Friday, October 26, 2012

Review Me Twice- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I think I'm more excited to review this book than any book that I have so far.  It has evoked more emotion and thought and controversy than any book that I've reviewed so far on this blog and that's for a lot of different reasons.

Skloot wrote this book for one big reason: to give Henrietta the notoriety that she deserves.  I really respect that.  Henrietta Lacks has been HeLa for so long, that so many people have forgotten the woman behind the cells, this woman who made so much possible for science.  I can't hate on a woman who came along and said, "No, this woman changed the world, is STILL changing the world, and we need to remember she was a woman with a life and a family."

Yet, I still learned a TON from this book.  I'll be quite frank: I didn't even know what HeLa cells were before this book.  Here on Review Me Twice, we alternate weeks on who picks the books.  This week was Alex's week, so she suggested, I said fine and dove right in without even reading the synopsis.  Imagine my shock when I found out within a few chapters that this woman did more by one simple act of giving up cells (albeit, in a less than ethical way) than I have in the entire 26 years I've been alive.

This book will make you really think.  There are a lot of shady ethics going on in this book.  Henrietta's cells were stolen.  If her cells had been taken like they were, today, with as little information as she was given, there would be a lot more problems.  Today, it IS illegal to take someone's cells for specific research without their consent.  Henrietta's cells (along with MANY other woman) were taken for a specific research project.  They were trying to create the immortal cell.  No one asked her, told her and worse, they kept it from her family for years and years because they were afraid of the repercussions.  They were afraid the family was going to come looking for things.

Despite how much this bothers me, I don't even think this was the worst.  The worst is the refusal to answer the family's questions once they DID find out and then, the coup de gras, publishing Henrietta's medical records in a book without the consent of the family, medical records they had never even been privy to.

But what if this hadn't happened?  What if Henrietta's cells hadn't been "stolen"?  Well, we'd still have polio.  The drugs that we'd have for HIV would be abominable, if we even had any at all, not to mention we wouldn't have invitro fertilization, nor would we be able to freeze cells.  HeLa cells were key in developing ALL of these things, plus millions of more.  They've helped study the effects space travel on human cells and made it medically safe to essentially experiment on humans without actually experimenting on humans.

Skloot really makes us consider where we stand on the issue.  Where do we draw the line between science and the right to our own cells?  Was a grave injustice done to this family who doesn't even have health insurance?  Or do we just tell them that they were a victim of the times and they should be honored that their mother has done so much for modern medicine?  Whichever way you lean, pick up this book and I guarantee you'll have doubts about your position at the end of it.

My Bottom Line 5/5
What an incredible book. Like Cassy said, I chose this book, and when I did, I was fairly familiar with what HeLa cells were, what they had done for science and medicine, and that they were taken under less-than-ethical circumstances. I had also heard that everyone really loved this book, which I thought was fairly unusual for a non-fiction book that was mostly a biology lesson. It was in airport bookstores, the grocery store, featured on displays in the library I work at and the one I visit as a patron. I chalked it up to the biographical portion of the book, because I also knew that Henrietta Lacks had been anonymous for a long time, and the public just eats up biographies about mysterious people (when they aren't busy being infatuated with the latest supernatural romance fiction).

Before I started reading, I glanced at the back of my copy of the book, and it had several quotes from reviewers and prestigious authors, like usual. One said something about how Rebecca Skloot works with the narrative skills of a novelist, the expertise of a biologist, and the investigative ability of a journalist. I kept that in mind the entire time I was reading, and it rang true the whole way through.

She combines the science information with the biography information very well. It isn't a strict "one chapter on cells, one chapter on the woman" pattern, but each individual chapter is usually about one or the other. She covers the history (when Henrietta was alive) and the science (what the cells did and what was done about and to the cells) and the interviewing process (how she talked to the remaining Lacks family members and the journey to learn more about Henrietta). The first page of each chapter has a timeline that tells you which period that chapter is talking about (so that you aren't reading about 1951 and suddenly you're dropped in 2000 without realizing it).

I first learned about HeLa cells in elementary school (around 1994 or 1995) and, now that I know this whole story, I know that was around the time Rebecca Skloot was trying to get in touch with the Lacks family and get them to help her learn more about the woman behind HeLa. (To put her effort into perspective, she didn't get the book written until after I graduated from college.)

I would very highly recommend this book to just about anyone. Even if you aren't really into science, I think there's a fair chance you'll enjoy this. (If you won't, then you'll know early on, because the tone and level are about the same throughout.) It's a wonderful choice for anyone who wants to extend their reading into more non-fiction.

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