Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book review - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I've recently finished reading the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. It'd be difficult to summarize this book into a simple tagcloud, my favorite tool to summarize a text, or textful object. Ah, the beauty of technology! How it helps me shroud my laziness and ignorance.

Anyway, regarding the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it is supposed to be the story of a young black woman, diagnosed with cancer, then her cells were taken away from her without informed consent. The cells quickly turn into a biology legend. They were the first and most successful human cells ever cloned.

At least, that's what it supposed to be about. But... But, when you read the book you discover that it's more complicated than that. It's more like a(nother) story about class, race, ethics, medicine, and the mortal family that Henrietta left behind.

Somehow, and sadly I must say, as decades passed and medicine evolved, Henrietta's family stayed in the dark, even when their mothers cells reached global fame and her name was identified, they were still waiting for the slightest explanation of what was going on.

You see, Henrietta's family is a lot like families from my class, we don't understand "modern medicine" and just like my mother prefers to explain science as a proof of Jesus' ingenuity (and therefore existence), Henrietta's family (mostly her daughter) preferred to explain her cells' immortality and what that meant to science with God too. In the end, whoever believed in Jesus was given eternal life, even when dead. And as Rebecca said in her book, it can in a sense be more rational than big words, especially if it came from unethical mouths.

Putting my Atheist bias out of these lines (I was tempted to say "putting my Atheism aside" but that would be a funny lie), I do understand that, I understand how it made sense, and maybe this example should serve as a reminder next time my mom tells me about how the beauty of how the human body works so perfectly well is proof of God's majesty, I should be more understanding, more considerate, less angry at the Jesus that both my mom and I drew in each of our heads, each her own way.

In fact, the most touching part of the story was the part that involved neither Henrietta, nor her cells. In fact, the most touching part of the story was how the family members whose lives painfully orbited around Henrietta and "them damn cells."

It's sad, it's sad to read about how Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, spent her life looking for the mom she never knew. How Elsie, the sister, who was abandoned to die a painful and lonely death once her mother was no longer around, no one even bothered to tell her anything about her mother, no one bothered to tell her siblings Elsie ever existed. And then there was the son, Zakkariyya, who had to endure the absence of the mother, the brutality of a hateful woman and a neglectful father. And no, you never get over pain, loss, or regret, they stay with you, and when you stop talking about them, you start spinning them in your heart and they come out in bursts of inexplicable anger and violence. And yes, I can totally relate to that.

I guess, the story of Henrietta's immortality is not supposed to be so sad. But for me it was, for me it wasn't just a well-written, well-researched story, that documents "colored anger", for me it was too close to home. I saw someone from my own close environment is every person in the book. Maybe the people in Henrietta's book had a more extreme life than the people in the story of my life, but the pain is still the same. The violence, the deprivation, the untreated wounds, the anger, the immortality, the strong women, and the Gods, they are all the same, name them as you like, I have seen them in my life.

Strangely, the only character I feel that I understood the least was Henrietta herself, but I guess, somehow, she was like all deceased heroes: Just perfect.

And after Beloved for Toni Morisson, once again, I find myself ever so grateful to Deems who allowed me to read this book, even though it was only published a few months ago. She's my angel!

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