12 December, 2012

Hela, hela hello

Rebecca Skloot

As i has happened in the past, i am caused fascination by the effect on my brain that this book had, as well as by the book itself. This is the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman behind the HeLa line of cells, a line which is proving to be essentially immortal, which has been of incredible importance in the history of medical research over the past sixty years. Actually, like all good books of its kind, this is far more than just the story of Lacks; it is also the story of her family, of some of how the cell line has been used by scientists, the story of how Lacks' family was treated and maybe exploited by those scientists, and the story of how Skloot herself tracked down and developed her story.

First, though, i want to focus on what is always, perforce, first to my attention: Mine own brain, mind, and their reactions to the book. I knew from the instant that i saw the title on the library shelf what the essential subject of the book was; how? I have no idea at all of how i knew who “Henrietta Lacks” was or what HeLa is, but i did; i can imagine, and have, that i may have read a Reader's Digest article once upon a time, or somehow come across the name in an “A” level or university biology class or text. The problem, though, with both those scenarios, and any other i can think of, is that Skloot documents pretty thoroughly where Lacks' story was told in the Seventies and Eighties, and they don't seem to fit in with her time-lines, and my “feeling of knowledge” for lack of a better term, meaning how it feels to me, when it seems that i learnt it, is that i have known this for that long. So i am left puzzled by mine own knowledge: How did i know this? Where had i come across HeLa, and how had i heard the name Henrietta Lacks? More than that, there were other, more obscure, points in Skloot's narrative that were not ~ or did not seem to be ~ new to me; either i have read in some detail in the past of this subject, or i have just been the victim (if that's the correct word) of a particularly elaborate deja vu episode. And the latter possibility worries me, because if it is true then i cannot trust my knowledge about my knowledge.

Enough self-indulgent maundering, and on to the book itself. As mentioned above, it is far more than just a review of historical facts about a scientific advance. The most touching parts of the book are those when Skloot describes the way that the whole of Lacks' family have suffered, been taken advantage of, with the essential justification ~ whether or not the scientists involved consciously thought it ~ that the end justified the means, that it was not illegal, and they were Black and uneducated and therefore second- or third-class citizens anyway. How completely they had been abused by the process is shown in the levels of suspicion that Skloot had to fight through before she was able to earn the trust of the family. The story is horrible; Skloot tells it with such compassion that the reader is fully drawn in and made a part of it, as happens with the best of fiction.

No comments: