When Longwood University announced its freshman reading selection was The Immortal Case of Henrietta Lacks, I had countless people tell me how much they enjoyed the book. Add those reviews to the many reading groups and other universities that have selected this book for discussion, and the individuals that made this a top-selling book, and you have quite a popular text! But why? Why have so many people liked Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?
In many ways, it’s a depressing and difficult story. At the end, Henrietta Lacks is dead and we know she suffered greatly. Deborah is dead. The Lacks family is still not earning any of the proceeds from HeLa. Further, we spend a lot of time learning about the horrible effects of racism. Henrietta Lacks’s story reminds us that science and medicine are not always neutral. They are not colorblind. Doctors and scientists sometimes take unethical actions in the name of progress, and those actions often disproportionately affect racial minorities, such as in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, when doctors left syphilis untreated in black men so they could study the disease’s effects. So we learn a lot about the evil that men do, and that’s tough to face. Finally, the narrative forces us to re-consider many cherished beliefs. For example, we often think of ourselves as unique persons, with body and mind seamlessly melded into one whole. But the debate over the right to use and distribute the HeLa cells forces us to ask where the body ends and begins. When are tissues no longer “us”? What does it mean to be human, and how do we understand our identity as a person? With all this pain, why do so many find the story compelling?
I think one reason so many people like this book is that it’s a typical “American” story – opposites overcome their differences, learn to trust one another and work together, and find common ground. It’s the story of the Fox and the Hound, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek and pre-ogre Fiona, or most action hero films of the last 30 years. In this case, it’s Rebecca and Deborah. The story, at its heart, offers a racial narrative we want to see – overcoming racism through individual friendship so a woman can find her voice. And it REALLY HAPPENED! It’s true!
Why do we want to read this story and understand race relations in this way? I think we want to believe in a post-racial future – after all, we elected a black President, right? But that statement is more complex than we sometimes let on — after all, President Obama is racially mixed. Similarly, the story of Henrietta, Deborah, and Rebecca is complicated. These women do create an integrated friendship, but they must first struggle and fight and pay for the right to have their voices heard. It takes work to make these relationships bear fruit, and many of us want the payoff without that struggle.
And that’s why I got so interested in how Rebecca Skloot told her story. The narrative structure works because it’s connected to the ideals that draw people to the story. Rebecca Skloot highlights her path into the subject as she also tells us about the subject itself – she makes clear her position as an observer, which makes her more credible and allows her to remind us that there is no neutrality here. By taking us on her journey of discovery, she makes us participants in the search for truth. Thus, we can be more sympathetic with Deborah’s struggles and with the family’s varied positions on how to approach Rebecca and her research into the Lacks family. Skloot seems to suggest that her relationship with the Lacks family represents the path forward, where racial differences can be recognized but individuals can work to see past preconceived notions and find truth. Our goal at Longwood is similar, but this book shows us we have some work to do ourselves.