A Storytelling Species: Rebecca Skloot

by Joshua Diamond, Nonfiction Co-Editor

Sunday afternoon in August. Pleasantly temperate for Indiana this time of year. And 5,500 undergraduates—most of them first-year students at Purdue University—are funneling into Elliot Hall of Music. No, this is not the rescheduled Lady Gaga concert. They’re here to see Rebecca Skloot, whose wildly successful book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has spent 29 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list with no signs of slowing down.

All first-year students at Purdue received Skloot’s book over the summer, free of charge, as part of the University’s Common Reading Program, which offers a different book each year in order to provide “a common first-year experience for Purdue’s newest students.”

For the uninitiated, Skloot’s book puts a face to the first immortal cell line. In 1951, doctors took cells from Henrietta Lacks’ cervical tumor without asking, and those cells went on to divide ad infinitum and pave the way to myriad breakthroughs in medical research—Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine among others. The HeLa cells, as they are known to the scientific community, are still dividing and still the most popular cell line for research today. But what’s most interesting about this book are the questions it raises, not just of bioethics—what is a researcher’s ethical responsibility to would-be tissue donors, and what rights if any should donors or their families have over their donated tissues?—but of race and inequality. For a long time the woman behind the HeLa cells was little more than a footnote in a science textbook, and the only thing anyone seemed to really know about her was that she was black.

Despite the conservative timbre of the event—Skloot was euphemistically introduced as a writer raising issues “from another time,” and mention of her appearance on Fox Business News garnered a loud “Woot!” from an enthusiastic audience member—early in her speech she talked about privilege, that privilege means more than having money. In the book, we see Henrietta’s children unable to afford basic health insurance while their mother’s cells revolutionize medicine and net biotech companies billions of dollars.

But Skloot was ever composed and more than even-handed when it came to the thorny social issues her book raises. “Everyone reads the book and takes something different away from it. That was my goal,” she said in response to a question about the dearth of her personal reflections in The Immortal Life. “I come from the world of show don’t tell.” But this felt like a cop out to me.

Maybe this was just Skloot playing to her audience. During the speech and the Q&A that followed, she was an aphorism machine, speaking to what 99% of that auditorium’s population was imminently facing: their first semester of college. She told them, “Most successful people in the world take rough and imperfect paths to success.” She did. Skloot was kicked out of preschool for refusing to nap. She was only introduced to the HeLa cells and the mystery of Henrietta Lacks because she failed high school biology the first time around.

Many of the questions Skloot fielded were born of the tension between parents’ expectations and students’ desires: “What if what I want is not what my parents want for me,” and “What should I do for a living?” “Not having everything figured out is the best approach to college,” Skloot assured them. In these matters, she was unfailingly on the students’ side, the side of personal choice. And despite her hesitation on stage to take a stand on the ethical questions raised by Henrietta’s story, Skloot encouraged them to be writers, not just because it can be personally fulfilling, but because writing can “instigate change.” “Writing is cool. You can take something you care very deeply about and share it with people who may actually do something about it.”

Couched in all this patent wisdom was Skloot’s insistence on the importance of education and curiosity, which constantly brought her early comments about what privilege means crashing back on me like a wave. That privilege is not just money, but access. That access, or lack thereof, so often goes hand-in-glove with what color a person is. I hope this was not lost on her larger audience—that this is what Henrietta’s story continues to be about. That it’s not an issue “from another time.”

“Humans are a storytelling species,” Skloot reminded us. “We learn from stories.”

Most recently, Oprah Winfrey has optioned to produce Henrietta’s story as an HBO movie. Skloot and Henrietta’s remaining children will work as consultants on the film. Skloot is also adapting a children’s edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for 8-14 year olds.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot
Broadway Paperbacks–March 8, 2011
400 pages/$16.00