The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; published 2011 by Broadway Books
If you’re wondering whether or not to read this book, simply open to the first five pages and read the long list of outstanding reviews it received from publications all over the country. I think they say it pretty well, so I’ll just be brief about my personal opinion: I liked this book. A lot.
I applaud Rebecca Skloot for spending so many years researching, living off of student loans and maxed out credit cards, as she says repeatedly throughout the book. I sincerely hope it has paid off. Much of the book follows Skloot’s own research process: interviewing the doctors and scientists who have made discoveries using Henrietta Lacks’s cells; learning about cell anatomy, the history of medical science in the past sixty years, and the multi-billion dollar industry that now exists as a necessary part of the medical world; most importantly, connecting with Henrietta’s living family members and joining their struggle with personal loss, poverty, grief, the feeling of exploitation, and dealing with a curious and insensitive media.
How would you feel if you found out that part of your deceased loved one was not dead?
In fact, it is so very not dead that it is being reproduced, experimented on, and used to fuel a major industry that is profiting people the world over – but not you?
There are several aspects of the book I could discuss – it raises several deep questions of race and ethics – but I want to talk about the first question above, and how the Lacks family tried to cope with this mystery. If you want to learn more information about the book and discover more ways to be part of the conversation surrounding it, I highly recommend Rebecca Skloot’s website, which provides discussion questions, interviews, reviews, and more information about the author.
The fact that human cells could live indefinitely raises crucial questions for Christians about faith and eternal life.
Skloot does explain the phenomenon. She says that Henrietta’s cancer started because “HPV inserted its DNA into the long arm of her eleventh chromosome and essentially turned off her P53 tumor suppressor gene” (213). A few paragraphs down she says, “Today it’s possible for scientists to immortalize cells by exposing them to certain viruses or chemicals, but very few cells have become immortal on their own as Henrietta’s did.” I don’t understand the science exactly because I know very little about cells and while reading this book my brain tried mostly unsuccessfully to shake the cobwebs off my high school biology class memories, but I get the main idea.
What I find really fascinating is Henrietta’s family’s theories.
“Henrietta’s sister Gladys never forgave her for moving to Baltimore and leaving their father behind for Gladys to care for as he aged. The way Gladys saw it, that cancer was the Lord’s way of punishing Henrietta for leaving home. Gladys’s son Gary believed all disease was the wrath of the Lord – punishment for Adam eating the apple from Eve. Cootie said it was the disease-causing spirits. And Henrietta’s cousin Sadie never knew what to think… ‘When I heard about them cells I thought, Could it’a been somethin live got up in her, you know? It scared me, cause we used to go around together all the time. Hennie and I ain’t never been in that nasty water down there in Turner Station like the other peoples, we didn’t go to no beach or nothing like that, and we didn’t never go without no panties or anything, so I don’t know how something got up inside Hennie. But it did. Somethin came alive up in her. She died, and it just keep on living. Made me start thinkin things, you know, like maybe something come out of space, dropped down, and she walked over it.'” (214)
Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, was tortured by the thought that her mother had suffered before she died, and might still be suffering if her cells could feel pain. As Deborah learned more about what was going on, she became more agitated and upset. On a research trip with Skloot, she broke out in hives and was nearing hysteria at her cousin Gary’s house. Gary’s response was to take her in his arms and pray. Skloot was there, and she describes Gary’s physical reaction: “The moment [Deborah] touched him, his upper body seized like he’d been electrocuted. His arms thrust closed, hands clasping each side of Deborah’s head, palms to her jaw, fingers spread from the back of her skull to the bridge of her nose. Then he started shaking. He squeezed Deborah’s face to his chest as her shoulders heaved in silent sobs, and tears rolled from Gary’s eyes.” (291) He sings a hymn and thanks God for His goodness, His sovereignty, and His desire to take care of His children. Deborah immediately calms down.
Skloot returns the next day to talk about what happened with Gary. Gary gives her a Bible and points out several verses. It is clear that Gary believes Henrietta’s cells living on and being used to help cure diseases and heal millions of people is the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. Maybe Gary thinks it looks different for everyone, but for Henrietta, that was how God chose to fulfill the promise.
Skloot writes: “If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after her death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they’d led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. The Bible tells us so.” (296) Skloot herself does not believe that this could be true. She implies that because the Lacks family was not able to understand the complicated scientific language explaining how Henrietta’s cells became immortal, they turned to the Bible and found comfort in Jesus’s seemingly-clear promise that His believers would live on after death.
As a Christian, I have my own reaction to all of this. The catcher is Skloot’s first sentence in the quote above: “If you believe the Bible is the literal truth….” It’s something that gets confused in Christianity all the time: What’s meant to be taken literally? What parts of the Bible are history? What parts are poetry? (No, it’s not just the Psalms.) What about parables and metaphors? And let’s face it, when Jesus speaks of eternal life, he’s not very specific about what that will look like. He talks about a physical body and a spiritual body – what’s the difference? All of us want the literal truth, the plainest answers, the easiest explanations. It is tempting to read the Bible only literally. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that there’s more we don’t know. The Bible doesn’t explain everything, and it says we’re never going to know everything. We’re not going to fully understand the mysteries out there.
There aren’t just two sides to this: those who believe the Bible is the literal truth and those who don’t believe the Bible is truth at all. I land somewhere else entirely.
I think the only clear thing about a Christian’s immortal life is that we will be with God. We don’t know what it will look like. Maybe there is a physical place called “Heaven.” Maybe it’s a state of being or whatever you want to call it. Who knows? We get to find out later.
What I do know is that God can do anything, and I think He is involved in what happens on earth, even in scientific “discoveries.” Jesus didn’t always speak literally. So I don’t think Gary’s right that Henrietta’s cells are her form of eternal life. I think somehow, if she was a believer, she is with God. But I don’t doubt God’s involvement in this phenomenon, something that scientists can sometimes imitate but for the most part remains a mystery. Maybe it is part of Henrietta’s blessing from God: that she was used to bless millions of other lives. Maybe it’s simply God’s providential gift to humanity. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Maybe it’s all of the above.