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Critical Review

Critical Review

As Rebecca Skloot’s first book, she did an excellent job describing the significance of the title of her story and how it played a role on each one of her characters lives. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks not only is an overview of Henrietta Lacks’ background, but Rebecca’s journey to obtaining all the knowledge she now knows. When she first became interested in researching the story behind the woman whose cells were taken without permission, she was in her high school biology classroom. She first learned about the HeLa cells thirty-seven years after Henrietta’s death. The idea that this woman got barely any credit surprised Rebecca, because, after all it was her cells scientists took to advance the medical field. When Rebecca began to research Henrietta Lacks and her family on her first computer, she wanted to keep learning more. She wrote her book to explain to the world not only the science behind the HeLa cells but to show who Henrietta Lacks was and how she has impacted the world so greatly. 


The story about the 31 year-old female, African tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks  is a story that should be heard world wide. In 1951 she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and as doctors performed biopsies, they cut tissue from her cervix and sent the cells to George Gey, a scientist hoping to discover immortal cells. Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa, reproduced billions of cells in seconds. Thrilled, George Gey sent the cells to other scientists hoping someone would accomplish his lifetime dream of finding a cure for cancer. Twenty years later, a member of Henrietta’s family discovers that her mother-in-law’s cells are being bought and sold for hundreds of dollars per vial. This causes a problem for the Lackses because they are so poor they cannot even afford health insurance. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells an exciting story about ethics, race, medicine, faith, and healing.  


It is impossible for me to say negative things about this book because it was so well written. Rebecca Skloot involves each character at the perfect moment and does not travel in chronological order. She portrays each character exactly as they are in real life and does not add any “sugar-coating” to the truth.  When discussing the science, she narrates it so the reader has no trouble understanding. Her language plays a key role in the success of her book because she properly takes on the point of view from each character. She uses imagery on every page, drawing a picture into the readers mind of what is taking place. Each time a new character is introduced she provides figurative language to assist the reader in picturing the character in real life. Rebecca also does a wonderful job providing symbols to guide the reader in understanding her purpose of writing the book. She constantly brings up the Bible because the Lacks family is very religious. For instance, when Deborah was going through traumatic stages that gave her anxiety and hives, her cousin Gary preaches to the Lord to “lift the burden of them cells” (293).


Rebecca Skloot uses Deborah, as the book’s driving force. Skloot joins her in her lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of the HeLa cells, and the science that made them possible. Skloot includes major themes throughout the story such as hardship, medical ethics, poverty, race, and lack of privacy that empower the significance of the characters and their history. Each theme can easily be connected to by any reader. The ethical issues presented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provide an introduction to exploring the history of ethics in science research in the US, as well as thoroughly exploring people’s prejudices and perceptions of science and scientists.


Additionally, instead of continuously talking about the science behind it all, she includes chapters in between about Deborah’s life as a child being sexually abused by her uncle, and growing up without a mother. Not only is Henrietta’s life summarizes in the story, but Deborah’s as well. Rebecca does a wonderful job depicting specific details from Deborah’s life that contribute to her mother’s cells and the discoveries they have made.  Throughout the story she switches from chapter to chapter discussing different topics. Every other chapter is about the science and then the chapters in between are about the Lacks’ history which eventually leads into present day with Deborah.


Rebecca Skloot describes every experience she has with Deborah with such precise detail that it makes the story more interesting to read. Rebecca begins the novel with, “without realizing it, I’d become a character in [Deborah’s] story, and she in mine” (7). She includes personal moments such as the time Deborah asked her to keep a word out of the book, or the time when Rebecca first lost her temper with Deborah when Deborah suddenly snapped at her and accused her of working for Hopkins. Rebecca also includes details that maybe totally off topic but are a good addition to the story. For instance, she talks about Deborah driving: “[bouncing] in the seat of her car, gospel music blaring so loud” (277) and about Rebecca staying up late to finally study Henrietta’s medical papers that Deborah at last handed over. Or when Deborah forces Rebecca to watch all her favorite movies in a row, it’s easy to see that Rebecca dedicated a lot of her time into getting to know Deborah, in order to discover more about Henrietta Lacks and the Lacks’ family background.


In Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we see hardship, lack of confidentiality, racism, and medical ethics mixed with some faith and positive attitudes. The reader can easily figure out that Rebecca's purpose of writing the book was to show the world who Henrietta was and how she changed the world when she already had left it. 

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