When Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in 1951, she was only thirty-one years old. The name Henrietta Lacks might then have been lost to history if her cells had not gained sudden immortality, continuing to divide unmoored from her body with a perpetual and automating zeal.
Nicknamed HeLa, the cells could be tested without remorse or reservation. They paved the way for unparalleled advances in polio and AIDS research and an entire medical industrial complex beyond fathom. “If you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end,” Rebecca Skloot writes, “they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times.” The impressiveness of scale is made through comparative measure much like Billy Wilder does at the beginning of The Apartment.
A cell is only a small and unassuming unit of ourselves, and yet each one contains the whole. What it cannot hold is memory. The complex weave of interconnected and cob-webbed neurons that populate our minds are derived through experience and make us who we are. Something of Henrietta Lacks might exist in those cells, but life is far too big and ambitious to make sense of any part of her except the pieces which live on in the hearts of those who remember.
Conflict, too, has a physical element. It is the force of things colliding. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the conflict between the HeLa cells that have done an incalculable good to the world and the Henrietta Lacks who once existed is immutable.
Great non-fiction couches real-life drama within something so much larger and impossible to measure, but this book also tends to flout classification. It is at once biology, American history, family drama, and journalism, taking strands from works like Roots and The Lives of a Cell.
But the ultimate allure of the book lies in Rebecca Skloot’s instinct for narrative structure, which sustains the tension of the story. What it lacks in florid prose it makes up for in the extemporaneous power of raw emotion and drama. This is unscripted storytelling at its best, uncoiling in real time and independent of any conventional or easy plotting.
This is a story about inheritance; the passage of genetic material from one to the other. The orthodoxy of nature cares nothing for our warm sentimentality, but to us it is holy writ. Both parents are half ourselves; even a cell comports intimacy. Skloot’s modern day investigation is necessary for capturing those essential bonds of man. These sections elevate the book beyond journalism and into a realm that becomes a wonderful search for illumination.
All the questions of medical ethics and privacy would read like the high-minded abstraction of philosophy without the detailed characterization of the descendants of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot brings immediacy. It is the story that she was meant to write.
But I only invoke fate as a convenient device to explain the existence of this book. There is nothing in this universe that conspires toward a single resolution, even if Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, is certain that the spirit of her mother brought them together. But the story is a remarkable affirmation for Skloot’s circumstances and skills. One of the themes of the book is the notable demarcation between the world of spirituality and mysticism, which is the work of things unseen, and that of science, which is progress and the application of previously attained knowledge. These are properties of two very different worlds.
The impasse between one world and the other is that of fear and paranoia which have been fostered by racism and the impoverished sense that they are being exploited for the gain of others. The best intentions of men like George Gey, founder of HeLa, is one of indifference; in the 1950s, researchers were trained to see the cells as separate organisms and not as an extension of their owner. This attitude became institutionalized. Even when the rules governing the medical research community changed, this transgression was never amended.
By some logic it might have made sense to keep the worlds bounded, but medicine fails if it does not abridge the duration between the technical and the humane in which life breaths, instead choosing to ignore the people that it is supposed to help.
However, this is also a story without any heroes; there are only flawed individuals. The family is so mired in their distrust that they are consumed by it. The compassion of Rebecca Skloots is one of the things that helps to break the spell and coax out their trust, in particular Deborah, who wants most of all a path toward understanding. When they visit the research center at John Hopkins, Deborah’s brother, Zakariyya, is surprised to discover that cells, unlike the larger and sometimes foolish organisms that harbor them, do not have skin color. At the cellular level, the barriers between people break down, revealing our common humanity.
Maybe that revelation cannot abolish his anger, but it can give him some small measure of inner peace. And perhaps once her cells have contributed all they can to our understanding of the human body, Henrietta Lacks can rest in peace too.