Immortal Life

By Rebecca Skloot

I was assigned this book for the Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic that I participated in during my last spring semester of law school. The professor instructed us to read the book with an eye towards the interplay of race, medicine, and the criminal justice system, as well as a focus on the techniques used by the author to gain the trust of the family of the titular character. I already knew a lot of the core Henrietta Lacks story so I wasn’t super interested in the book to start because I thought it would be a rehash of a story I was familiar with. I was surprised when the book focused not much on just Henrietta’s story and the science and law growing from it, but also largely on Henrietta’s family, and the interests and efforts of the author in engaging that family.

I felt often like the author was fronting her own presence too much in the story, painting herself like a savior of the Lacks’s. Her approach to their spirituality and their emotional lives felt lordful at times, as if she knew better but nevertheless was a good person for allowing them to shout and preach. I hope that we will discuss these nuanced issues in class, but I am fearful that our class will instead focus on how she, a good white lady, earned the trust of traumatized black people by being Kind and Persistent. That lesson may very well be new and useful to many Yalies, but it doesn’t sit well with me because I feel like I am only on this side of the interview table by the power of chance and grace.