On Memory, Memoir, and Rebecca Skloot’s journey with and to Henrietta Lacks

It’s harder than I thought it would be to weigh in with a blog-review of Rebecca Skloot’s new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It’s not that I don’t like the book – it’s wonderful, and I highly recommend you all go read it.

It’s not that I don’t have some thoughts about the work.  It offers plenty of grist for engagement, from its compelling story to some formal considerations in the writing, to the practical lesson Rebecca is giving us all on what it takes to promote a book in this late-stage of the traditional approaches to publishing.

It’s not that there isn’t a wealth of material to talk about.  Rebecca has written a compelling story, a genuine page turner, populated with characters – people – whom you come to care about deeply, that is at the same time an important inquiry into issues of race, class, personal autonomy and the claims of authority in America.

It’s just that all of this has been said already.  I agree with the assessments of the host of reviewers and bloggers who have already weighed in on the book:  it’s a great achievement, it’s a compelling read, and it is at once emotionally moving and intellectually demanding, which is my idea of a fine, fine book.

So what to add?

Well, I’ve got one thing to say more from my perspective as a writer who also teaches writing than as a straight reviewer/critic.  At least one of Rebecca’s choices of technique in this book was hard won, complicated, and very  important to the ultimate power of the work.

That is:  a number of people have noted what they see as the use of some of the story telling tools from fiction in the tale – and that’s certainly fair.  Her telling of scenes from the story of Henrietta Lacks herself with a novel’s third person, seemingly omniscient narrator is a case in point.

But to me the dominant source-genre for the book is not fiction but that very tricky approach to non-fiction that falls under the umbrella of memoir.

I heard Rebecca tell Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that she resisted inserting herself into the story until it became inevitable, until her odyssey with the Lacks family became so intimately intertwined with what she thought her formal narrative to be that she had to emerge as a character in her own book.

That decision shapes the entire work, much for the better I think.  We enter the tale with her 16 year old self, a not-entirely successful high school student, catching a stray remark in a biology class about an important line of cells, and their source, Henrietta Lacks, of whom the instructor said, as an aside, “she was a black woman.”

With that we’re off, and we are able to understand the entire work that follows as a journey undertaken by a maturing Rebecca to come to grips with that sudden, strange, and almost comically opaque revelation.

That journey is not undertaken by an omniscient narrator, for all that the device shows up here and there; we don’t have a Virgil on this sometimes infernal journey.

Rather, we have Rebecca herself, a changing person and voice, someone with accumulating, always incomplete knowledge.  Most important for the power of the book, Rebecca is implicated in the tale:  each discovery she makes has both an explanatory signficance and an emotional one, for her. And hence for us, once we’ve invested our concern in the teller of the tale.

By the way, in this I don’t mean that Rebecca comes to dominate the story.  Henrietta herself, and even more, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, are the emotional centers of the story. But that’s how memoirs work.  They are not simply, or even mostly (in the best ones) about the author; rather, they provide a bridge through the author to sympathy with the people and experiences encountered on a life’s journey.  A keen memoirist uses what she or he knows to be a subjective view to create a connection between the reader and both what and the way she or he sees the world.

That’s what makes the most controversial scene in Rebecca’s book so valuable, narratively.  At one point, in the midst of Henrietta’s family, Rebecca experiences a kind of exorcism.  She’s a rationalist, a science writer, for heaven’s sake.  And yet this experience is real, felt and…as written, present for the reader.

All of which is to say, that memoir isn’t just a “what I did today” account of a life:  it is a conscious and complicated narrative stance, which, when wielded by a writer of skill and sensitivity constructs a world fo feeling out of an account of fact – or what seemed like fact as lived.  Doing it well is really hard – and having done so is one reason that Rebecca produced a book that works so well.

Image: Ary Scheffer, “Dante and Virgil encounter the ghosts of Paulo and Francesca” 1854.

Explore posts in the same categories: good books, good public communication of science, good writing, History of Science, Medicine, Writing

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3 Comments on “On Memory, Memoir, and Rebecca Skloot’s journey with and to Henrietta Lacks”

  1. Ian Preston Says:

    Nicely observed. But Virgil didn’t narrate the infernal journey of your picture either; he did narrate this one.

    • Tom Says:

      Right you are — though I was making a slightly too subtle nod to the notion of Virgil not as a narrator (Dante is that, of course) but as an authoritative guide.

  2. Observer Says:

    The book is as good as you say, but you could go further: it’s about Deborah Lacks. One interesting facet of her absorbing life story is that her mom was the source of HeLa cells. But if that were taken out of the story, it would be nearly as good. That’s a tribute to the author’s story-telling skills.


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