Why Rebecca Skloot is the Worst Part of Her Own Book

I appreciate that Rebecca Skloot does a wonderful thing by humanizing a woman who changed the course of medical history by way of her tissue. However, I feel that Skloot is too present in the story.

200px-The_Immortal_Life_Henrietta_Lacks_(cover)It’s not simply her presence in the story that I found obnoxious– it’s that she felt fated to write the story.

Maybe it’s my absence of faith in predestination talking, but I can’t imagine that some random student who was nothing other than intrigued by the woman’s story has sufficient reason to believe that Henrietta Lacks was calling to her. I would believe that scenario if a relative of Henrietta Lacks wrote the story, or if the writer’s mother had also been the victim of unethical medical experimentation, etc., but otherwise, I wish Skloot would not paint herself as so entitled by the will of Henrietta herself.

She pins this idea on Deborah Lacks.

“Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its path. Including me.”

“’How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?’ Deborah would say. ‘She was trying to get your attention.’”

While Deborah Lacks’ belief in Skloot is endearing and suggests cause for trust in the narrator, I believe Skloot goes a step too far by claiming:

“This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing this book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.”

I can buy the idea that the soul of Henrietta Lacks may be trapped on earth, because not all of her body has died, and rather it has grown. Especially considering the cells that have remained alive are riddled with the illness that took at least 99.9% of her life. But I just don’t believe Henrietta Lacks is to blame for Skloot’s marriage and divorce.

If I were the judge presiding over that case and THAT was presented as evidence, I would probably give everything to the soon-to-be-ex-husband.

It doesn’t help that Skloot creates a weird tension between being undeserving and being called by Lacks’ spirit. She is hyper self-conscious about what the living Lackses will think of her, a random white girl interested in redeeming the life of Henrietta Lacks. But this self-consciousness is never eradicated for any clear reason– not to say that they weren’t rightfully won over in reality, but if they were, she fails to express it. Instead, per her narrative, the Lackses seem to magically open up and share.

Maybe it was necessary for Skloot to be involved in the story in order to describe the Lackses and the town in its present state, but I was appalled by the way she did so.

Stephen King is entitled to a memoir on writing. So, he aptly named a text of precisely that nature, On Writing. In this book, he describes the challenges he faced and overcame and from where the wealth of creative and commercial writing springs forth. I read that book both knowing and trusting what I was getting into.

No one picks up a story about a woman whose cells are a medical and scientific phenomenon to inquire about the journalist who pieced together their story. It’s just not relevant yet.

And I love memoirs about personal journeys, not exclusive to explanations of growth as a writer, etc. It’s interesting to understand how people accomplish great feats.

But it’s understood that writing a great documentary piece is an incredible task. That’s not a concept that we need to be unwillingly bludgeoned by with every other turn of the page. We should especially be exempt from this kind of self-promotional prose when we are reading a book that is marketed as someone else’s story.

It is no mystery that data is collected, considered and constructed into a narrative in order to write a book that qualifies as literary journalism. So why, other than total narcissism did Skloot feel compelled to constantly remind the readers that she, personally, exerted so much effort and talked to so many people and went through so much to cover the story that she was born to cover?

She reminds the reader of her authority acquired through persistence: “I talked to many scientists…” and “The way everyone I talked to at Hopkins remembers it…”

I would expect quotes like these from an interview inquiring about Skloot’s process involved in writing her bestseller, but at this point- in the narrative, she has no reason to assume we care. The descriptions of the acquisition of information are one of the many places that I would have delighted in her absence. There is still so much reporting of quotes and scene descriptors that are subject to question, why does she only validate the pieces of information that are obvious in origin? It’s yet another act of either arrogance or self consciousness that I found quite aggravating.

I nearly threw my beloved Kindle through the window when I read the sentence “That reporter was me.”

At this moment in the narrative, I believe it becomes undeniable that Skloot is not only a character, but the protagonist in a story of one young woman’s plight to write a story that will endear her to hundreds of thousands of readers and fill her pockets with money.

THIS, I think, is what qualifies the story as exploitative. Skloot used the story of a woman who had already been used in every sense of the word and involves herself excessively to her own gain. I think it depletes the nobility of writing a story that requires diligence and dedication, and I think it cheapens a story about a family whose genes benefitted the entire world.

The most frustrating part is that the second half of the book is all the more rich with the story of Deborah, who could have singularly been the vehicle through whom a beautiful story of a woman trying to understand the world through the scope of her mother’s legacy.

In Response to “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek”

“Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” is the most eerie, elegant and effective multimedia piece I have ever seen. It involves brilliant narrative writing and foreshadowing, embedded with photography and film so seamlessly that a tragic and haunting story becomes all too real.

A moving image of snow blowing erratically over a mountaintop in the whips of a storm opens the narrative, shadowed by the text of the title. The body of the article slides over the image with a fitting ease and power, considering the subject matter. The stark white of the background is both in keeping with The New York Times online style and reiterating the harsh frigidity of the circumstances described.

Although, for whatever sick reason, I love stories of distress and disaster– I often have difficulty following and visualizing the chain of events. The incredible graphics offer a vivid solution to such complex storytelling– moving around the mountain to demonstrate the paths of first the skiers and then the avalanche.

Computer-generated graphics substantiate the story, as do the breathtaking and heartbreaking photographs and film. The use of photography illustrates why in the hell someone would want to put their lives in such grave danger for sport, as well as the terrible consequences of such ill calculations.

Photographs show how beautiful the mountains are. Videos include the skiers giggling as they sweep gracefully down billowing clouds of snow. Photographs give faces to the victims. Videos give the accounts of those who made it through.

The entire presentation is breathtaking, but it would be nothing without the writing.

What I found most impressive about this article was how successfully writer John Branch built an ominous tension in a story that we already know the end of and how beautifully he endeared the characters of the story to the reader to drive the impact of the story.

Aside from the haunting opening visuals, the first, I thought the first, most striking use of foreshadowing was his choice of introduction. Branch begins with the status of Elyse Saugstad, buried alive by the crushing weight of ice and snow. She can see but she cannot move. She is aware of her dire situation, but she cannot escape.

Branch strays from the narrative of Saugstad to merge the necessary context, but the outcome has been suggested–certain peril. To read on with this knowledge is not a choice, but a necessity.

He suggests the delicate and unpredictable nature of snow on mountains to develop his unstoppable antagonist, saying “Each snowflake added to the depth, and each snowflake added to the weight. It might take a million snowflakes for a skier to notice the difference. It might take just one for a mountain to move.”

Branch reiterates the threat of the snowy mountain with a quote from Saugstad, in which she says, “If you swim out in the ocean, the ocean’s always alive… You can feel it. But the mountains feel like they’re asleep.”

By developing nature itself as the villain, the plot is all the more terrifying, because it is entirely outside of human control. The characters, though lovable, are painfully naïve in the face of a looming monster.

The deaths of Jim Jack, Johnny Brenan and Chris Rudolph are heart wrenching, not only because they lead real, human lives, but also because Branch illustrates that all three were living the way most people wish they could.

Until they weren’t.

Branch juxtaposes the vivacious lifestyles of the three men with their gruesome, dehumanizing deaths.

The account of Jim Jack is particularly unsettling:

“I saw Jim Jack’s face,” Carlson said. “Eyes open, just staring at me. We could see he wasn’t breathing. Ron started giving him breaths and I was searching for his body, underneath his chest. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ There was no body where you’d expect a body to be. And then I started digging around, and I could see he was folded up into this ball. His feet were above his head.”

Branch closes his account with the very question he has answered, “They wondered how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.”