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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Corrie Martin - Director, Women's Resource Center

Corrie Martin
Director, Women's Resource Center

I have to begin this recommendation of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by mentioning a different book. Every few years I re-read philosopher Hannah Arendt's classic, Eichmann in Jerusalem (her first-hand report of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann who, as "head of the department of Jewish Affairs," oversaw the transportation and disposal of millions of people in extermination camps, and in which she coined the chilling phrase, the "banality of evil.")  There are many reasons to re-read that book: beautiful, complex writing; rich historical detail; as an example of how significant journalism can be when the writer is also a philosopher; as an example of a courage (Arendt was heavily criticized at the time for her reflections and truth-telling, particularly about failures in moral responsibility by Jewish leadership during the Holocaust, as well for questioning the ethicality of the new state of Israel kidnapping Eichmann and taking him out of Argentina for trial.)

Now, there are a lot of incredibly good books out there (something like one million new titles are published every year now, fortunately most can be given the cold shoulder) so a book has to be something really, really special to be worth re-reading even once. It turns out that I have a short list of works that, seemingly out of the blue, will suddenly pop into my consciousness and not let me alone until I have scoured the bookshelves at home for them (ah, if only someone would organize our shelves properly!) and it has made me its happy prisoner again for awhile. Arendt's is one of these books; it was THE book that taught me fundamental lessons about what it means to be human (her philosophical treatise, The Human Condition, does that as well, but it isn't as compelling a re-read.) More specifically, this book teaches you about the consequences of becoming detached from our human-ness, about what happens as we build a society, live lives that are more and more remote from reality and create conditions that allow us all to be able to not think what we are doing to each other, to others, to fellow humans.  

Skloot's Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also one of these rare, gripping books, like Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, that needs to be re-read, and re-read, and re-read, to remind us of the consequences of the "banality of evil," the consequence of, in Arendt's words, "the inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else."  Skloot's account puts the irreducible human-ness of Henrietta Lacks and her family, and of the history of medical experimentation on African Americans, the poor, and women, back into the story of how scientists-in the name of scientific progress-harvested cervical cells from a dying Henrietta and launched a medical revolution with them without her or her family's knowledge. If not for Skloot's sleuthing and telling, HeLa cells, as Henrietta's cell line would come to be labeled world-wide, would have remained just that-anonymous biological material to be bought, sold, used, multiplied, without a thought to the human being they once belonged to...

Rebecca Skloot will be speaking about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m.
in Grace Covell Hall. Click here for more information.