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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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  •  
    Rena M 04-16-10
    Rena M 04-16-10 Listener Since 2005
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    "Great book, great narrator"

    I am a scientist, and I enjoy reading books about science that would also appeal to the general public. This book is wonderful: I really enjoy the interweaving of science with the lives of the people in Henrietta's family. It is so interesting to learn about the history of the family, as well as about all the things that these cells have been used for, and all the things they have been involved in.

    10 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jean Santa Cruz, CA, United States 04-02-12
    Jean Santa Cruz, CA, United States 04-02-12 Member Since 2017

    I am an avid eclectic reader.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "What are your legal rights to your body?"

    This is a well-written non-fiction book, that provides back ground information about unfair treatment of minorities by medical research. Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin did great job with the narration of the book. The story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is interesting and the discovery and care of the Hi La cells. One major item about the family is the lack of education played a major role in their understanding and ability to control the situation. The book accomplishes its goal of promoting proper documentation of biological tissue research. It raises the question of ownership of our own tissues and whether or not we have proprietary rights to our bodies in situ or in vitro. This question needs to be answered NOW not in the future. The other teaching of the book was how important education is to each individual. This is an absolute must read book for everyone on this planet.

    9 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mark Winter Springs, FL, United States 05-25-11
    Mark Winter Springs, FL, United States 05-25-11
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    "Amazing but dry"

    Heard about this book on NPR's 'Fresh Air.' The story of Henrietta's 'HeLa' cells are mind blowing, the way they have impacted our lives in so many ways. This story really becomes the story of Henrietta's family, who are unfortunately extremely naive in terms of the impact her cells have had on medical history. One feels very badly for them, and frankly, whenever I have to sign a concent form in a Dr.'s office, I'm super sensitive to any verbiage stating my cells can be used for commercial purposes. The bummer about this is the amount of (boring) detail the author gets into tracing the legacy and history of cell culturing in our society. Great research, but at times reads like a science book.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pamela Harvey The Coast of Rhode Island 03-16-10
    Pamela Harvey The Coast of Rhode Island 03-16-10 Listener Since 2003

    glam

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    "Can you sell your cells?"

    This is a necessary book - aside from informing us about what seems today like the the dark ages of cancer research and the reported unfair treatment of minorities by the medical community in the era of Henrietta Lacks, it's time we all became more enlightened as to the fate of our body products once we part with them in a doctor's office, lab or hospital. This book raises important issues as to the space required for storage of all discarded tissue, which is unlike printed material that can be converted to digital format.

    As an historical novel there are bound to be characters that are not "likable" nor relatable in the usual fictional sense. This family was troubled in many ways, in addition to the implied racial implications, the possible malpractice issues regarding the HeLa cells, and losing any financial stake in the success of the HeLa cell line. The family came to Baltimore to be part of the then growing steel industry. They were originally from a bare bones town in Virginia, having farmed their own tobacco crops after indirectly inheriting the property after being emancipated from slave status. There were some hard workers amongst the marginal characters, but basically this was a hard-strapping family who had to make do in order to survive. And several of them fell by the wayside to crime and mental dysfunction.

    The book is well-written, even with the frequent disjunctions in time periods. It can be difficult to follow the genealogy and plethora of major and minor characters, and the myriad mentions of various studies. But all that is mere technicality.

    The book accomplishes its goal of promoting proper documentation of, and credit for - financial or otherwise - biological tissues that are saved and used for research. It raise the question of ownership of our own tissues, and whether or not we have proprietary rights to our own bodies, in situ or in vitro.

    13 of 15 people found this review helpful
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    Robert Yamhill, OR, United States 12-19-10
    Robert Yamhill, OR, United States 12-19-10 Member Since 2016

    Hey Audible, don't raise prices and I promise to buy lots more books.

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    "This year's best"

    Voted the Best of 2010 in Science and Technology, I am so glad this book got the recognition it so richly deserved. The author is a science/medical writer. But, I think, a mistake was made in the category in which it was placed. Were it in the category of nonfiction, I think more folks would think about reading it. The science part of the book is wonderful and approachable by anyone. But this is not a science or technology book per se nor, do I think, is science the best part of the book. It is a book more about ethics and the law. It is a book, I believe, mostly about our humanity and in that regard, I cannot find a better book in this year or in many others before it. The book is a superbly written and exquisitely narrated.

    16 of 19 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Leanna Seattle, WA United States 11-18-15
    Leanna Seattle, WA United States 11-18-15 Member Since 2008

    I love to read, but I am time-limited. Audible allows me to keep up with all my favorite authors while on the hiking trail. Thanks, Audible!

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    "What an amazing book"
    Any additional comments?

    As a biologist, I am quite familiar with the story of Henrietta Lacks. As an undergraduate, it was a story we were told in cell biology class. It wasn't until my first bioethics class in graduate school that I became aware of the long-term effects of situations such as Ms. Lacks, her family, and her descendants. This is such an important story for science. BUT it is also an important story for non-scientists, because this is a story about a person's right to know and the importance of transparency and honesty. This is a tale about how easily unintended consequences can truly harm people. The author has created a rich story that is honest, complete, and respectful. The narrators do an amazing job bringing it to life.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ron 07-21-10
    Ron 07-21-10 Listener Since 2009
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    "Better Understanding Now"

    What an eye opener. The history of our discovery and exploitation of genetic material is fascinating and more complex than I had imagined. Skloot covers the subject from all angles.The chronological and technical aspect is informative. The ethical observations raised through the study of the Lacks family are both clinical and personal. As we race to find cures for disease and better understand ourselves at the genetic level, we forget that it couldn't be possible without the most important component of the research process - human genetic material.
    Worth a second listen. Thank you Ms Skloot.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Elaine 07-11-10
    Elaine 07-11-10

    I'm a country potter, gardener, flute player and tin tinker living with my husband, an electrical engineer & cabinet maker.

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    "Immortal thought lines"

    This book is worth 2 listens. What of our bodies do we own? How can we say "liberty and justice for all" in a country where corporations own the genes and even the tissue of our brains that allow formation of the words? The author brings Henrietta's family into focus and also provides a great deal of medical and legal background for HeLa cells.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Valerie Berkeley, CA, USA 06-07-10
    Valerie Berkeley, CA, USA 06-07-10 Member Since 2012
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    "Haunting"

    A Heartbreaking story that details the illogical justification used by scientists and the market establishment they created to reason away that an individual's biological material is not their own or something they can uniquely own and patent or trademark but instead can only be patented and trademarked by a scientist or corporation (manufactured individual). This woman from America's racial and economic underclass's unique and special biological cells pioneered science and are now sold as the property of a corporation. She died in poverty and her progenitors and spouse struggled and suffered greatly as the medical and science establishment exploited their ignorance while making huge advancements and wealth with the immortal cells of this poor woman without even giving proper public credit or respect.

    10 of 12 people found this review helpful
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    JOHN Plantation, FL, United States 03-12-11
    JOHN Plantation, FL, United States 03-12-11 Member Since 2003

    Audible Member Since 2003

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    "Meticulously Researched, Wonderfully Written"

    Rebecca Skloot spent ten years of her life researching and writing this book. At the time she had no way of knowing just what she was getting herself into.

    The HeLa cell line is one of the most important and studied subjects in the world of medicine and biology, but practically nothing was known about the person from which these cells were named, Henrietta Lacks. In fact, for years even the name Henrietta Lacks was intentionally obscured by the fictitious names of Helen Lane or Helen Larson.

    Skloot was a young student at the time she became interested in the mostly anonymous Henrietta Lacks, who died at the age of 31 from a terribly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her cells were extracted, without permission or informed consent, becoming for all purposes the first line of "immortal" human cells living outside of the host body. The author decided to attempt to put a human face on the donor of the cells which played a vital part in such scientific advances as in the cure for polio, aids research, genetic discoveries, cancer cures, drug developments, to name just a few. However, learning the true story of the Lacks family two generations after the death of Henrietta turned out to be quite the daunting venture as Skloot tenaciously uncovers layers of family suffering, mistrust, ignorance and exploitation.

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a real-life story of family and all that goes along with it, good and bad. It is in-part a tale of mystery that walks into real human drama, tackling many difficult issues of racism, bio-ethics, privacy and profiteering.

    This book is perfectly narrated and is one of the best audio books I have encountered in quite some time. Do not miss this one!

    6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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