Book Club: January // The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Happy 2015 folks!

Let’s kick off the new year in a literary fashion by checking out this month’s book club pick. I chose this month’s read (for the first time!) and it was “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Choosing a non-fiction book was an out of the norm choice for myself and the club so it was a bit of a shake up.

lacks cover

Summary

This book tells a story in the past and present of the massive effect cells taken from Henrietta Lacks had on the world of science. It all started in the “colored ward” of Johns Hopkins hospital back in the 1950s. When Henrietta was admitted for abdominal pain, it was discovered that she had a tumor growing on her cervix. A scrap was done on this area and cells were then taken to a laboratory in the hospital attempting to grow cells for research. What happened next changed the way science works even today. The cells began to multiply and couldn’t be stopped, a first in cell research. However, Henrietta was never informed of this and neither were her family, until they found out on their own decades later.

Opinion

Reading this book, it’s easy to develop opinions on the treatment of the African American community in the U.S. in the 1950’s, the questionable procedures of hospitals and even legislation surrounding people’s rights in relation to their bodies. It’s plain to see that the treatment of patients, specifically African American, was terribly dismal at the time. I can definitely say this book opened my mind to think about ideas I’d never considered before. The author brings to the story into today by showing similar cases of people with special conditions or molecular makeup being taken advantage for “scientific advancement” *cough cough* profit. According to information presented by the author, all the parts of our bodies, from the tiniest of cell collections to tumors and cysts and anything at all removed from our bodies are indeed, most likely, NOT thrown out with the rubbish but instead, filling up space in storage somewhere in the world. Um, excuse me? So someone has pieces of my body that they’re experimenting on without my knowledge?

Discussion

Here’s a collection of questions I took to the club to get the discussion rolling. CAUTION: If you haven’t read the book, this may give away some events.

1) Does the end – i.e., the immeasurable benefit to humankind resulting from those tissue samples – justify the means – i.e., removing tissue from a person without their consent or knowledge?

2)  Was it a good thing for the members of the Lacks family that the author wrote this book? Was this attempt different from previous attempts to write about the Lacks family and Henrietta in particular?

3) When the doctor of the patient, Mr. Moore, lied to him about the financial value of his cells, do you think the doctor behaved unethically, and the court should have ruled against him?

4) How realistic was the characterization, especially of Deborah and Zakariyya? Would you want to meet any of them? Did you like them?

5) How did you feel at the end when Clover was gone? Do you think this was an allegory for Henrietta’s family’s travails?

6) Discuss the medical breakthroughs from HeLa cells. Have your attitudes or ideas towards medical research changed in any way due to reading this book?

7) Consider Deborah’s comment on page 276: “Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.” Is it possible to approach history from an objective point of view? If so, how and why is this important, especially in the context of Henrietta’s story?

8) As much as this book is about Henrietta Lacks, it is also about Deborah learning of the mother she barely knew, while also finding out the truth about her sister, Elsie. Imagine discovering similar information about one of your family members. How would you react? What questions would you ask?

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