Rebecca Skloot spoke to a full house at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday night as part of its ALOUD series. I understand that close to 50 people waited in a standby line, but none was able to get in -- every seat was full.
I was lucky. My seat was on the stage.
My job was to interview Skloot about her book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." The book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American whose cells -- the HeLa cells -- were the first human cells to reproduce in a laboratory. They became the building block of countless significant medical advancements in the 20th century, including the polio vaccine, cancer research, virology and much more. Skloot told the audience that typing "HeLa" into databases of scientific papers produces an impossible deluge of results -- like typing the word "and" into Google.
Skloot dug into the past to learn about the woman Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951. She read the opening passage of her book, in which Lacks and her husband, David, pull up in front of Johns Hopkins Hospital and she goes in to see a doctor. Afterward, Skloot explained how she was able to make the passage so vivid: not just getting stories from people who'd been there, but checking and cross-checking them, finding archival photos and asking questions like, what kind of tree is this? and this car, is it a Buick?
While the HeLa cells were manufactured by the millions and distributed worldwide, Lacks as a person was nearly completely forgotten. Skloot served as a detective, and her search is part of the story in the book.
She wasn't just looking for herself, or by herself. Lacks left five children in Baltimore, and Skloot became friends with her daughter Deborah.
Earning her trust wasn't easy. Lacks' children grew up in poverty, sometimes in abusive households, and their education was limited. They had no idea their mother's cells had been taken -- there was no concept of informed consent at the time, Skloot explained -- until they were contacted by a researcher in the 1970s. The miscommunication, misunderstandings and a con man or two that followed left the family feeling betrayed by anyone who was interested in the HeLa cells.
HeLa cells were bought and sold by large and profitable medical companies; the Lacks family could not, and still cannot, afford health insurance. Skloot explained that while many parts of the story are about race, Deborah made it clear that to her it was about class.
The family continues to struggle with poverty. Some of the proceeds from the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" go to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation; Skloot spoke about the grants it has made for books for Lacks' grandchildren and for the descendents of others who were medical subjects without their knowledge, such as those in the Tuskegee experiment that deliberately withheld treatment for syphilis patients.
Skloot was a science writer who spent a decade working on this book. In it she combines history, the story of the cells, their reproduction and impact, and the story of the Lacks family. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is headed to the screen at the hands of Oprah Winfrey, HBO and Alan Ball.
A video of Skloot's appearance at ALOUD will be posted online -- not sure when, exactly, but those who didn't get in will be able to see her tell the story of her book.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Credit: Crown Publishers / Random House