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Editorial 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

Critic Reviews

"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

Average Customer Ratings

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Story

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  • Overall

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

  • Overall
  • Valerie
  • Berkeley, CA, USA
  • 06-07-10

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

  • Overall
  • B.J.
  • Minneapolis, MN, United States
  • 01-11-11

This is one of the best.

This meticulously researched and written book is at the top of the heap. The writing, through spare, is perfect for the subject. The narration is spot-on. Where some non-fiction can lag, the author did an incredible job of actually bringing the story along. No matter what you think about medical research or bio-ethics, this book will make you rethink your stand. If you don't care about those issues, reading about Henrietta Lacks alone is worth the time. Simply brilliant in every possible way.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Rebecca, what an AWESOME job

Exceptionally well wrought!! A history, biology and genealogical story cleverly wrapped in well narrated format. I truly enjoyed this listen and appreciated the author's painstaking patience with the Lacks family and the in-depth explanation of the HELA cell's science. It's hard to imagine a biology lesson being presented in any better arrangement. Thanks and BRAVO Rebecca!

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Excellent!

I loved this! Also, Cassandra Campbell always brings each book she narrates to life with her pleasing, professional voice and style.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

More than Cells!

What did you love best about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

When I heard about this book - and saw the size of it - I was imagining a long, dreary treatise on the cells of Henrietta Lacks! It turned out to be so much more, especially a human interest story. Sad and fascinating.

Who was your favorite character and why?

Rebecca Skloot was my favorite character because I could identify with her.

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

No.

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

What happened to Henrietta?

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • Mark
  • DPO, AA, United States
  • 02-21-12

Essential, Astounding, Compelling, Moving...

Would you consider the audio edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be better than the print version?

You know how you hate economics but found Freakonomics or the The Bottom Billion a life-changing book? You know how you hate Science but found yourself reading through Guns, Germs, and Steel? Well, get ready for another non-fiction tale that will never let you think the same way again, this time about medical research.

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

Cassandra's voice and delivery are similar to the author's (heard at the end of the recording in an interview with the publisher). More importantly, Cassandra inhabits the narrative in the way you would expect from an author who has had ten years to distill facts and stories into one compelling testimony. Cassandra sounds like someone a friend brought to dinner to tell you this incredible story you'll never believe, but it's true. Bahni's characterizations of the Lacks family makes you think she must have listened to the conversations Skloot recorded with them since her voicing is always has the ring of truth.

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

How much would you sacrifice to cure millions?

Any additional comments?

This story is timely not only for reminding us not only of the human costs of prejudice and poverty in the U.S., but for the urgency of a national discussion on medical research even as we move with unpardonable slowness toward better, more accessible medical care for all.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Author became too involved

The beginning of this book was interesting and kept me listening. I learned some interesting information about cell research. But sadly by the time I began listening to Part 2, my interest was waning. The trials and tribulations of the Lacks children (mainly as adults) took over the story and became tedious. I think Skloot became too involved with the family, thus losing her objectivity and was unable to write an unbiased story. I finished the book but was disappointed with the final 1/4 of the book.
The narrators did a fine job and their delivery helped me make it to the end of the book.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Intriguing story of science and society

I expected to find this book interesting, but I was surprised by how deeply the story of the family pulled me in. The science of tissue culture is interesting and well told without requiring any specific knowledge of the field. But it was the story of the person behind the tissue, the family she left behind and the experience of being in black in 1950's America and having to deal with 1950's American medical institutions and personnel that was truly compelling. The narration is wonderful and adds to the story rather than detracting from it.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Teri
  • Houston, TX, United States
  • 08-09-11

medical and personal history story

Medical students apparently all know about HeLa cells - this is the story behind them. Well written and interesting, but tends towards sounding like Henrietta Lacks and her family were somehow harmed by the subsequent use of her cells in research. While it's understandable that her family might feel this way, it's misguided to believe that merely because others have benefitted, the Lacks family must have been harmed.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful