How 'The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks' Made Me Love Nonfiction
I was cooking dinner when I got the text: "Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?" I stared at the questioned posed by one of my book-loving best friends, not knowing where to start. I'm more than used to recommending books, but how could I describe in a simple text message how much I loved that book, or, more importantly, how The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me love nonfiction? It just wasn't possible.
I first read Rebecca Skloot's bestselling nonfiction novel in college for a class on women's writing. The incredible story explores the life and complicated legacy of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman and mother of five whose cancer cells became the key to creating an immortal cell line that would change the face of science and medicine. Know as the HeLa cells, Lacks' cells were the very first human cells that scientists were successfully able to grow in a lab and have enabled researchers and scientists around the world to conduct important medical studies, including the creation of the polio vaccine. The only catch? Henrietta had no idea, and her loved ones wouldn't find out for years, either.
Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital where she was being treated for cervical cancer, but not before several of her tumor cells were biopsied without her consent or knowledge. Dr. Georde Otto Gey, a researched and biologist associated with the hospital, took the samples of Henrietta's cells and used them to create the groundbreaking line of cells that would make him famous, but leave the woman whose body they came from shrouded in mystery for decades.
At the time of her death, she had no idea the kind of impact her illness and her body would have on the future. Not only did Henrietta never learn of her contributions to science and medicine, but her family didn't find out about HeLa's existence until the mid 1970s. It would be decades before they would be able to truly understand, and even see, Henrietta's cells and her continued life after death, and it's her daughter Deborah's journey to finding out the truth about her mother's life and immortality that drives the emotional narrative in Skloot's breathtaking book.
Now that the HBO adaptation is out, you can enjoy the incredible story of the woman and family behind the groundbreaking HeLa cell played out on screen as well as in the pages of Skloot's book. A remarkably human story about the power and prejudices of science, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me fall in love with nonfiction, and since then, I've looked at the genre in a totally different light.
1. It taught me there are extraordinary stories in ordinary places.
If someone had once told me years ago that I would be weeping over a story about biology, medicine, and cell cultures, I would have told them, That sounds pretty dull. But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks taught me the most intriguing stories appear in the most unlikely places. In a research hospital in Maryland, in a run-down community in Baltimore, in a cramped family living room in the home of a woman long dead, the world's greatest — and most important — stories are just waiting to be uncovered.
2. It demonstrated that nonfiction doesn't mean non-creative.
The story of Henrietta Lacks may be real, but that doesn't mean it has to be really dull. In fact, in the hands of a talented author such as Rebecca Skloot, a nonfiction story can be just as creative and readable as a work of fiction.
Filled with moments of mystery and truth, heartache and triumph, doubt and faith, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is just one incredible example of how unique a nonfiction book can be, even if the author didn't make up the story. It's not always about what you can make up, but rather, how you choose to share the truth.
3. It opened my eyes to the fact that there are even more untold stories that deserve attention.
The HeLa cells were put to use as early as the 1950s, but the story of the woman whose body they came from was largely unknown for decades thereafter. Reading about the was the scientific community treated Henrietta Lacks, not as a young woman or a mother or even really a person, was a startling reminder that there are so many stories out there, stories of the marginalized and the forgotten, that still need telling.
4. It proved technical, scientific, and historical stories can have a human touch, too.
I've always been a reader, a creative person, a dreamer, rather than a clinical or scientific thinker. Because of that, I've always avoided books about the technical stuff: medicine, biology, science, even history. But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks opened my eyes to the fact that there are human stories tied up in all different aspects of life, even the ones that seem the most unlikely. Sure, the book goes into incredible detail about what the HeLa cell is, how it was used in science, and the changes it brought forth in the medical world, but at the core of each of those stories was a human one, too. At the center of every fact was a person, at the root of every medical development was a family, and at the end of every discovery was a woman who changed the world.
5. It served as evidence that the stories you think you know can still surprise you.
I first learned about the HeLa cell in my high school chemistry class. On my final, I had to answer a question about its significance, and I remember writing about it's ability to be grown in a lab and its many contributions to medical research. I did not, however, mention a single thing about Henrietta Lacks, because at the time, I didn't know anything about her. When I was assigned Skloot's book years later, I thought I already knew everything there was to know about it - sick woman, cervical cancer, immortal cells, medical break through - but it turned out, there was so much more to the story that I had originally learned.
In nonfiction, there always is.