The author, journalist Rebecca Skloot, describes the tattered photo of an African American woman that she has on her wall from the late 1940s. The author warns us, however, that the woman in the photograph doesn’t know that she has a tumor growing inside her body that will “leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine.” The photo is labeled, “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane, or Helen Larson.” The author relates that this picture has been used hundreds of times by scientists and teachers, even though they don’t even know her name. Instead, they refer to her as HeLa, the code given to cells from her cervix that became the world’s first immortal human cell line.
By opening with a description of the ambiguously-named photograph of Henrietta, rather than Henrietta herself, Skloot immediately establishes the mystery surrounding Henrietta Lacks’ identity. The brief mention of “HeLa,” meanwhile, illustrates the way in which the cells taken from Henrietta’s body havealmost erased who Henrietta was as a person. The rest of the book will chronicle Skloot’s quest to reverse this process, defining Henrietta as a person rather than just a collection of cells.
Rebecca describes staring at this photo, wondering about Henrietta and her family, and contemplating how Henrietta would feel about cells from her cervix being “bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions” all over the world in the name of scientific progress. Rebecca recounts how these cells have gone to the moon, and have contributed to dozens of scientific advances. She explains that one scientists estimates that all the Henrietta cells ever grown would weigh more than 50 million metric tons, and that if they were ever wrapped end-to-end, they would go around the Earth over three times.
Readers immediately learn how obsessed Skloot is with discovering Henrietta’s identity. She also takes care to explain that Henrietta is important not just to her, but to the world as a whole. By connecting Henrietta (rather than just her cells) to the amazing advances caused by HeLa, Skloot makes readers immediately intrigued by a character about whom we know almost nothing.
Rebecca remembers how she first learned about HeLa in 1988, thirty-seven years after Henrietta died. In a community college biology class at age 16, her professor, a man named Donald Defler, was teaching a lecture on cell reproduction.
After establishing Henrietta as the main character of her story, Rebecca Skloot now introduces us to herself as a character as well, taking care to establish how long she has cared about Henrietta’s story.
The author also reminds us of basic biology: how there are about one hundred trillion cells in our bodies, “each so small that several thousand could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.” They make up our tissues, “muscle, bone, and blood,” which make up our organs. Every nucleus of every cell contains a complete copy of our entire genome, which in turn makes our body function, controlling when our cells divide and ensuring that our cells perform their proper functions. Through the voice of Defler, the author goes on, explaining the process of mitosis, by which a cell divides to create new cells.
Throughout the book, Skloot will find new and inventive ways to explain complex scientific facts to her readers. In this case, she does so by using the voice of her own biology professor. As readers, we feel that we are learning along with the teenaged Skloot, rather than being lectured at by an all-knowing authorial voice.
A single malfunction in mitosis, however, can make cells start growing out of control. One enzyme misfiring, or one protein activating incorrectly will cause cancer. It is here that Defler introduces Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951 from a particularly aggressive case of cervical cancer. Defler goes on, telling the class that surgeons took samples of Henrietta’s cells before she died and put them in a petri dish. Although scientists had been attempting for decades to keep human cells alive in this way, they had been unsuccessful. Henrietta’s cancer cells, however, reproduced, becoming “the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.”
Since the story of Henrietta Lacks is inextricably bound up with that of cancer, it is important for readers to understand why and how cancer occurs within the human body. Sklootalso makes sure to point out that scientists understand how cancer works in large part because of cancerous cells from Henrietta’s own body. In other words, we are only able to understand what happened to Henrietta because of the advances made possible by Henrietta’s cells.
Defler explains that almost any cell culture lab in the world would possess millions, or even billions, of Henrietta’scells. Essentially, according to Defler, HeLa cells are one of the most important medical innovations of the last century. Defler ends the story by mentioning that Henrietta was a black woman, and then moves on with his lesson.
By recounting Defler’s lecture, Skloot illustrates how Henrietta has become such a minor character even in her own history. Although students are told about HeLa’s importance, Henrietta’s identity is only added in as an afterthought, if at all.
After class, Rebecca visits Defler’s office to ask him about Henrietta’sbackground, but he replies, “no one knows anything about her.” Rebecca goes to her textbook to look up “cell culture” and finds a passing reference to HeLa and Henrietta Lacks.
Skloot becomes obsessed with Henrietta precisely because so little is known about the woman—and Skloot hopes that her readers will feel the same.
Rebecca graduates high school and starts a biology degree in college, learning about HeLa in many different subjects, and using the cells herself in experiments. No one, however, mentions Henrietta’s name. With the beginning of the Internet in the mid-nineties, the author searches for information about Henrietta, but most sites misidentify her as Helen Lane, and contain contradictory information about both her life and death. Rebecca finally finds several magazine articles about Henrietta. She describes different pictures of Henrietta’s family: of Henrietta’s sons, a grandchild, and of Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The articles all say that researchers have experimented on the family’s cells, although the Lackses don’t seem to understand why.
The fact thatSkloot is working with Henrietta’s cells and yet knows almost nothing about the woman behind them only further exemplifies how unimportant the scientific community considers Henrietta as a person. By documenting the beginnings of her quest to learn more about Henrietta, Skloot also illustrates just how difficult it is to find any information at all about her. She also begins to introduce the Lacks family, immediately emphasizing that they have been mistreated by the scientific establishment.
As Rebecca continues through grad school, she remains intrigued by Henrietta Lacks. She tells the reader that this exploration would begin “a decade long adventure.” Rebecca describes the mistrust and obstacles that she faced, before turning her attention to Deborah, whom she calls “one of the strongest and most resilient women I’d ever known.”
While this book is the story of Henrietta and her family, it is also about Skloot coming of age as a journalist. She begins as merely a student with an obsession, and ends up having the power to tell the truth about Henrietta’s life to the rest of the world.
The author details the many differences between herself and Deborah. Rebecca is white and from the Pacific Northwest, while Deborah “was a deeply religious black Christian from the South.” Faith is a huge part of Deborah’s life, but it makes Rebecca uncomfortable. Deborah grew up in a poor, dangerous neighborhood, while the author’s childhood was safe and almost entirely white. Rebecca believes in reason and science, while Deborah believes that “Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells.” The author ends her introduction by observing that the “Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race.” She emphasizes that the book isn’t just about Henrietta and HeLa, but also about the Lacks family.
A vital relationship within the book is that between Deborah and Skloot. Despite their many differences, the two women eventually become friends, and each affects the other’s life in a dramatic way. Here Skloot seeks to emphasize how unlikely her friendship with Deborah was, while also explaining how distant her own frame of reference is from that of the Lackses. Her confession that she has been changed and “challenged” by the Lackses makes clear the personal investment that she has in this narrative.