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.
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.