The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Ethics of Telling Other Lives: Rebecca Skloot and the Writing of Race

 

‘white people create the dominant images of the world and don’t quite see that they thus construct the world in their own image’ (Richard Dyer, ‘Whiteness’ p12)

 

What does it mean to construct and consume other people’s lives, to commodify history and memory into story and narration? The domain of ‘life-writing’ (and non-fiction in general) is distinguished by its relationship to, and claims about, a referential world—a world beyond the text—that anchors the narrative of the work itself. Non-fiction is ‘the literature of reality’[1], and often, the ethical crux of any work of biography is centred on its truth-value, its relation to authenticity and fact (Eakin 3). However, when navigating the difficult terrain of America’s racial legacy, acts of representation and authorship are inherently political in nature, imbued with questions of privilege, authority, and relations of power. What motivation does Rebecca Skloot have in telling Henrietta Lacks’s story? What does it mean to bring the details of Henrietta Lacks’s life into the public sphere? Why should Skloot be the one to tell this story, and what stake and what claim does she have on Henrietta Lacks’s life? Skloot has positioned her biographical project as one that is intimately tied to raising issues of ethics, in particular, ethics surrounding medical and scientific research — yet, where Skloot’s book fails is precisely this privileging of bioethics over the racial and gender politics at the heart of Henrietta’s story. Skloot seldom interrogates her own subject position, relying instead on the presumed neutrality, invisibility and objectivity of the white gaze to give credence to her authorial perspective, without drawing attention to how she observes, interprets, and reinscribes racial identities and images.

 

Writing about and for others is always fraught with ethical tensions; biographical texts produce a culturally authoritative version of truth and, unlike a work of fiction, they can have an impact on the real, material reality of individual lives. Skloot frames her biographical undertaking as a corrective to the injustice the Lacks’ family had endured and the erasure suffered by Henrietta. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks begins with Skloot describing her fascination with a photo of an unidentified woman — ‘there’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met … beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane, or Helen Larson.” (1) Skloot depicts her project as fuelled by a desire to make present a felt absence, to unearth the ‘real woman’ behind the image, whose name had been forgotten yet whose cells remained ubiquitous in scientific research. She states: ‘I became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story…I had the idea that I’d write a book that was a biography of both the cells and the woman that they came from—someone’s daughter, wife, and mother.’ (6) This sentiment echoes the epigraph by Elie Wiesel that opens the book – ‘we must not see any person as an abstraction.’ Skloot validates her objective in writing the book by presenting it as a humanist impulse toward historical reclamation, a response to Deborah’s lamentation: ‘I just want to know who my mother was.’ (9) However, Skloot doesn’t seem to question her own limitations as biographer, or the possibility that the reality of Henrietta’s life may lie beyond her domain of access. Nor does she acknowledge the undeniable power dynamic that is imbued within any relation between biographer biographical subject. As Hermione Lee contends, the opening moves a biographer makes reveals much about their approach to their subject (130) and it is telling that Skloot begins her story by centring herself as the active agent and firmly placing Henrietta as the object under scrutiny. Henrietta is an inert, silent figure in a photograph, subject to the will of Skloot’s fascination and gaze — a gaze that desires to consume, to know, and indeed to make knowable, the ‘other’ (hooks 21).

 

As Hermione Lee argues, any biographical work is an artificial construct; a narrative shaped and selected, framed and reconstituted through a subjective point of view (122). However, unlike Lee, who chooses to foreground ‘the artifice of the biographical narrative’ (122), Skloot’s discursive techniques in relaying Henrietta’s story retain an ideological commitment to the illusion of ‘realism’. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a dense work; it spans across six decades and navigates the lives of over a dozen ‘characters’, while also having the difficult task of making complex scientific data palatable for a general audience. The book moves between three overlapping narratives; firstly, a historical biographic sketch of Henrietta Lacks; secondly, the story of the HeLa cells and the evolution of its scientific history (written in the vein of Skloot’s science journalism background); and thirdly, the story of Skloot’s research into this book and her ongoing relationship to the Lacks’ family. Skloot adopts a neutral, impartial tone as third-person narrator when recounting events external to her own experience, often employing the perspective of an omniscient narrator. One such example is when Skloot recounts Henrietta’s discovery of her tumour: She filled her bathtub, lowered herself into the warm water, and spread her legs. With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finder inside herself and rubbed it across herself until she found what she somehow knew she’d find; a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening to her womb. (p15; emphasis my own) How could Skloot have knowledge of this private, intimate moment? One possible source is Henrietta’s gynaecologist, Dr Jones, who tells Skloot ‘[Henrietta] said that she felt as if there were a lump there. I do not quite know what she means by this, unless she actually palpated this area.’ (p17) Yet Skloot imparts this clearly imagined incident to the reader with complete confidence and authority, even expressing Henrietta’s innermost thoughts in that instance. Indeed, the whole narrative surrounding Henrietta’s life is essentially one of historical (re)imagining, constructed on inevitably fallible first-person testimonies, anecdotes, and memories, retold decades after Henrietta’s death. However, Skloot’s rhetorical devices all function to conceal rather than reveal the partiality of the truth she is presenting; they remain ‘invisible’, obscuring the constructedness of her narrative.

 

No work of culture is created in isolation; biographical works, like all cultural products, are always inflected with the social and cultural politics of its time and place (Lee 126). In his essay ‘The Matter of Whiteness’, Richard Dyer elucidates on the invisibility of whiteness as a racial position, and the authority with which ‘[whiteness] speaks and acts in and on the world’ (10). The cultural production of racialized images is almost uniformly depicted from a white perspective.  As an educated, privileged white woman, who ‘grew up in a safe, quiet middle-class neighbourhood in a predominantly white city and went to high school with a total of two black students’ (7) Skloot nonetheless presumes that she can transcend the differences of race and class to construe specific historical and social contexts of the American black experience in her book – from segregation in the rural South, to the Great Migration of the early 20th Century, to black incarceration, urban poverty, and domestic violence. In particular, the Lacks family are portrayed as altogether poor, uneducated, and ignorant. In adopting the authorial role, Skloot is able to inhabit the universal subjectivity accorded to the white subject, a subjectivity that allows her to mine the experience of those who are structurally disenfranchised and denied the means of cultural self-representation, such as Henrietta, Deborah, or Zakariyya. In her essay ‘Resurrecting Henrietta Lacks’, bell hooks critiques Skloot’s project as a ‘ruthless excavation of the black female body’ (86), accusing Skloot of being ‘silent when it comes to addressing issues of racism and sexism as systems’ (86) and reinscribing hegemonic depictions of black identity (84). While presenting herself as the figure of white benevolence, Skloot is unaware of the blind spots that arise from her privilege, and the problematic way in which she addresses the plight of her black subjects.

 

In her book Black Looks, bell hooks writes that if the producers of racial imagery ‘do not interrogate their perspective, then they may simply recreate the imperial gaze—the look that seeks to dominate, subjugate, and colonize’ (7). Cultural production plays a crucial role in defining the political and social power to which both individuals and marginalized groups have access, and in particular, black women have historically been denied the dignity of self-determination and the ability to construe their own identities. In the racial history of America, hooks writes that there is nothing sensational about the violation of black female bodies; (89) indeed, Henrietta Lacks is one of many forgotten women of colour who have faded out from historical memory. However, it is not race but science that is Skloot’s primary ethical theme in the book. She ends her biography on a lengthy Afterword detailing the current state of tissue research, largely obscuring the deeply embedded, institutional legacy of racism which allowed such exploitation to occur in the first place. Indeed, while the medical researchers exploit Henrietta’s body in the name of science, Skloot appropriates and colonizes the discourse surrounding Henrietta’s life story, and the invisibility of Skloot’s narrative devices mirrors the invisibility of the power structures which underpin Henrietta’s, and other black women’s, lived experience.

[1] Writing Creative Non-fiction: The Literature of Reality. Gay Talese & Barbara Lounsberry

 

WORKS CITED:

Dyer, Richard. ‘The Matter of Whiteness.’ White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, 3rd Edition. Ed. Paula Rothenberg. New York: Worth Publishers, 2005

Eakin, Paul John. ‘Introduction: Mapping the Ethics of Life Writing.’ The Ethics of Life Writing. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2004

hooks, bell. “Tragic Biography: Resurrecting Henrietta Lacks.” Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013

‘Introduction.’ Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992

‘Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.’ Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992

Lee, Hermione. “Telling the Story.” Biography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

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