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!

I’m back!

That’s right, I’m back! After a 2+ year hiatus, I’m officially back to the book club. This time, I have experience as a Special Educator under my belt, a 6 month old stealing my reading time, and another baby on the way. With a growing family, reading is my sacred “me time”– I know all you parents can relate.

Now I’m writing from sunny Monterey, California. Well, sunny today at least. Monterey can get gray and cloudy during the winter months. But, we are loving it here and soaking in every moment that we get in this charming city. The book club has also scattered to new corners of the world. Check our map to see where we all are!

We’re also reading new books. Of course, we always love the classics but there are so many new titles out there for us to weigh in on. Check back soon to see our first review of the new and improved Home Book Club.

Last Minute Christmas

Every year, around this time, I find myself frantically rushing from store to store, searching for the perfect gift. Yes, I should have done it weeks ago. Yes, it would have been easier, less stressful, and probably less dangerous (some of these shoppers can be vicious!). But, I venture out into rain, sleet, snow- any kind of weather, really- in search of the gift that my friends and family will remember for years to come.

But, every year, around this time, I come home with a car load of sweaters, gloves, and even a few gift cards (gasp!) that aren’t even special enough for me, the buyer, to remember what they are. I end up with gifts that are so forgettable that if I mix up packages, I don’t sweat it. These gifts could be given to anyone! Even books, as much as we love them, just end up among shelves and shelves of other books, lost among Christmas gifts from years past. Let’s face it: in searching for the perfect gift, the one that really speaks to us, we usually end up just giving the same thing that the recipient would have bought themselves- and probably did. So on Christmas day, our gifts get an enthusiastic reception, we get a heartfelt thank you, and the whole affair gets promptly forgotten.

This year, I say we turn the table on traditional gift giving. If you are looking for a new kind of gift, give your friends and family something that they desperately need but probably won’t give to themselves. The kind of gift that makes a difference in every aspect of their lives. Give them the gift of permission.

Permission to indulge. Permission to forget about their to-do list, their errands, the pile of things waiting to be taken care of that we all have. Permission to take time, precious as it may be, for themselves. After all, they are precious, too.

Give the gift of permission!

Give the gift of permission!

And don’t forget to think of yourself this holiday season. Treat yourself to a break from the hustle and bustle. Take an afternoon, an evening, even a whole weekend to relax and catch up on the things that make your life so special. If you’ve forgotten about yourself this holiday season, don’t worry- we haven’t.

Happy Holidays to You

Don’t forget yourself!

So instead of braving the crowds at the mall to just end up with ho-hum gifts that will be forgotten before the wrapping paper even makes it to the recycle can, give your friends and family what they really want this holiday. Tell them it’s okay to take time for themselves, to indulge in the things that make them feel joyful, alive, and fulfilled. Better yet, show them by doing it yourself.

Happy Holidays from The Home Book Club! All of our very best wishes for a happy, healthy, and wonderful holiday season.

PDF Version available here: Happy Holidays from The Home Book Club

Stranded on a deserted island

Well, hopefully not. I’m leaving for a cruise today so for the next week or so, my view will look something like this…aug19-sunsetIn preparation for this trip, I’m packing bathing suits, towels, lots of sunscreen, and something to keep me entertained as I’m lounging on the deck, taking in the sunset.

Which got me thinking… what books would I want if I got stranded on an island somewhere along this trip? Here’s the list that I came up with:

The Little PrinceThe Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (Because no book has ever made me feel so positive about life in general, which I think I would need if I was stranded on a deserted island.)

11The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (The actual guide, since it has every answer that you may want to know. Oh, that’s fictional? Well, I guess Douglas Adams’ book would be pretty good, too.)

treasure-islandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (I would definitely be channeling my inner Jim Hawkins. Plus, finding gold and having a parrot wouldn’t be so bad.)

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (If I’m stuck on a deserted island, I’d better be stuck on it with Rhett Butler. I’m not sure if it really qualifies as “stuck” at that point.)


What books would you take to a deserted island?

Let’s Read in October!

“Once upon a midnight dreary,” we decided to begin October with a reading list full of mayhem and a monster that “alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.” We’ll fill our month with accounts of “terrors of the night, phantoms of the night that walk in darkness” and those fantastic things that are “most unlikely but– here comes the big ‘but’– not impossible.”

Join us all through October to discuss your favorite Halloween stories. Leave a comment anytime before October 25th and we’ll add your favorite Halloween book to the list, to discuss on October 31st.

October 8th- “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

October 11th- The Witches by Roald Dahl

October 17th- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

October 25th- The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

October 28th- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

October 31st- Happy Halloween! Let’s discuss your favorite ghost story!

Here’s a printable calendar to hang on your fridge, tuck into your nightstand, or keep in your office to remind you that October will be a month of spooky tricks and delicious literary treats. Happy Haunting, all you little ghouls!