The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I finished Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks just last week and I was pleasantly surprised at how I felt about the book. I expected to trudge through another book about biology and science (not my favorites) because I was tangentially interested in the topic of medical ethics. But I was surprised to find how drawn I was to the human element of the story. Contrary to the title, much of the book takes place after the actual life of Henrietta Lacks… or does it?

Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who grew up in poverty in Baltimore, died in 1951. But part of her, specifically the cells taken from her cancerous tumor and cultured in labs by scientists all over the world, are still alive in 2017. It is this dichotomy of being that her family, as well as the reader, struggles to understand even years later.

Never before have I rooted for a journalist like I rooted for Rebecca Skloot. As a writer myself, I have a love/hate relationship with the urge to invade other peoples’ lives for the story that they have to tell. I understand it, even if it makes me squirm sometimes. The fact is, people are interesting and I love to hear their stories. I find myself wondering if others would react the same way that I did or if they would have different insights. Enter the squirmy feelings of sharing others’ stories, something intensely personal that can feel inauthentic if not done well. I started reading this book expecting the same of Rebecca. And at first, that’s exactly how I felt. I questioned her motives. I scoffed at her repeated attempts to get Henrietta’s family to give her any insight into their mother’s life. But reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I found myself feeling her highs (the first time Deborah and Zakariyya saw Henrietta’s cells!) as well as her lows (the often unpredictable reception she got from the Lacks family). Her narration of a largely scientific story was entirely human. Like the Lacks family, she felt a drive to learn about Henrietta’s life. Hers was a need not just to share the story, as I expected, but to honor the woman.

This was made all the more complicated by the invasion of privacy into Henrietta’s life when doctors collected her cells without obtaining her consent in the first place. Although a standard practice at the time (and it is crucial to remember that fact when reading Skloot’s account), it has since raised many questions about informed consent and medical research. What are the ethical ramifications of scientists using Henrietta’s cells without her consent? How has this decision impacted medicine today? An interesting fact included in the Afterword states that “storing blood and tissues for research did not legally require informed consent” due to the legal differentiation between human research and tissue research. I was surprised to learn that after all this time and objection, informed consent was still not required to conduct research on a person’s cells. I am curious to see what impact Skloot’s book and the awareness it has generated has on scientific practices and law.

As a whole, I enjoyed the book, both for the knowledge I gained about the medical community as well as the stories I read about the Lacks family. I would recommend this book as an interesting and somewhat scientific read, with a touching human element. It didn’t change my life and probably won’t end up on my top recommended reading list but it is a solid book written by a skilled and compassionate journalist– yes, they do exist! My hat goes off to Rebecca Skloot for her perseverance in getting Henrietta’s story and her personal touch in sharing it.

Questions to continue your discussion:

  • How did race relations in Baltimore impact the process of Henrietta’s treatment and subsequent research conducted using her cells?
  • How did education impact the same?
  • How would you characterize the relationship between the Lacks family and the doctors at Johns Hopkins?
  • What do you think would happen in today’s world? Are there any similar ethical dilemmas facing scientists or academics?

Read the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review here.

Goodreads reviews summary and review here.

Read the New York Times’ review of the HBO based-on-the-book (which was an account-of-real-life) movie here. If you have watched the movie, what did you think? Was it as true to the book and the book was to the real-life account? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Our next book

We officially have our first book club selection of 2017. What are we reading?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot! 

Why choose a nonfiction book? Don’t we normally revel in our fiction selections? Oh yes, we do. That is true. But we are also a science-loving bunch. And Skloot’s book, although nonfiction, reads like a story, a real page-turner. Skloot’s account of the cells and research that were so influential in the development of modern medicine, vaccinations, and cancer treatments is unique among the many papers that have been published about HeLa. She focuses on the woman behind the science, including what is known of her personal history, her family story, and the legacy of her life. And it is a fascinating story.

As you read, consider the following questions.

  • What are the ethical ramifications of scientists using Henrietta’s cells without her consent? How has this decision impacted medicine today?
  • How did race relations in Baltimore impact the process of Henrietta’s treatment and subsequent research conducted using her cells?
  • How did education impact the same?
  • How would you characterize the relationship between the Lacks family and the doctors at Johns Hopkins?
  • What do you think would happen in today’s world? Are there any similar ethical dilemmas facing scientists or academics?

Join us for our discussion on May 29th!

Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog- Ted Kerasote

merles-doorThis month, the book club read Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog by Ted Kerasote. It’s not something that I would normally pick up and even if I had, I probably would not have gotten past the first chapter had it not been a group read. So, because I was able to branch out into a new literary area, I’m glad that we picked the book. But, not being a dog owner or an avid outdoors-woman, that’s about where my satisfaction ended.

The book was interesting to read and very well-researched, but I had trouble relating to any of the characters or their situations. I don’t have a dog, so I knew going into it that I wouldn’t relate to the main premise of the book–the relationship between dog and owner. But, I don’t ski, shoot elk, or go mountaineering, so a lot of the background action was also lost on me. I did enjoy reading about the history of the domestication of dogs and what is going on in pet research today. If you are interested in those things, you’d probably enjoy this book.

I can’t say that I recommend it for a book club, though. Unless you have a group of people that are all into skiing, rafting, hunting, and dogs (of course), this book probably won’t spark a lot of lively discussion or debate. If you do have a group like that, go for it! It will probably be right up your alley. Otherwise, this one is better left for individual reading. Even then, you might want to save it for a camping trip or other outdoors weekend, when you can maybe relate more to the material.

Have you read any books that were completely out of your normal genre or realm of experience? Did you have trouble relating to them or did they open your mind to an entirely new world?

The Girls of Atomic City- Part III

Today we come to the dramatic conclusion of our gripping three-part series, featuring The Girls of Atomic City, by author Denise Kiernan.

Atomic bomb drop over Hiroshima

Atomic bomb drop over Hiroshima

Okay, our finale is not quite as dramatic as the book’s, but we will do our best to keep up with you, Denise Kiernan.

The Girls of Atomic City tells the true story of the men and women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II. None of them were natives of Oak Ridge. None of them grew up there. None of them visited their grannies in the local cemetery. Why?

tgoac_coverBecause Oak Ridge, Tennessee did not exist until 1942. It grew from the United States’ War Department’s need to develop, in secret, the technology that went into the Atomic bomb. The residents included the nation’s top scientists, government officials, a vast network of supporting personnel, and all of their families. What started as a secret site soon grew into a secret town, eventually becoming a secret city, complete with theaters, skating rinks, multiple cafeterias, and row upon row of identical prefab houses. It is against this backdrop that Kiernan recounts the stories of the remarkable men and women involved in the creation of the world’s most deadly military weapon.

The stories included range from the highly technical to the everyday, but so did life in Oak Ridge. Kiernan expertly recreated the feeling of only knowing part of the picture, a key feature in the format of the book and one of the reasons that I appreciated it so much. I’m officially a fan of all of these remarkable women: the ones who relocated to Oak Ridge and the one who wrote down their story. In the beginning, the reader gets bits and pieces of the policy and science that led to the creation of the atomic energy industry but gets far more of the excitement and nervousness of the young women involved as they travel to their new home. As the story progresses, pieces start to come together and the reader begins to appreciate how difficult life could be in this community of silent scientific breakthrough. When the bomb drops, literally, and the residents of Oak Ridge find out what they had been working on for those many long months, information is provided at an overwhelming speed. The “product” is finally named. The “gadget” is finally explained. The technical asides merge with the day-to-day accounts until the two are nearly indistinguishable. The world, the residents of Oak Ridge, and the reader finally know the big secret.

Visit for a reader’s guide, book club notes, and tons of photos, interviews, and other features. The Reading Group Guide is also available on publisher Simon & Schuster’s website. Included are questions to further your discussion, activities to help you “experience” life in Oak Ridge, and an interview with Denise Kiernan about her writing experience.

The Girls of Atomic City- Part II

Still reading The Girls of Atomic City in preparation for our discussion on Friday. And still loving it!

Today’s post is an author profile of Denise Kiernan, the woman behind The Girls of Atomic City. Her portfolio includes everything from The Indiana Jones Handbook to ABC’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Most of her books focus on American history, specifically Revolutionary War-era history, with The Girls of Atomic City as an outlier, at least chronologically. Her list of published works include Signing Their Lives AwaySigning Their Rights Away, and Stuff Every American Should Know– all about the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and including lots of good ol’ American factoids. Those works, along with her guide to financial management for the freelancer, The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self Employed, all promise to be interesting and enlightening reads.  

Malaprops 1 LogoDenise Kiernan is a huge supporter of independently owned bookstores, most notably Malaprop’s, her local Asheville, NC joint, so head to your closest indie bookstore to pick up this one Denise-Kiernan-style. Malaprop’s will even get you a signed copy of her book, The Girls of Atomic City, and mail it to you “lickety-split” (her words). If you’re an Asheville resident, or wanting a good excuse for a road trip, head over there on November 30th. You may just see Denise Kiernan or her hubby, author Joe D’Agnese, helping out around the store <wink, wink>. It’s also available on Amazon for you techy-types. The Girls of Atomic City has landed her a spot on the coveted New York Times Best Seller List and the LA Times Best Seller List, along with a host of other awards and recognition. I think it’s going to be a book club favorite around the country.

She’s also an extremely talented and well-spoken interviewee. Seriously- even if you don’t read the book, you can take some public speaking tips from this lady. Click here to see a March 2013 The Daily Show interview with Denise Kiernan about The Girls of Atomic City: Part I, Part II

Visit her site to learn more about what she’s done and what she’s up to. And keep reading The Girls of Atomic City for our discussion on Friday! See you then!

The Girls of Atomic City- Part I

tgoac_coverOur discussion of Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City isn’t until Friday but I’m enjoying this book so much I just had to make my normal post into a series, featuring this book, its talented author, and the incredible story of these women.

The book tells the story of the women that worked in rural Oak Ridge, Tennessee during WWII, completing what seemed to them strange and disconnected tasks. Many of them came to work there to be a “vital part” of the war effort and work on a project that would “end the war”- with little more information to go on than that. They left home, most of them barely out of high school, and went to a secret facility to do an unknown job that they couldn’t talk about. When they got there, conditions were…well, here is one account of a new employee, Celia, entering the Oak Ridge facility:

Construction went on in every direction. The fences had been some of the first things to go up, and crews repurposed the barbed wire taken from many of the farms and homes that had been moved off the land. Celia couldn’t see any sidewalks, only wooden planks laid over the newly excavated ground. There were some houses, virtually identical, sitting side by side and lining the dirt roads. There were larger buildings, mostly white, similar in style and shape, not like the brick and stone and shingle of every other town she’d seen, or the soaring concrete and steel of the city she’d just left. Though the town was brand-new–less than a year old–somehow the mud managed to make everything seem run down.

– The Girls of Atomic City, pg. 37-38

The conditions didn’t improve much and the secretive nature of their work never changed. But the work at Oak Ridge certainly changed the war and the women themselves. If you enjoy learning more about history, in particular the behind-the-scenes support operations that were vital for the completion of world-changing events, this book is for you. If you enjoy reading about brave and remarkable people, willingly jumping into unknown and strange circumstances, this book is for you. If you enjoy a good story, full of memorable characters doing normal, everyday activities in extraordinary times, this book is for you. Denise Kiernan creates all of the above in The Girls of Atomic City, The Home Book Club’s latest selection.

Later this week, I’ll post an author profile on Denise Kiernan, writer, journalist, photographer- a real Renaissance woman. You definitely want to check back to hear about her experience interviewing these women and researching this book. And join us here on November 22nd for what promises to be a great discussion about this remarkable story.

Lean In- Sheryl Sandberg


Lean InThis book has garnered quite a bit of media attention since it first hit the shelves last March. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 25 weeks and displayed prominently at almost every bookstore. The dust jacket proclaims it “an inspiring call to action and a blueprint for individual growth” for women in the workforce. As I mentioned earlier this week, I recently resigned my commission after serving for five years as a Naval Officer. The Navy put me through school and I paid back the time as a Surface Warfare Officer stationed in Norfolk, VA. I completed two deployments—one on a Destroyer and the other on an Aircraft Carrier. If you can find a more “traditionally male” work environment, let me know. So a book aimed at promoting equality in the workforce? Sign me up!

However—and this is a big however—I was skeptical. As a woman in the military, I experienced first-hand just about every sort of gender bias imaginable. When I first started at my commissioning program, some people told me that I didn’t belong there. Others asked me why on earth I would want to go there. I had people tell me that I was “too pretty” to be in the Navy. (Still not sure what they thought I should look like because no one looks nice wearing a baggy uniform waking up for their shift at 1:00 in the morning.) It was my first experience with gender-based expectations and it wasn’t pretty. I thought that someone needed to make sure that all of these old-fashioned thinkers knew they were living in the 21st Century. I was looking for someone like Sheryl Sandberg.

Nine years later, after I completed my service commitment and started the process to separate from the military, I got just as much “feedback,” except this time it was from the other perspective. People told me that as a successful woman, I should stay in the Navy. They told me that the Navy needed women leaders and that the female sailors needed someone that they could emulate. I even had one person tell me that I was obligated to stay in the military to fulfill some theoretical promise that I had made to the women that paved the way for my entrance into the Armed Forces. Instead of being criticized for working, I was now being criticized for leaving the workforce. The same people that condemned society for forcing women into traditionally feminine roles were now trying to force me into a traditionally masculine role. Do you mean that the past four years at a Service Academy and five years on Active Duty wasn’t enough for these people???

I wasn’t sure I wanted the same criticism from Sheryl Sandberg but, remembering the very real criticism I received when first entering the military, I decided to give this book a chance. The first few chapters were loaded with statistics and anecdotes about how women are underrepresented in the workforce and that “a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes” (p. 7). I have to admit that I almost put the book down after the first chapter concluded with “we move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in” (p. 11). But I pushed on, hoping that I would find something a little bit later in the book that was more palatable to someone who is choosing to lean out. And I am glad that I did. Once I got past my intitial resistance to what seemed like a “women-should-rule-the-world” message, I realized that Sandberg’s prevailing message is that everyone should lean into their chosen path in life and not let society, others, or even themselves limit possibilities.

If you are just picking up this book, I recommend skipping ahead to Chapter 4 and reading from the perspective of an employee looking to improve their own leadership potential. Not a female or male employee, just one interested in professional growth. The second half of the book was full of little pearls of wisdom from Sandberg, someone that has achieved a high level of professional success, independent of gender. The most significant morsel that I took from this book was in a passage detailing management training given by Fred Kofman. Sandberg writes, “I learned from Fred that effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth)” (p. 79). I think that this simple sentence effectively illustrates the crucial foundation for a good professional relationship: communication. But not just emailing, memo-ing, or even speaking face-to-face. Exchanging information does not always constitute communicating. It must be authentic and genuine, where both parties are acknowledged as having something valuable to offer, even if they don’t agree. When everyone knows that they are valuable to their organization and that their opinion matters, they are more likely to speak up and to really invest their best time and talent. Not only does the organization benefit, so do all of the other workers who are now able to collaborate to produce the best work.

The book goes on to offer other professional lessons, many of which apply to working men as well as women. “Don’t leave before you leave” (Ch. 7) tells employees to bring their very best to work everyday so that when or if they eventually consider leaving the workforce, it is a choice, not a necessity. “Make your partner a real partner” (Ch. 8) discusses the importance of sharing responsibilities at home. While always sound advice, regardless of who is or is not working outside of the home (no one likes to pick dirty socks off the floor, even if they are the traditional “homemaker”), I think that this issue is less prevalent in my generation. Many of my friends divide domestic responsibilities by skill set. Who cooks? The partner that makes better food, of course. Who mows the grass? The one that gets it done the fastest. Who picks up groceries? The one that passes the market on his/her way home from work. With the fast pace of life these days, maybe we’ve just become necessarily pragmatic.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in improving their relationship with their coworkers, bosses, or clients. While it is pretty heavy on the “pro-woman” rhetoric, it still has a lot to offer that can be applied across all spectrums of the office. Not all differences between coworkers are the result of gender stereotypes; many others exist as well. Race, religion, even sports team affiliation (not kidding- I’ve seen it) can influence how people are perceived and treated. The lesson from Lean In is this: don’t let anyone’s unenlightened perception of you influence your own performance or choices. Pursue goals of your own choosing, whether in the workplace, at home, or on the moon. Don’t limit your aspirations. Because if you think about it, people that are so unimaginative that they have to place you into a “group” based on something as silly as gender, race, religion or anything else, are not the kind of people you want influencing your life anyway.

If you can’t get your hands on a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In but want to hear more from her, check out her TedTalk. In it, she discusses many of the main points that she later included in her book.

What was your reaction to the book? Did you wish that you could throw it at certain people in your office and make it mandatory reading? Like me, were you a little bit skeptical? Do you think that this conversation will ultimately help improve work and home environments for future generations of workers and families?