A couple of weeks ago the BrownBaggers book group discussed “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the first book by Rebecca Skloot. Bombardment by political operatives and Hurricane Sandy hampered my efforts to get this report onto the JMRL blog. I felt that, because Henrietta’s life is immortal, that there was no need for real haste.
Among the many themes in this book (race, family, religion, bioethics, medicine) bioethics got the discussion nod. Henrietta Lacks’ cancer genes at her death were collected and have been in the mix for many important medical discoveries. They proved to be super genes. Her family never gave the OK for this to happen nor did they get any compensation from all the medical advancements due to experiments with these genes that occurred from the 1950’s to the present. “The book is filled with stories of people used as research subjects, sometimes without their knowledge, sometimes with ill-informed consent, sometimes because of their inability to understand (patients with mental illness) …”* The reading group was appalled by all this and voiced concern that this could still happen today.
Because this book was written by a white woman about African Americans, there was some comparison with “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, which the group read last year. We felt that Skloot was more sympathetic to her subjects and was less intrusive but more helpful than the fictional character in “The Help.”
Henrietta’s family is full of colorful and complicated individuals. The Lacks genes in and out of these people have made their lives very difficult. Skloot does seem to help them find some closure, but their lives will always be on the edge.
We did like the book. With the parallel stories of the Lacks family and the medical history surrounding Henrietta Lacks genes, we found that some followed one story line more than the other.
*(Courtesy ofUW–‐Madison’s Go Big Read Discussions Planning Committee and the Institute for Cross—College Biology Education Book Group)
~ The Reluctant Blogger