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Arts and Culture

Tony Platt on Rebecca Skloot’s Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Posted on Apr 9, 2010
book cover

By Tony Platt

(Page 2)

Some of the personal revelations about the Lackses are relevant to the book’s purpose. Skloot provides vivid descriptions of the family’s initial suspicion of her motives and locates their resistance to her investigation in the long history of academic and scientific abuse of African-Americans. Similarly, she effectively makes her case for the endemic hypocrisy of the United States by contrasting the widespread and profitable use of HeLa with the enduring health problems of the Lacks family and their chronic medical indebtedness. Henrietta’s husband gets paid off a humiliating $12,000 by Bethlehem Steel for a lifetime of asbestos-related illnesses acquired on the job; three of her children suffer from tuberculosis; and Deborah is endlessly sick. “If our mother so important to science,” says one of Henrietta’s sons, “why can’t we get health insurance?” 

But why do we need to know about Henrietta’s unhappy sex life, vaginal bleeding, gonorrhea and the tumors that invaded her bladder and lungs? Or that her father was a “squat man” who beat people with his cane? Or that she started having sex with (and later married) her cousin when she was barely a teen? Or that one of her children died in a state institution after weeks of “self-induced vomiting”? Or that after her death, her children were virtually imprisoned by an abusive relative who starved them and “beat them all bloody”? Or that one of her children “grew into the meanest, angriest child,” did time for stabbing a man to death, and later in life “smashed a forty-ounce beer bottle over a woman’s back and pushed her through a plate-glass window”? Or that Deborah’s cousins tried to “have their way” with her; that Deborah was molested and beaten by her guardian’s husband, then abused by the first husband, and mistreated by her second; that a son was jailed for robbing liquor stores; and that she took 14 pills a day as her illnesses mounted, and died impoverished? How do these selective facts—reported as examples of individual pathology rather than social injustice—contribute to the book’s argument?

 

book cover

 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 

By Rebecca Skloot

 

Crown, 384 pages

 

Buy the book

Skloot tries to present this pandering to voyeurism and schadenfreude as an argument for plucky resistance. She resorts to an Oprah-like truism about black women as indestructible, making over Deborah into “one of the strongest and most resilient women I’d ever known.” But we are told very little about this process of survival and redemption, and the knee-jerk assertion of agency is sentimentally wishful rather than persuasive. There is nothing uplifting about watching a woman take a literal and metaphorical beating.

If Skloot is interested in addressing the structural roots of the racism, inequality, sexism, imprisonment and ill health that devastate black communities, she should look for social rather than individual solutions, and work with the Lacks family’s community to organize itself into an effective campaign for justice for Henrietta. It’s a start that the author helped Deborah to find out what happened to her institutionalized and abandoned sister; that she shared some of her research with the family; and that she has established a scholarship fund out of the profits of her book for Henrietta’s descendants.

These well-meaning but safe gestures are echoed in the book’s last chapter, in which Skloot skillfully lays out the “complicated” policy issues but ducks taking positions on them. Should the medical profession be required to get informed consent if a patient’s tissues are likely to be used in research? Should patients receive economic benefit from parts of their body that are used for profit? Should Johns Hopkins University take responsibility for how it exploited its patients’ ignorance and practiced Jim Crow health care in the liberal North?

“Like it or not,” concludes Skloot, “we live in a market-driven society, and science is part of that market.” Unfortunately, Deborah, who died before this book was published, is not around to say, in her own dialect of course, what she thinks about her friend Rebecca sitting on the fence and airing her family’s dirt in public. I don’t think she’d like it.

Tony Platt is the author of numerous books, including “E. Franklin Frazier Reconsidered,” published by Rutgers University Press. He is now working on a book for Heyday Books about the excavation and looting of Native American graves during the 20th century. His blog on history and memory is posted at http://GoodToGo.typepad.com.


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By lolly, April 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment

Insightful review, and I couldn’t agree more.  Ms. Skloot’s book, while on a truly fascinating topic, and at some points excellently written, continues the objectification of the Lacks family by refusing to acknowledge herself as a “character” in the story.  Certainly, she’s in there, but her self-portrayal seems dishonest in a way, one-sided, as if there were only one way to interpret the story.  You put it well, voyeuristic.  By absenting herself, she undermines her credibility, does not acknowledge the fact that she does have opinions (we hope/presume) about the issues she presents, and that those issues do color her writing.  Typical assumption of “benevolent outsider,” and completely disingenuous.

I DO recommend this book, but would love to have seen Skloot go further, and, in some places, not as far.

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By Uraniabce, April 15, 2010 at 9:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have just finished this amazing book, and, with all due respect to Mr. Platt, one of the purposes of the book was to serve as a biography of Henrietta Lacks. Hers was not a happy life, and there were many reasons for that. The inequality and discrimination African Americans faced then and now, in matters of jobs, education, health care, and opportunities were very much a part of that. Ms. Skloot presents the raw, brutal facts of both Ms. Lacks and her daughters life to demonstrate how those forces shaped her families’ reaction to the knowledge of Henrietta’s “immortality”. As a white woman, born and raised in Canada, I found those passages revelatory, not prurient. This is how these people lived and live, and if you find those facts make uncomfortable reading, that just might be by design, not accident.

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McTN's avatar

By McTN, April 11, 2010 at 12:26 pm Link to this comment

Sounds to me that the author lacked an editor who fully understood the project and could have guided Skloots to produce a better book. The profile of Henrietta through her dirty laundry must be the author’s clumsy way of injecting an inequality theme in the book.  She could have benefited from a co-authorship with a civil rights or african american historian to enrich the book beyond her training.

Editors are there to make suggestions that improve the work.  Most writers need them.

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By grumpynyker, April 11, 2010 at 7:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why don’t you fake liberals/leftists (aka soft racists)
track down Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid:
The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black
Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

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By marcus medler, April 10, 2010 at 2:14 pm Link to this comment

The primary pathology I get from this review
(infer the book) is America’s. The pervasive,
over riding inequality that is woven deep within
all aspects of American society are too much
for most to handle. At least, we can view from a
biographical lens the social malaise caused by
racism and poverty. I agree with the reviewer
that a personalization, despite the drama,
deflects from the social truth that causes and
allows the mess. I often think it is the,“promise”
of heaven that acts as the magma chamber for
our social, collective pathology.

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By berniem, April 10, 2010 at 12:37 pm Link to this comment

Other than some flowery words and legislation purportedly to correct generations of bigotry and self-serving “christian” values, has anything really changed in this greed driven, me first country? I think not!

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, April 10, 2010 at 5:01 am Link to this comment

“Tony Platt on Rebecca Skloot’s Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Why am I not surprised that I am the only responder to this world-historically consequential post?

Call me a benighted rube, but all I can say is, Who? Who? and Who?

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