The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Analysis
by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Analysis

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...

(The entire section is 829 words.)