Henrietta Lacks is a woman whose cancer cells have been mass-produced with no monetary benefit to her heirs; the author, Rebecca Skloot, appears as a character who is so taken with the Lacks story that she writes a book about it. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is part biology lesson, part memoir, part sociological study, and part bioethics.
But it’s also a genre-bending story that extends beyond its covers. In fact, if you haven’t fanned or followed the author, Rebecca Skloot, then you’re already missing out on one level of the ongoing narrative.
To date, Skloot has 1,943 Facebook friends, of which I am one (disclaimer: we have never met, but we did exchange a couple of brief emails about a year ago when she was looking for a science writer to take her place at a conference). As one of her digital friends, I’ve enjoyed reading Skloot’s gleeful and wacky updates detailing the tiny joys that come with a first book: the arrival of the galley, the selection of the author photo, the first review. It’s a story of terrific, starry-eyed success, something like a Nora Ephron plot told through tweets and status updates. As a recent example, here’s a post that Skloot made following the appearance of a gushing review in the New York Times:
“Rebecca Skloot is absolutely FLOORED by this incredible review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in today’s New York Times. May actually pass out from reading it.”
Before its publication date, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks already had about a dozen 5-star reviews on Amazon, and so far, I haven’t read a single negative word about the book. It’s such a pitch-perfect publicity campaign that I’ve found myself wondering about the ongoing plot of Skloot’s life. Will she pull off the manic book tour okay? Can she ever go back to teaching after this? What does her father–who is also a writer–think about her sudden success?
After reading Skloot’s messages for a year, it’s a curious experience to open a book where she plays a starring role.
Unlike her Facebook posts, Skloot employs an unornamented, direct style in Immortal Life, but each word is weighted with an impressive–even alarming–depth of research. For example, Skloot went so far as to reveal that Henrietta Lacks discovered her cervical cancer by probing her body in a warm bath some sixty years ago (yes, a writer might expose your bathroom habits to the world someday). These and myriad other details bring the story into sharp focus, adding a tremendous richness to the characters and setting.
The story of Henrietta Lacks isn’t new, nor is the phenomenon of immortal cell lines (in which cells reproduce infinitely). But in Immortal Life, Skloot’s suggests that science is still bullying the poor and disenfranchised, and that there’s a gaping ethical hole that hasn’t been adequately addressed: are we entitled to control the smallest elements of our body? And should entities–like Johns Hopkins in Lacks’; case–be able to profit from our tissues without compensation or even our consent? As our understanding of our physiological make-up deepens, these questions and others make The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks relevant reading. Moreover, it’s a different kind of story, one that’s still spreading on Facebook, achieving its own kind of immortality in the process.
Michael Paul Mason is the author of ‘Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury & Its Aftermath,’ published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. His work appears in magazines and newspapers, including Discover, The Believer, and the New York Times. Learn more at michaepaulmason.com