The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: An ethical look at an unethical story.


ImageA book report by Pendarvis Harshaw.

The subject matter: An African American woman whose cells have influenced the world over, and are the basis for most modern medicines; yet few know her story.

The subjectivity: a writer who is unashamed to identify herself, her background, and her stance on the subject at hand.

The substance: a story that brings together modern medicine, racism, sexism and gives more evidence to just how deeply these forms of discrimination are rooted in our society.

Rebecca Skloot received court records, she dug up health records… and she even got family records– which traced the lineage of one African American family back to its enslaved ancestors. There are laws that impede a journalist from obtaining health records; it’s not unheard of for those barriers to be crossed. But getting records on the family of enslaved individuals almost defies the laws of physics. It’s hard enough for African Americans to contact relatives and develop a comprehensive picture of their family tree; I’m amazed that a white woman from Oregon would be able to do so, so vividly.

Skloot is a journalist with a knack for science; a woman who heard about Henrietta Lacks cells as a youth, and has been chasing that unicorn ever since.

The unicorn, as my classmates at UC Berkeley’s Journalism school have defined it, is the perfect story.

In chasing down the unicorn, she succeeded. She left voicemails and went on wild goose chases that left her stranded in random parts of Baltimore, and she overcame. In not having access to the family, medical records, and little help from the snide doctors who were elderly and succumbing to diseases many of them worked to cure, she respectfully persevered.

She came out with a great story; she captured the unicorn.

The unicorn is the perfect story: the drama, the universal appeal, the characters and the resources to actually tell the story.

Although, in some senses, the unicorn had already been captured. Science articles, a Rolling Stone Piece, and a BBC documentary are just three of the many outlets that covered the HeLa story; so what makes Skloot’s tale any different?

Maybe it was the fact that it wasn’t the HeLa story, as much as it was the Henrietta Lacks story. The story of a woman who birthed five children, maintained pristine red toenail paint, and had few photos aside from the iconic one of her standing with her hands on her hips. Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who fell victim to medical malpractice, and in turn rose to post-mortem medical infamy.

It’s an ethical look at one of the most unethical stories the world should have heard of, but still I question some of the ethics of the reporter.

I’d be gullible if I didn’t question her quotes and her details. The verbatim dialog, back and forth between her and her interview subjects, the type of sandwich the laboratory assistant ate on the day the cells first came into the lab. As a practicing journalist, I question how she could manage to remember all of these details from the first encounter with people—or was she rolling up to the scene with the audio recorder rolling and journalist notepad in hand? Was she walking into old Southern Black folks’ houses with a machine in their face, documenting their every last breath?

Her details are immaculate. They add the color need to carry a science story into the hearts of those concerned with the human story. But as a journalist, the first rule is to question everything—susceptibility is for suckers.

In the end, I have to appreciate a book this well researched. I’d love to see (not look through nor fact check, merely see the presentation/ organization of) her notes. I’d like to hear her talk about her relentless approach in contacting the family. I’d like to interview Skloot about the financial cliff she walked out on to fund the traveling, lodging and the entire book project by way of her student loans and credit cards.

I’d like to know what she’s working on next.

To think, the story of Henrietta Lacks brought together the plight of Baltimore, the cure for Polio, health insurance, the movie Jurassic Park, A famed Rolling Stone writer who lost his house in the firestorm in the Oakland Hills, The Nazi experiments, the Tuskegee experiments, and a lot of the issues that are currently debated during discussions about Medicicare/ Medicaid in Washington DC.

She did it subjectively. Never leaving out the fact that she was a woman, a white woman, a white woman who was out to advocate for the story of Henrietta Lacks, and her family. And although this is Henrietta Lacks’ story, it is told by Rebecca Skloot, and this is her (well researched) perspective on Henrietta’s life.