How I Learned Something About Cells Beyond the Vocabulary One Might Encounter at the End of a Chapter in a Biology Textbook

HeLa Cells
Henrietta’s Cells

After spending most of my reading time these last few summers on ginormous books that drained my energy the way WiFi and high brightness drain your iPhone, I finally found a few hundred pages I could plow through in a couple of days, thanks to Abigail Sawabini and her gift of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

While I often have some difficulty getting myself into books that other people have picked out for me (don’t tell my mother-in-law, who thinks that the only possible gift for me is another book), my current self-imposed mandate to read a non-fiction book combined with my desire to finally honor a student’s gift. What I discovered was that all the things I look for in fiction – character development; a narrator who cares about characters even when they act against their self-interest; a compelling purpose manifest in text and subtext; plot and subplot – are all essential to effective non-fiction.

Here’s the summary: science writer Rebecca Skloot has been intrigued by the idea of HeLa cells since she first encountered them while taking a community college course when she was in high school. HeLa is short for, you guessed it, Henrietta Lacks, whose cancerous cervix produced the first cells that could grow outside the body, cells that enabled the scientific research responsible for the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, AIDS treatment and many more medical advances.

Henrietta herself, the person, not the cells.
Henrietta herself, the person, with all her cells.

These cells, taken from a black woman’s tissue at a time when well-meaning scientists still used human subjects for their research even in the aftermath of the notorious Nazi experiments on Jews, meant enormous profits for medical research companies while the children and grandchildren of the cell “donor” (HeLa never knew that anyone had taken her cells) didn’t have the health insurance necessary for many of their most basic healthcare needs. The story of the Lacks family is one filled with so many intriguing tensions – white/black, moneyed/poor, educated/uneducated – as well as more universal tensions between what we think we want to know v. what we’re ready to know; the rights of individuals v. the greater good for mankind; the need for clinical distance v. the need to acknowledge the humanity of the subjects involved in research; and because I’m me, science v. religion.

I’ve known for a long time that the default lens through which I see texts is political, that relationships between power and justice are the themes first visible to me in any story. That’s why I was able to move so quickly through this story. On one hand, Skloot’s reporting is a quest to do justice to the humanity of Henrietta Lacks, which morphs in some way to a quest for justice for Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter. At the same time, Skloot has to balance the need to be objective as a reporter with fundamental complications like empathy and sympathy, with pesky judgments of what’s right, wha’ts wrong, and what doesn’t lend itself well to a tidy answer.

Along the way, Skloot teaches some biology about what cells are, how they work, how scientists use them, as well as the relationship between cells and genes, and the difference between healthy and cancerous cells. I was advised by a couple of people who had read the book that my eyes might glaze over when reading the technical parts of the book. At first, I assured them that I was skilled at vertical reading, but I then realized that I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I decided that the scientific content was sdisposable, that I didn’t have a responsibility to try to understand things that don’t easily fit my existing understanding of the world. Fortunately, the way Skloot writes, the narrative provides the context that makes the science understandable even to a person like me. I’m not saying I could teach a lesson on cells to a science class, but I wouldn’t be intimidated by being a student in one.

Amid the narrative of the Lacks extended family and the examination of race and research ethics, I dog-eared only one page (as opposed to my copious and futile electronic highlighting of Moby Dick). Skloot had witnessed something of a healing when Deborah’s cousin Gary laid his hands on Deborah to ease the suffering she was enduring after learning too much too fast about her mother, and found herself reading from the Bible for the first time in her life. She writes:

In that moment, reading those passages, I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing decades after her death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they’d led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. the Bible tells us so.

For Deborah and her family – and surely many others in the world – that answer was so much more concrete than the explanation offered by science that the immortality of Henrietta’s cells had something to do with her telomeres and how HPV interacted with DNA. The idea that God had chosen Henrietta as an angel who would be reborn as immortal cells made a lot more sense than the explanation Deborah had read years earlier in Victor McKusick’s book, with its clinical talk of HeLa’s “atypical histology” and “unusually malignant behavior.

Our worldviews tend to reject meaning made by those less enlightened than us, or by those who vault over the essential truths with a hubris that exceeds man’s authority in what should be a god-fearing universe. at the extremes, science excludes religious explanations, and religion excludes inconvenient scientific discoveries (just ask Galileo). Maybe all our explanations are somehow incomplete, and our unwillingness to accept limitations on our knowing deludes us into thinking that we know what there is to know. It’s puzzles like this, derived from the unanticipated discoveries of the author, that give this book the layers of inquiry that make it such a great read.

If you’ve read this far, ‘tis time for me to quote the differently immortal Carmen Donnarumma and say, “Thanks for bearing with the boring.” You’re a trooper.

And while I’m on the subject of thanks, Gracias, Abigail.


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