Further proof that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks merits both its plaudits and its sales came Wednesday night, when author Rebecca Skloot spoke and read an excerpt at the packed relaunch party for the periodical Creative Nonfiction.
The book tells how some tissue samples taken from a poor Baltimore woman who died a half-century ago became a medical sub-industry -- and how her family suffers to this day for lack of medical care. It's a best-seller, with glowing reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Skloot is on a self-organized book tour that's busy enough that she noted, before her short reading at Shadyside's Alto Lounge, "I've been talking nonstop for the past two weeks."
The book (from Crown Publishing) has some Pittsburgh connections. One is Skloot herself, who earned a graduate degree in Pitt's creative-writing program. There she was a student of Creative Nonfiction founder and editor Lee Gutkind. In fact, she said, it was 12 years ago, in the Starbucks right next door to Alto, that Skloot first asked Gutkind whether Lacks' story had the makings of a book.
Gutkind said it did, and now it's all come full circle, with an excerpt printed in the spring 2010 CN, which has been handsomely redesigned from a journal into a magazine.
More about that in an upcoming CP. Back to Alto, a modestly sized loft lounge where a couple hundred people raptly heard Skloot read. She set up the excerpt by reminding us that Lack's cells, dubbed the HeLa line, were the first to be cloned, and the first to have their genes mapped, among other distinctions.
Lacks herself was long dead by then, the victim of cervical cancer. But the cells that were taken without her or her family's knowledge proved perfect for research: Labs today grow three trillion of them a week. They were also the first cells commercially sold. "If our mother was so important to medicine, why can't we go to the doctor?" asked one of her children.
An excellent question. Also chilling was some material in the few pages Skloot read, anecdotes I hadn't heard in, say, Kathy M. Newman's review of the book last week in CP (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A75325).
One such story concerned the phone call Lacks' husband got years after she'd died, telling him what was going on with his wife's cells. Only he didn't know what a "cell" like that was, and so believed he was being told his wife was being held secretly in some medical prison somewhere so doctors could experiment on her. Cripes.
Then there was Lacks' daughter Deborah's belief that her mother couldn't rest in peace because she -- her cells -- were still being troubled on earth. There was also the moment that Deborah, visiting a lab, held the frozen vials containing the cells of the woman she hadn't seen in decades. "You're famous," Deborah Lacks told the vials, "only nobody knows it."