Writer Rebecca Skloot spent time answering questions for a roomful of students, faculty and staff at Sweet Briar on Monday afternoon, just a few hours ahead of her scheduled public lecture in Murchison Lane Auditorium on Nov. 8. She is the author of the best-selling “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Lacks died of cancer in 1951 without her or her family knowing that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital had taken tissue samples from her tumor. Those cells — called HeLa cells — became “immortal,” and led to huge advances in modern medicine, including the development of the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization and gene mapping.
Skloot addressed questions ranging from why she reluctantly concluded that she herself had to be part of the narrative to how one writes like a novelist without fictionalizing any of the story. She researched the book for 10 years before beginning to write — conducting her first interviews before she had any professional reporting experience.
“I was undaunted because I didn’t know what I was getting into,” said Skloot, who was in graduate school when she undertook the project.
During those years she persisted in the face of repeated rejections from publishers who told her Lacks’ story was interesting but it would never have wide appeal. At one point, her agent sent her a stack of the letters with a sticky note advising her to frame them for the day the book became a best-seller.
But Skloot said the more she learned about Henrietta’s story the more she knew it needed to be told. Asked what makes her book so compelling to so many — it’s the editors’ choice for No. 1 on Amazon’s Best Books of 2010 list and No. 10 among the websites’ customers based on orders — she said, simply, “The story. I think people react to the same thing I reacted to.”
It’s a narrative about science and ethics as well as the struggles of Lacks’ family, who were grappling with the effects of poverty and racism as they came to grips with Henrietta’s legacy. Science captures people’s interest, but it’s often not accessible to everyone, Skloot said. She was careful not to gloss over the science while keeping it appealing for all audiences.
The biotechnology companies that used HeLa cells in research made billions of dollars from them, while some in Lacks’ family still today cannot afford health insurance. And her children also were contacted by scientists who used them in research, without explanation and full consent.
Skloot, knowing she could benefit from the Lackses’ story, set up The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to be able to give something back. So far it has provided tuition for five of Lacks’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It also provides health care for her children and the author hopes to expand it to provide scholarships to hearing-impaired African-American children.
Skloot is currently working on a version of the book for children ages 10 to 12 and she is collaborating with Oprah Winfrey and director Alan Ball on an HBO film. More information is available on her website.