portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is both a biography and a book about how the practice of medical science can have the unintended effect of dehumanizing people. (In the United States, this has occurred disproportionately to Black people). It is also a book that tries to undo that work—to turn a line of cells back into a person, to turn HeLa back into Henrietta Lacks. And, finally, it is also a book about the relationship between the book’s subject, Henrietta Lacks, and the book’s author, Rebecca Skloot. The book, then, seeks to critique an institution, to undo a harm, and to document a relationship, all in a single volume. In this way, Skloot’s book initiates a kind of social transformation built on new relationships between its readers and who have been dehumanized by society’s institutions.

The very significance of HeLa cells is, in large part, what leads to the dehumanization of Henrietta Lacks. Insofar as the total mass of these cells vastly exceeds the amount of matter that was ever in Henrietta’s body, there are now more of them than there ever was of her. This difference in physical mass is paralleled by a difference in verbiage: science textbooks, medical research articles, and works on the history and philosophy of science speak ad nauseam about the cells. Yet, before Skloot’s book was published, virtually no one spoke about Henrietta Lacks in these forums. The total effect of both this mass of cells—and the mass of words about them—is that Henrietta was obscured. Where once there was a woman, now there is a specimen, an object that can be made available for whatever purposes medical and scientific researchers (and the governments and corporations they work for) see fit. Henrietta is made to stand ready, to be available to serve the purposes of others.

One of the premises of Skloot’s book is that Henrietta’s “immortality” is a metaphor for the enslavement and diminishment of Black Americans. Like Henrietta’s ongoing scientific utility, slavery depends on the reduction of a person to an object that exists only to serve the ends of others. Skloot underscores this connection by tracing Henrietta’s lineage, showing that many of her direct ancestors were slaves. In light of this, Henrietta’s race and gender are no mere accident. As the books suggests, the long-standing diminishment of Black Americans dictates that Black people—and particularly Black women—are disproportionately likely to be exploited by medical science.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, however, does more than offer a distanced critique of Henrietta’s dehumanization. Every detail of the book, from its preservation of its subjects’ speech patterns to the personal, conversational style in which it is written, works to actively undo the displacement of Henrietta by HeLa. Probably the most important feature of the book in this regard is its genre. Skloot could easily have written a book of critical theory about the way that medical science reduces people to disposable flesh and how this process is in certain ways reflective of slavery. Instead, she chose to write a biography and center the narrative around Henrietta. Skloot tells her readers that Henrietta was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920; during World War II, she and her family moved north to Baltimore County so that her husband could work in the steel industry. She presents Henrietta as a wife and a mother, offering details about her daily life. Skloot breaks the silence about Henrietta the person that has been so pervasive in the literature about HeLa. This is reparative work. It seeks to undo some of the damage done by the practice of medical science.

Even biography, however, can have the effect of dehumanizing its subject. Names, dates, occupations, and other such information can keep the subject at an impersonal distance. To close this distance, Skloot doesn’t only give her readers information about Henrietta Lacks. She also presents her own evolving relationship to her subject, tracing her own exploration of Henrietta’s story. She tells her readers how she got to know Henrietta. Skloot notes how, through meeting Henrietta’s family and studying the historical traces she left behind, Henrietta transformed in her mind from anonymous picture on a wall into someone she knew quite well, even though they never met. All of the book’s biographical details—as well as its discussion of Henrietta’s dehumanization by the medical establishment—are placed in the context of the author’s own life, of Skloot’s own investigative journey.

In accompanying Skloot in her discoveries through, readers are invited to enter a new relationship with Henrietta Lacks. Those who have thought of HeLa as merely a line of cells are now invited to relate to Henrietta Lacks as a person. In guiding readers through the process of getting to know Henrietta Lacks, a process of rehumanization, Skloot’s book offers the promise of a broader social transformation.

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