A Conversation I Have a Lot/book review
Me: You know what’s yummy?
Kid: Not me.
Kid: You can’t eat me!
Me: It’s not MY fault you’re yummy. I can’t help it.
Kid: NOT YUMMY.
Me: Let me just have a little nibble…
Kid: ::dissolves into giggles::
It has been incredibly beautiful here the last couple days. Yesterday Zoe and I went to the dog park and I lay on a picnic table and read for more than 2 hours. No idea what she did. I think it involved running around, sniffing things, lying down, and barking. She found her old dog walker, Mary, whom she stayed with while we were with my grandmother as she died. Zoe was SO HAPPY. she went racing over to Mary and she was just delighted to see her. It made me love Z even more, not that thats’ really possible.
anyway, I was reading a fantastic book that I suggest you all go and read immediately. I like fiction most of the time: probably 90% of what I read is fiction. However, really extraordinary nonfiction can be transformative and captivating and all the more magical because it is real. such is the case with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta was a black woman who was diagnosed at Johns Hopkins, where I’ve spent some quality time, with cervical cancer in 1951. She died not long after. while she was being treated, a doctor took-without getting consent, informed or otherwise–a sample of her cells. These cells became the first immortal cell line ever grown. The cells, which were soon mass produced and sent all over the world and known as HeLa, were used in the development of a polio vaccine, taken to the moon to test the effects of space on cells, used in the making of the atom bomb, helpful in discovering treatments for cancer, HPV, HIV, and a host of other drugs, and countless other things. Most scientists have worked with HeLa in their careers.
Think of that. This woman, a direct descendant of slaves who was quite poor and lived with her husband and five children, went to Hopkins one day and just did what the doctors told her. As a result, her cells–which still carry her DNA–have been a vital component of many scientific and medical breakthroughs in the last 60 years.
What’s most extraordinary is that her family–her children, three of whom are still alive, her grandchildren, etc–cannot afford health insurance.
As Stephen Colbert said in an interview with author Rebecca Skloot, “can they afford irony insurance?”
Skloot’s book is meticulously researched, and even non science types such as myself can understand everything she talks about. More fascinating, though, is the history of urban poverty, racial clashes, and medicine that she tells through the lens of the Lacks family. At the heart of the book is Lacks’ younger daughter Deborah, who mistrusts Skloot at first but eventually becomes quite close to her. Deborah’s experience is heartbreaking and extraordinary. She, like the rest of her family, knew nothing of HeLa until the 70s and did not understand it until much later than that. Her story is amazing. Skloot has recreated the lives of the scientists who first grew HeLa, of Henrietta’s oldest daughter who was sent to a hospital for the insane as a child and died shortly after her mother, of Henrietta’s three sons, her husband, and the scientists and techs who would do so much with HeLa. This is a wonderful story, told with incredible clarity and gentleness.
John Katz of Bedlam Farm has a new book out, discussing souls and animals. I loved it. Further post on that coming.
Also coming: why the catholic church is pissing me off, how knowing about the personal views of gymnasts can make watching this less fun, what Shakesville taught me.