Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot

Top 3 words:

  • Dramatic
  • Informative
  • Insightful

Cancer cells thrive for 60+ years after the unknowing donor dies; epic ensues.

For the most part, I happily listened to this audiobook. Caution: The story will get under your skin. From the moment we first meet Henrietta to the end of the book, you just want to banish all the people in the world who make others miserable. Skloot’s journalistic writing style amply portrays the many sides to this incredible story, including her own personal journey. I found the first half more interesting than the second; the former has more biology than politics and reads more like a novel.

Two particularly memorable (and horrible) moments from the book were:

a) Henrietta’s descriptive autopsy and reaction from the assistant performing it, and

b) finding out what tests Henrietta’s first daughter, Elsie, went through at the asylum that ultimately must have killed her.

There were enjoyable moments at times, like with the painting of the cells and Deborah finally learning the truth about her mother. Overall, it is a depressing, unforgettable life story that the majority of North Americans need to read — to learn more about the world-wide impact of this sequence of events and, ultimately, to recognize that our actions (or inactions) will always have consequences.

Favourite Quote:
“Whatever you do, don’t call him Joe,” Deborah told me. “A friend of Lawrence’s call’ him ‘Joe’ one Thanksgiving and Zachariah knocked that man right into his mash’ potatoes.”

Questions to Ask:
1. What was the most memorable quote for you?
2. HeLa cells helped introduce the era of consent forms in medical capacities. Do you think Henrietta would have signed a form had one existed?
3. Henrietta was not asked permission to share her cells or her explicit medical history with the world, yet both are now freely available. Which is the lesser of the two evils?


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