An Immortal Cell Lives On

I recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot about cells taken from a black woman in 1950s. The cells, unlike any other, had an immortal quality where they kept multiplying and even infesting other sterilized scientific studies. The sample, as was practiced at the time, was taken without consent. As the cells grew, spawning an entirely new industry the family was never made aware. They have yet to be compensated by any of companies profiting from the cells and cannot even afford basic health care.

The story has stuck with me on several fronts.

The first was that horrible childhood of Henrietta, her children and even some of the grandchildren. Henrietta had, besides cancer, syphilis and HPV likely gifts from her philandering husband. One child was abused so, and I only know from the two antidotes in the story so I must fathom it was worse than what I read in a few pages, that the reader can almost forgive his unpleasant disposition. Another daughter was repeatedly raped by the husband of her father’s girlfriend, while the father turned a blind eye. All left school early.

Perhaps its a testament to my sheltered life, but it’s so hard to imagine such abuse existing even though I know it does. I have had my fair share of trauma and drama throughout my childhood. While I was raised in a privileged home with two siblings, I remember feeling extremely alone and often a burden to my parents. By the time I went away for high school most of my misery subsided. I have survived without physical abuse, sexual abuse or rape which must put me ahead of many, and light years ahead of the Lack’s family.

The other part of this book that I struggle to comprehend is that Ms. Lacks’ cells are still circulated and used for countless research including a cure for polio. I’m sure the family must grapple with part of their mother not being at rest. From a Jewish perspective, the immortal cells would cause many discomfort. Some rabbis collect all of the stray hair and fingernails of the deceased so the soul can rest without concern of the body.

When going through my mother’s bathroom shortly after she passed I found her hairbrush filled with stray hairs. Holding that brush, longing for my mom I briefly contemplated what to do. Without consulting my sister, as I had been doing for many decisions, I threw the hairs away. Now I cannot imagine my internal debate, but then it had been a big decision. Imagine if each of those hairs where in someone else’s hands, or laboratory, out of my control. Like the Lack’s I’d be happy they were being used for good, but I’d feel violated for not being consulted on their secondary life.

The final thing that I love about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is that it took the author ten years to write it! Sure she has a much better excuse than I have offered (The Lacks family initial reluctance to talk to her, and all of that scientific research) but it’s comforting to know that even talented writers have their obstacles.

I left the book at my hotel on vacation with the hopes that someone will find it and enjoy it as much as I did.


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