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)
This can tend to be science heavy but the narrative portions are what I really connected with. I really enjoyed it
I'm not going to lie. Science isn't usually my thing. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate medical advances, technology and all my handy gadgets....but I'm happy to leave the discoveries to other people. This book, however, was such a fantastic mixture of storytelling and fun facts that I couldn't read it fast enough. The whole thing is fascinating, sad and hopeful. I highly recommend this book, even for those who might not be completely into the study of medical science.
Oh man, I didn't expect the ending at all. Geeesh! I'm very happy to hear that the Lacks grandchildren are now taking it into their own hands to learn more about gene/cell studies.
The world will never be the same because of Henrietta Lacks "HeLa" cells! The world is a better place because Deborah helped it to realize what is important! This is a must read...and definitely a must remember always and forever! Thanks Rebecca Skoot you have done a great work!
Dr. Melva Dorsey
Once again I am shocked at human treatment of others. Henrietta should have received better care for her cancer. The Lacks family should have been compensated for the injustice or at least got permission and. an explanation of what was being done with her cells, and the impact they would have on humanity. I pray she is at peace.
The best audio book I've ever heard.
The daughter of Henrietta Lacks, Deborah is broken, tragic, and fearless. Funny and intelligent, it is her desire to know more about her mother that fuels the passion in this story.
Learning who Henrietta Lacks was. Hearing the stories of her youth.
Yes! Learning how the family was treated, the history of medicine and the black community, and why her cells are so important was fascinating and life changing.
This book will change your life. Get it. Listen to it. Enjoy it. And think about it.
I had never heard of the HeLa cells until i listened to this book. But everyone with an interest in health care and medical research needs to read this book. HeLa stands for Henrietta Lacks and contribution that her cancer cells have made since 1951 are innumerable. Read this book!!
The story of Henrietta's family is so outrageous that this story was difficult to pause. The story explains the origins of many important scientific discoveries. It is incredible that Henrietta Lacks is not a household name!
If I were to create a list of the top 10 most important books I've ever read, this would be one of them, because the story is so profound and did so much to raise my consciousness about the type of medical treatment, if you can call it that, and medical exploitation many Black people have experienced in this country during our history. At the same time, this is about an important discovery in medical history that continues to impact all of us every day. The author does this while weaving into the medical history human stories that will tug at your heart and make vivid the ethical issues at stake. On a personal note, one of my daughters got the same rare kind of cancer that Henrietta Lacks had, and this story showed me how aggressive and horrendous that cancer might have been if it had not been treated properly and early.
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