structure – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

OK. I love this book. For this second read, I’m going to focus more on the structure. During my first read, I loved the interweaving of cell-story and Henrietta-story. And I liked the non-chronological approach. The book is generally chronological — that is, it follows the chronology of Skloot’s search — from the time in the community college classroom when her biology teacher, Donald Defler, introduced HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks — to the end, which I’m not going to reveal, because we’re only reading Part 1: Life for this week. I love this section on page 4:

“HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” Defler said.

Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, “She was a black woman.” He erased her name in one last swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over.

It’s the erasure of Henrietta Lacks’ name and the blowing of the chalk — and that puff of chalk, that erasure stuck with Skloot. The book is a journey to undo erasure by following puffs of chalk.

Another favorite paragraph from the first pages is the third to the last one in the Prologue: The Woman in the Photograph, the one that starts, “Deborah and I came from very different cultures” (7). So succinct and rich and revealing. The last paragraph of the prologue:

The Lackses challenged everything I thought about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family — particularly Deborah — and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

And there are those characters I keep wishing for.

So, structure: Prologue — sets up this twin strand, the stories of HeLa cells and the story of the Lackses. Let me revise that — there’s a triple strand at least. And the third part is the story of Skloot’s search.

Deborah’s Voice – an italized one-page piece all in Deborah’s voice that sits between the prologue and chapter 1. I admire and am grateful for this reverence. Deborah’s voice is apart, a powerful solo — rightfully so. If anybody belongs to this book, it’s Deborah.

Chapter 1 – 1951 – starts with Henrietta Lacks’ exam at Johns Hopkins. Story of Henrietta’s worry about the knot on her cervix, details of Johns Hopkins in the 50s, excerpt from Henrietta’s medical record, which stands as a biographical snapshot. Describes difficulties of health care, child care. And the rapid growth of Henrietta’s cervical tumor.

Chapter 2 – 1920-1942 – details Henrietta’s childhood and history, tobacco farming, relationship with David Lacks, or Day. Great descriptions of children’s life on the tobacco farm in Virginia, taking tobacco to sell. Hardships of farming. Move to Baltimore and the steel mills.

Chapter 3 – 1951 – Back to diagnosis, discussion of cervical cancer and Richard Wesley TeLinde, Howard Jones’ boss — Jones was the gynecologist who examined Henrietta when she went to Hopkins. That TeLinde was “one of the top cervical cancer experts in the country” (17) makes for some intriguing serendipity. Fascinating discussion of state of cervical cancer research — that TeLinde gets laughed off the stage at a meeting for pathologists when he proposes that invasive cervical cancers begin as carcinoma in situ — hard to believe. Difficult also to fathom that Pap smears have only been around since 1941, when George Papanicolaou developed the procedure. Even more astounding is that Henrietta’s cervical cancer is treated with radium — tubes and plaques placed in and outside her cervix. I like the cliffhangers — there’s one on p. 30: “And TeLinde began collecting samples from any woman who happened to walk into Hopkins with cervical cancer. Including Henrietta.” And on p. 33, the end of the chapter: “They were sure Henrietta’s cells would die just like all the others.” Introduction of George Gey, his wife Margaret, and their lab — who had “spent the last three decades working to grow malignant cells outside the body, hoping to use them to find cancer’s cause and cure” (30).

Chapter 4 – 1951 – Another zinger at the end: “Soon, George told a few of his closest colleagues that he thought his lab might have grown the first immortal human cells.

To which they replied, Can I have some? And George said yes.” Thus starts the journey of HeLa cells. This chapter shines with Skloot’s ability to give us a character — and we’ve got that with George Gey. Love the descriptions and anecdotes, and the combined power of Margaret, the former surgical nurse and inventor of techniques such as the Gey Chicken Bleeding Technique, and the vibrant George with his ability to build anything and to invent the roller-tube culturing technique. This chapter also details the challenges of making a culture to grow cells. Mary’s ennui — these cells will never grow — offers a great foil for the end of the chapter, when Henrietta’s cancerous cells were “accumulating by the millions” (41).

Chapter 5 – 1951 – Great description of Henrietta (Hennie) on p. 43. Details how Henrietta feels after treatments, going dancing with Sadie, then more treatments and feeling worse. Contrary to practice of letting women know that radium treatments would leave them sterile, Henrietta was not told — says she would have refused treatment.

Chapter 6 – 1999 – Back to the third strand — Skloot’s search for the story. Starts with her 27th birthday and finding out about The HeLa Cancer Control Symposium at Morehouse and getting in touch with the conference organizer, “Roland Patillo, a professor of gynecology at Morehouse who’d been one of George Gey’s only African-American students” (49). Patillo is the first gatekeeper, and I like him a lot. As Skloot says, he grills her for three days before he gives her Deborah’s phone number — he tests Skloot’s knowledge about racism and medicine.

Chapter 6 – 1999 – First phone call to Deborah. Second phone call that ends with this zinger: “I wouldn’t hear her voice again for nearly a year” (54). Great story about how Skloot tries to get in touch with family. I like the last sentence — Skloot finally speaks with David Lacks: “‘Well, so let my old lady cells talk to you and leave me alone,’ he snapped. ‘I had enough ‘a you people.’ Then he hung up” (55).

Chapter 7 – 1951 – State of cell research. Starts with George Gey’s only televised interview, in which he does not mention Henrietta’s name. States that live cells had never been mailed, but George Gey begins sending them anywhere cancer researchers wanted them. Skloot does a masterful job of detailing the public’s skepticism about cell tissue cultures through the story of Alexis Carrell, “a French surgeon at the Rockefeller Center,” who grew an “immortal chicken heart” (58). Carrell turns out to be a whacked-out eugenicist, racist extraordinaire. Brilliant description of his lab as a negative of a Ku Klux Klan meeting : lab technicians in black robes and hoods because Carrell believed wrongly that light killed cells. Last paragraph is great:

Either way, by 1951, when Henrietta Lacks’s cells began growing in the Gey lab — just five years after the widely publicized “death” of Carrell’s chicken heart — the public image of immortal cells was tarnished. Tissue culture was the stuff of racism, creepy science fiction, Nazis, and snake oil. It wasn’t something to be celebrate. In fact, no one paid much attention to it at all. (62)

Chapter 8 – 1951 – Chronicles rapid spread of tumors, horrific pain, continued radiation, and Henrietta finally asking to stay in the hospital. No pain killers worked. David and children visited at first, but Henrietta was too upset by the visit. End of chapter states that George Gey never met Henrietta, but Skloot quotes one colleague of Gey’s, who said Gey visited Henrietta: “George told me he leaned over Henrietta’s bed and said, ‘Your cells will make you immortal'” (66).

Chapter 9 – 1999 – Back to Skloot’s search. She goes to Turner Point. Finds Courtney Speed. Great descriptions of Speed on pages 71-72. Speed takes her to the library, gets a tape, takes Skloot to her beauty shop and tells her to watch the tape. It’s a BBC documentary Skloot had been trying to get. She finally reaches Sonny, the person she was supposed to meet, and Sonny says he has decided against talking to her. Wishes her luck if she wants to go meet relatives in Clover.

Chapter 10 – 1999 – Skloot goes to Clover. Excellent descriptions of town and Lacks Town. Skloot meets a first cousin, Hector Henry, or Cootie. He invites Skloot in and talks about Henrietta and spirits.

Chapter 11 – 1951 – 4 October 1951, 12:15am, Henrietta dies. Chapter discusses eight young men who drop work and go to Baltimore to give blood. Horrific pain. Not any easy chapter to read.

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One response to “structure – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. My name is Karen Stewart and I am a student at Portland Community College who is currently writing an essay on tisssue rights for one of my classes. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book we were required to read and one I will never forget. This is a book everyone should read. I can’t put into word what I feel after reading this book, just that I am glad it was part of my education. “truly an amazing book”.
    Thank you
    Karen L. Stewart

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