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)
I just started this book yesterday, and it's quite interesting. I'll finish part 1 tomorrow and look forward to the rest of the book.
Painful to listen to, excruciatingly drawn out. The "life of Henrietta Lacks" would have made a good magazine article. I am within an hour and a half of finishing this and have managed to get through it by listening to a chapter a day. I keep hoping for it to get better. It is "the story of Henrietta Lacks's children." I don't see how the story of these children who do not even remember their mother is at all relevant to (a) Henrietta's life or (b) the science of the cells. I don't care about Deborah's hives or whether her son is in jail for robbery. Most of these children most of time are caught up in their belief that they have a right to be compensated for the modern day use of Henrietta's cells. Deborah, the central family figure portrayed, is a drama queen plain and simple and it is painful to listen to "the Book of Deborah."
I can't understand all of the high ratings. When this many people differ from what I think I have to give weight to the opinion of the others in considering that I may be wrong about this book but in any case this is my opinion.
I love to read about history of medicine, but could not get into it. Could not get into narrator's excitement - in my opinion she sounds like she is in continuous emotional climax; stopped listening after two thirds of Part 1.
This book should be half the length. There is just a lot of duplicated content, and then frankly Henrietta's uneducated family is hard to listen too. I can only listen to so many hours of ignorant conspiracy theories. I understand the point the author is trying to make - that there is a deep distrust in the black community based on a legacy of unethical behaviors - but when I have to listen to extended passages about whether so and so really saw a room full of human-sized rabbits in the basement of John Hopkins frankly I lose patience. I really tried to stick this out - probably made it 9 hours into the book - but at some point I realized I wasn't getting anything out of it.
Way too long. Too long winded and off track at times. Could have easily been
cut in half. The author seems to feel a need to be involved in the story as a character. Why I'm not sure. Objective reporting is very important. Stick to the point, which is about the ethics of human research
I'm a Photographer and Bible student. I like books that challenge me, keep me on the edge and have deep characters.
The book is worth listening to. But I doubt I would do it again, I think it was a bit longer than it needed to, specially towards the end. The background story, the science facts, the experimenting with human tissue and ethics are very interesting subjects and makes it worth the read.
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