In the fall of 2009, in New York, I tagged along with a group of mostly-strangers after an event as they headed for cocktails. When the person who was nice enough to chat with me told me her name, Rebecca Skloot, I was surprised. “Hey, they’re still passing out your book proposal at my grad school!” I said. We’d both gotten MFAs at Pitt, and while I wasn’t in her department, nonfiction, Skloot’s book proposal was notorious. It was perfect, it was aspirational, and it had been used as a model for other students for a very, very long time.
“So did the book –” I blurted, too late to stop, “ever come out?”
Skloot was undaunted. No! But yes! It was coming out! She had just met with the publisher and the team about its release! It was coming in February 2010! It was going to be great!
And then she told me about HeLa cells (remember them from bio class?) The cells were the first human cells to reproduce in a laboratory. They kept reproducing; they were something like a miracle. They were sent to scientists all over the world; they helped cure polio; they had enabled more scientific discoveries in the 20th century than I could wrap my head around.
And that the woman the cells came from was named Henrietta Lacks. Nobody had really thought about her, the person, once the cells were on their way to making history. That she had died — the cells that reproduced so well had been cancer, and killed her. That her family didn’t know the cells had been taken, and they’d grown up poor, often without the benefits of the health care advances her cells enabled.
She told me, quietly, that decades later, when they first got a phone call about the cells, the family had a terrible misunderstanding. They’d never learned about the things the doctor on the other end of the line was trying to say and thought that, somehow, Henrietta was alive. Alive all that time, but held away from them.
Skloot said she’d gotten to know the family, that because of that earlier misunderstanding, it was really hard to earn their trust. And while that was about all I heard that evening, not realizing that there was still much more, I left thinking, I’ve got to read that book!
So did lots of other people. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been on bestseller lists all over. Skloot’s relentless book tour helped; so did Oprah. There is much more to this book — Henrietta’s short life, what happened to her kids as they grew up without a mom, the leaps of scientific discovery (and sometimes wrong turns), and how
Skloot came to feel that this was a story that she had, had, had to tell. Skloot’s tenacity is impressive, and the book is unforgettable.
And I bet they’ll be using that book proposal at Pitt for a very, very long time to come.
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