Rebecca Skloot's medical-justice thriller chronicles life of woman's Polio-curing cells -- and the theft of a family legacy
In her decade-in-the making tracing of a woman whose cells were instrumental to modern medicine, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot, a Colorado State University graduate, uncovers the injustice of one family whose biological legacy was stolen.
The undying HeLa cells, as medical scientist have come to call them, were pivotal in "developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions."
But the living vessel that produced the cells -- Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer who toiled upon the same Virginia lands as her slave ancestors -- was buried in an unmarked grave more than sixty years ago. She's all but a ghost of a memory to her descendants, who can't even afford health insurance.
"She tells a complicated story that has many parts, and she does it well," says John Calderazzo, a Colorado State University professor who developed the school's creative nonfiction program and taught Skloot in the '90s. "What you see is a use of all the tools that a literary journalist has at her disposal."
Skloot graduated from CSU with a degree in biological sciences. But it's her practice of telling about science, as opposed to conducting it, that led Skloot to become a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a contributing editor to Popular Science magazine.
Calderazzo (who also taught yours truly) says he remembers distinctly that Skloot had a knack for writing as well as science -- which probably has something to do with her father, acclaimed poet Floyd Skloot.
Her first piece for the creative writing class wasn't a description of her work in the biology labs or the "total dog nut's" fascination with animals, but a memoir of the time her father read a poem before an entire Oregon middle school, titled "My Daughter Considers Her Body."
It's enough to make anyone squirm.
"I remember thinking, boy, that's good use of detail," Calderazzo says. "Very rapidly you could see she was getting the idea of what good writing is about and mixing it in with her passion."
With spots on shows like Oprahand a recent cover story in Publisher's Weekly, her passion seems to be "going viral," Calderazzo quips.
Skloot tracked the buried legacy of her book's heroine from the frozen bowels of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where "HeLa's" cells were taken in 1951, to her cells' flight into outer space for testing, and back down to east Baltimore, where her family now lives. (See the author's "about the book" page for more details.)
Now, as Skloot travels the world marketing her book -- as publishers have backed away from expensive tours, the author jump-started her own -- she's also taking cultures for some long-overdue, yet poetic, justice. For instance, she's gathering donations for the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which she founded to provide, among other things, college educations for Lacks' descendants.
On April 5, Skoot will discuss her book in Denver at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, along with Calderazzo and Pulitzer Prize-winning former Rocky Mountain News reporter Jim Sheeler -- also a CSU alum and author. Sheeler credits Calderazzo with teaching him to write in one of his books, Obit.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.