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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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Performance
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  •  
    Victoria Richmond, VA, United States 08-02-13
    Victoria Richmond, VA, United States 08-02-13
    ratings
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    1
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    Story
    "a Disapointment"
    Any additional comments?

    This audible wasn't even the whole book! I am so mad that I waisted a chance to download a free audible book on this audio version.
    It only went to part two and didn't even go to chapter twenty! WHAT A WAIT OF TIME!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pat Lexington, NC, United States 07-17-13
    Pat Lexington, NC, United States 07-17-13 Member Since 2012
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    1
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    "Fascinating True Story of Medical Research"
    Where does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    One of the best. I found myself going back to listen to parts of it again since I listened on my commute and I would catch part of something and wanted to be sure that I had not missed something


    What did you like best about this story?

    Although the story is true, at times it seemed to be hard to believe that Mrs. Lacks was treated so casually by the Doctors for research


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

    the dialects and speech patterns brought the characters to life for me.


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

    I was moved by the piece of the book where the woman following the trail of the immortal cells finally was able to meet with and talk to the daughter of Mrs. Lacks..


    Any additional comments?

    If medical stories and plot shifts are your thing, I think you will like this book.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amazon Customer El Paso, TX USA 07-10-13
    Amazon Customer El Paso, TX USA 07-10-13 Member Since 2007

    angelwings35

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Engages Interest Immediately"

    As a medical person, I was still doubtful that this story would be interesting, and I feared that the jargon would lose me. However, the author did an excellent job making this story about not just a black family, but A FAMILY, and what they suffered. She could have been writing about anyone. It was beautifully done, and I ended up feeling as if personally knew the Lackses. I was SO moved, that I plan to put up a bulletin board about Henrietta Lacks for my students during Black History month. There are no words to define the magnitude of the contribution this woman has made to the advancement of science! This is definitely a MUST READ.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Monique 06-03-13
    Monique 06-03-13
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    19
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    "Amazing story, wealth of information"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Yes. I believe all medical professionals should read/hear this story. Wonderful job by the author and narrator. Often we learn of the scientific background of research and discovery. It is so much more powerful to gain understanding of the human element that makes medical advances possible. I am sure I will listen to this one again.


    What did you like best about this story?

    The scientific history well complimented by the human story behind it.


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

    Yes, always a very nice job narrating.


    Any additional comments?

    If you have any interest in learning more about medical history and or advances in medical research, read/listen to this book. I trust you will be pleased that you did.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Heather 05-23-13
    Heather 05-23-13

    a good book makes me laugh, makes me learn, or makes me sad because it's over.

    ratings
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    3
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    "Something for Everyone!"
    If you could sum up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in three words, what would they be?

    Something. For. Everyone.


    This book is truly a work of art. It seamlessly integrates history, science, ethics, and a tale of an unlikely friendship. The narrators are clear, authentic, and enjoyable to listen to. I have never been much a fan of history or science books as I find them both a bit dry, but Skloot really brings these subjects to an elevated place. I didn't want the story to end!


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

    Not possible-- it's too long.


    Any additional comments?

    You won't regret it.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Trista Houston, TX, United States 05-12-13
    Trista Houston, TX, United States 05-12-13 Member Since 2013
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    "A MUST READ/LISTEN"
    What made the experience of listening to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks the most enjoyable?

    Cassandra Campbell is one of my favorite narrators. She does an amazing job.


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

    There are honestly too many to recount. I got goosebumps at several points. This book really makes you think. I did not want to stop listening. I feel like I know the Lacks family now. Great book.


    Which scene was your favorite?

    Same answer as above.


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

    yes.


    Any additional comments?

    Take the chance on this book. There was definitely some medical jargon that I'd have to listen to a few times, and probably could go back and listen to again to fully grasp it, but the author does a pretty good job of making it understandable for the person that has very little understanding of science. Just an incredible book and amazing story.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Annemarie Parsippany, NJ 05-10-13
    Annemarie Parsippany, NJ 05-10-13
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    2
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    "Wonderful Book"
    What did you love best about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    That Henrietta Lacks has been credited (finally) with the proper contribution that she has made toward humankind.


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

    How badly her family was treated over the decades.


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

    Wish they left out the accents. They did not sound authentic.


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

    Yes; very compelling story.


    Any additional comments?

    Nope.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Enrique United States 05-07-13
    Enrique United States 05-07-13 Member Since 2013
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    1
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    "great science history"
    What did you love best about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    Science facts and human factor involved.


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

    Not sure


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

    Not sure who they are.


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

    The discovery of HeLa's daughter's photo from the insane asylum.


    Any additional comments?

    Enjoyed it very much

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Niki VAN NUYS, CA, United States 04-13-13
    Niki VAN NUYS, CA, United States 04-13-13 Member Since 2014
    ratings
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    11
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    "Oh so worth the read"
    What did you love best about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    I loved the educational/entertaining aspect of this book. The author was able to explain the details where it was not confusing and made it easy to follow along. I finished reading this book with so much insight. I am a simple person. I am easily entertained by most books but, this one in particular left me feeling like I took a college course all while meeting a family and teaching myself about the scientific facts of the human body. What a great book!


    What did you like best about this story?

    I loved the family. The realness, the rawness, the trueness.


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

    their dialect made it easy to despiser between characters


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

    An ordinary life behind history changing medicine.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pony Atlanta 04-02-13
    Pony Atlanta 04-02-13 Member Since 2012
    HELPFUL VOTES
    3
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    "Thrilling and educational"

    The performance was well-done. She can talk about cell culture and keep it thrilling. The story is a beautiful mix of human interest, social justice, and science

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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