Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Creative Nonfriction At Its Best

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, is creative nonfiction at its best. I had seen a few reviews of the book when it was initially released, but to be honest, it didn't interest me enough to find a copy and read it. Maybe later, I told myself.

Then, one of the women in my book club selected it for our group to read and discuss at our October meeting. I was hooked immediately and kept reading with interest all the way to the end. 

The book details the story of a black woman, by the name of Henrietta Lacks, who died at John Hopkins Hospital of a rare form of cervical cancer in 1951. During one of her hospital stays, her doctor harvested some of her cells during one of her treatments. Unknown to her. Without asking for or receiving her consent. Henrietta died, leaving a husband and five young children who had no knowledge of what the doctor had done. Many cells taken for cultures die but Henrietta's flourished. They divided and divided over and over again, they showed no sign of dying. The scientist in the lab named the cells HeLa--a shortened version of the donor's name. Donor yes, but unknown to her at the time. 

The HeLa cells made it possible to make great strides in developing the polio vaccine, studying cancers of various kinds and so many other medical and science issues. Finally, the world learned about Henrietta's cells and all they'd done, how her cells, which numbered in the billions as time went on, made her immortal. 

Rebecca Sloot, a science journalist wanted to write a book about this amazing story, but to do that, she had to find the remaining family members, gain their confidence and get permission to use any information they might give her. Ms. Sloot financed the project on her own, mostly with credit cards and her own savings over the ten years it took to finish the book. The four remaining Lacks children, now adults, lived with confusion, anger, and pride over their mother's contribution to the science world. Some wanted to be paid, while others only wanted recognition for their long-dead mother. The surviving daughter wrestled with the whole situation that it affected her physical health and her mental state. The HeLa cells were all she had left of her mother who died when this woman was only a child of four.

The author takes the reader with her on her journey to find out what happened to Henrietta, what happened after her death and what the public airing of the whole situation did to a family who loved a mother taken from them all too soon.

The author brings the Lacks family to life, bit by bit. She presents their side and also the medical world's side in a non-biased manner. I credit her for not seeming to take sides in this issue for she certainly must have had a definite opinion of her own. She delves into a world of a poor black family whose lives do not mirror her own and she offers the reader many unwritten questions. There are ethical and moral questions that can be discussed and debated for hours on end. 

If you want to read a book that will fascinate you, leave you wondering what was right and what wasn't, then give this one a try. I have been told that the Freshman English classes at Kansas State University are all assigning this book as required reading. This well-written book will stay with you long after you read it.

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