Originally published August 22nd, 2015
This book wound up being more emotionally wrenching than I had anticipated. I was somewhat familiar with Henrietta Lacks and her cells thanks to the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class covering her once, but obviously, a 300-some page book is going to be more detailed than a half hour podcast. I wasn’t expecting to be strongly affected by the racial politics of medicine, or to discover the painful history of the Lacks family and Henrietta’s children. It’s a testament to Skloot’s skill as a writer that she can take a complicated, emotionally fraught subject like this one and communicate the complex parts of it clearly, and the painful parts of it gracefully, without sounding pitying. She relates horrifying personal histories without judgment or contempt. Further, she extends the same thoughtfulness to all the disparate ideologies she encounters in her research. I admire her ability to relate and receive information in a non-judgmental manner. Yet nothing she writes about gets dry. It isn’t all wrenching and fraught, but there are sections that, in another book, could have been pretty dull. Not from Skloot. I’ve actually come away from this book feeling I know almost everything about the legal and moral quandaries of tissue rights, which I’m sure is completely inaccurate, but if nothing else I’ve got a solid base for my personal opinions and more information to base future decisions on.
I did come out of chapter 15 wanting trigger warnings. The first third of the book is consistently difficult, and chapter 15 took that to a whole new level. If you find yourself emotionally wrung by descriptions of abuse/rape/incest, that chapter is going to be difficult for you. Plan your reading accordingly and know that things improve towards the end of the book.