the characters? How?

    They did; the change in dialect and voice modulation made it easy to differentiate the characters, and there were many.


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

    No, I think it was good to break it up. There's a lot of information to digest and a lot of anecdotes that made me really upset and I needed to take a break to get back in the right mindset.


    Any additional comments?

    A fascinating story about an incredible development in the law, in medicine, and in a family's life.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jodi L. Wiley 12-09-15
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    "A Wonderful Tribute"

    This book is an exceptionally written and narrated journey. It gives life to Henrietta in a profound way.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Brittany Kay Calderwood 12-06-15
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    "Enticing from the beginning"

    I started this book for an ethics course I am taking. I am grateful that this book was part of the syllabus because not only is it an entrapping story, with emotions varying from sadness and frustration to happiness brought to a woman I feel the world needs to know. The way the author tells the story from multiple perspectives is ingenious and I hope anyone hoping to enter any medical field reads this book to remember that in medicine humanity and science are one and you need equal parts of both.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Brittany L. New York, NY 12-03-15
    Brittany L. New York, NY 12-03-15
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    "Great book."
    If you could sum up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in three words, what would they be?

    I think this book was VASTLY interesting, especially as someone who is not a very science-y person. I am from Maryland, so this book had even more significance because a lot of it took place in Baltimore, MD. It's heartbreaking and also very eye opening about the early nature of medical test subjects and how these things actually happened.

    Three words...: Powerful, eye opening and "explaining science for the lay person" which is not one word-- so sue me. :-)


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    I really liked the authors perspective in her meetings with the family and doctors-- it's a very uniquely narrated book.


    Which scene was your favorite?

    The chapter in which they describe Henrietta's death at the hospital. Very powerful.


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

    See above^^ and another part when one of the family members point out how important their mothers contribution was to science and medical fields and they said, "And yet for some reason, me and my family can't get health insurance".... whew. So upsetting.


    Any additional comments?

    This will really make you think about how science and medical advancements happen and whether or not they are done in a humanistic way.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Andrea New Orleans, LA 12-01-15
    Andrea New Orleans, LA 12-01-15 Member Since 2017
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    "More interesting than expected"

    I was required to read this and initially reluctant, but the book is well-written and fascinating. You simultaneously learn about the history of medicine and science, racism, the making of the book, and the lives of the children of a very important woman. I had no idea her cells have been involved in so many disparate parts of science and medicine. The book is particularly fascinating and horrifying from a bioethics perspective. We should never forget where we've come from. The performance is engaging. I felt like the author and Deborah were really speaking.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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