Readers are usually drawn into contemporary nonfiction for one of two reasons: they are already interested in the subject matter, or they trust an author to introduce them to a subject matter so totally foreign that it becomes interesting by virtue of its strangeness. Some of the best works of creative nonfiction—including Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, or anything by John McPhee—follow this second course, illuminating surprising new worlds that most readers had never imagined. Such is the path of Memphis-based science writer Rebecca Skloot in her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
The book follows two principle story lines—one the biography of Henrietta Lacks, a virtually unknown, uneducated woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951; the other a scientific account of her still-living cells. Commonly known in biology circles as HeLa, these cells and the research they allow have directly affected much of the human race, including most people reading this review. Yet their source remained a mystery even to most researchers. For decades not even the children of Henrietta Lacks knew their mother lived on in thousands of labs around the world, and in medicines and treatments that have saved countless lives.
It is a rich world to explore, and Skloot, like Susan Orlean among the orchid fanatics before her, proves an ideal guide. For a nonfiction book on an esoteric subject to rise to the level of greatness, the author must become obsessed with the topic, with an enthusiasm that infects the reader. The most engrossing nonfiction narratives inevitably become autobiography, revealing as much about the author as about the author’s obscure subject. Skloot, who teaches writing at the University of Memphis, explains in her prologue that she was drawn to this story at the age of sixteen, when, as a high school student on the verge of dropping out, she took a community-college biology class taught by a professor who emphasized the medical importance of the HeLa cell line, and who was one of the rare academics who actually knew the cells came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. (Many references mistakenly cite the source as a “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson.”) Trillions upon trillions of HeLa cells have been used in developing everything from the polio vaccine to gene therapy to the first artificial human corneas. “Did you know our mother cells gonna be used to make Stevie Wonder see?” one of Lacks’s adult children mistakenly tells his sister after learning of the experiment.
Years after her biology class, as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburg in an M.F.A. program known for its emphasis on science and nonfiction writing, Skloot began to think about Henrietta Lacks, eventually calling Baltimore directory assistance to try to track down Henrietta’s husband. “I couldn’t have imagined it then,” she writes, “but that phone call would mark the beginning of a decades-long adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals and mental institutions, with a cast of characters that included Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist.”
The adventure eventually draws Skloot to Deborah Lacks, a surviving child of Henrietta who is at first understandably distant and distrustful: her mother essentially spawned a major medical industry without knowledge, consent, or compensation. (The cells were harvested only because Henrietta sought free treatment at Johns Hopkins University, where her doctor happened to be a leading expert in the midst of an intensive study of cancer cells.) As Skloot unwinds the complex relationships between Henrietta and her family, she also follows the scientists who seek to unwind Henrietta’s DNA, to understand why it survives in cell culture so much better than previous human cultures.
The cast of characters on both the scientific and biographical sides of the story is rich and complex, the plot twists often surprising. A helpful device in the design of the book is a timeline that runs atop each chapter header, stretching from the 1920s to the 2000s, with an arrow indicating when each chapter’s particular piece of the Henrietta Lacks puzzle will unravel. As with all good tales involving twin plots, the storylines ultimately converge, on May 25, 2001, when Skloot takes Deborah Lacks and her brother Zakariyya to Johns Hopkins, past the statue of Jesus where Henrietta had paused before receiving her diagnosis, to meet her mother’s living cells for the first time. At one point Deborah raises a vial of HeLa to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispers. “Just nobody knows it.” From this climatic moment the story follows Deborah toward an ending that provides, for what is at heart a science book, a rich sense of grace and humanity.
In November, Publisher’s Weekly ran a cover story with Skloot’s photo and the headline, “The Making of a Bestseller 2010.” The article described the book’s tortuous ten-year route to publication, shuffled among two publishers and four editors, and was accompanied by Skloot’s first-person account of her self-organized book tour. She admits that when people first hear about her book, their eyes tend to glaze over—a “great, a book about cells. But when I start telling the story of those cells,” she writes, “one of the most important tools in medicine, taken from a poor black woman without her knowledge, bought and sold by the millions while her family struggled to afford health insurance—that gets their attention.”
Today, as Skloot notes in an afterword, human cells are routinely taken for research purposes, without the knowledge or consent of the people they are taken from. Virtually anyone who has given a tissue sample for a lab test has contributed a portion of themselves that resides in storage somewhere, with the potential to become as immortal as Henrietta Lacks. The scientific, ethical, and commercial questions this practice raises have yet to be answered, a fact that may change as a result of the moving story Skloot so masterfully tells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.