Biography

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: 
Skloot, Rebecca

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells--taken without her knowledge--became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons--as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta's small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia--a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo--to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta's family did not learn of her "immortality" until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family--past and present--is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family--especially Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother's cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Discussion Guide: 

1. Start by unraveling the complicated history of Henrietta Lacks's tissue cells. Who did what with the cells, when, where and for what purpose? Who benefited, scientifically, medically, and monetarily?

2. What are the specific issues raised in the book—legally and ethically? Talk about the 1980s John Moore case: the appeal court decision and its reversal by the California Supreme Court.

3. Follow-up to Question #2: Should patient consent be required to store and distribute their tissue for research? Should doctors disclose their financial interests? Would this make any difference in achieving fairness? Or is this not a matter of fairness or an ethical issue to begin with?

4. What are the legal ramifications regarding payment for tissue samples? Consider the the RAND corporation estimation that 304 million tissue samples, from 178 million are people, are held by labs.

5. What are the spiritual and religious issues surrounding the living tissue of people who have died? How do Henrietta's descendants deal with her continued "presence" in the world...and even the cosmos (in space)?

6. Were you bothered when researcher Robert Stevenson tells author Skloot that "scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from"? Is that an ugly outfall of scientific resarch...or is it normal, perhaps necessary, for a scientist to distance him/herself? If "yes" to the last part of that question, what about research on animals...especially for research on cosmetics?

7. What do you think of the incident in which Henrietta's children "see" their mother in the Johns Hopkins lab? How would you have felt? Would you have sensed a spiritual connection to the life that once created those cells...or is the idea of cells simply too remote to relate to?

8. Is race an issue in this story? Would things have been different had Henrietta been a middle class white woman rather than a poor African American woman? Consider both the taking of the cell sample without her knowledge, let alone consent... and the questions it is raising 60 years later when society is more open about racial injustice?

9. Author Rebecca Skloot is a veteran science writer. Did you find it enjoyable to follow her through the ins-and-outs of the laboratory and scientific research? Or was this a little too "petri-dishish" for you?

10. What did you learn from reading The Immortal Life? What surprised you the most? What disturbed you the most?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

Visiting Tom : a Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace

Author: 
Perry, Michael

Acclaimed author Perry returns with the tale of Tom Hartwig, an old-timer best known locally for building and firing homemade cannons. Famous for driving a team of oxen in local parades, Tom has an endless reservoir of stories dating back to the days of his prize Model A.

 

What can we learn about life, love, and artillery from an eighty-two-year-old man whose favorite hobby is firing his homemade cannons? Visit by visit—often with his young daughters in tow—author Michael Perry finds out.

 

Toiling in his shop, Tom Hartwig makes gag shovel handles, parts for quarter-million-dollar farm equipment, and—now and then—batches of potentially “extralegal” explosives. Tom, who is approaching his sixtieth wedding anniversary with his wife, Arlene, and is famous for driving a team of oxen in local parades, has stories dating back to the days of his prize Model A and an antiauthoritarian streak refreshed daily by the interstate that was shoved through his front yard in 1965 and now dumps more than eight million vehicles past his kitchen window every year. And yet Visiting Tom is dominated by the elderly man’s equanimity and ultimately—when he and Perry converse as husbands and the fathers of daughters—unvarnished tenderness.

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Discussion Guide: 

General Book Club Discussion Questions

1. What did you like best about this book?

2. What did you like least about this book?

3. What other books did this remind you of?

4. Which characters in the book did you like best?

5. Which characters did you like least?

6. If you were making a movie of this book, who would you cast?

7. Share a favorite quote from the book. Why did this quote stand out?

8. What other books by this author have you read? How did they compare to this book?

9. Would you read another book by this author? Why or why not?

10. What feelings did this book evoke for you?

11. What did you think of the book’s length? If it’s too long, what would you cut? If too short, what would you add?

12. What songs does this book make you think of? Create a book group playlist together!

13. If you got the chance to ask the author of this book one question, what would it be?

14. Which character in the book would you most like to meet?

15. Which places in the book would you most like to visit?

16. What do you think of the book’s title? How does it relate to the book’s contents? What other title might you choose?

17. What do you think of the book’s cover? How well does it convey what the book is about? If the book has been published with different covers, which one do you like best?

18. What do you think the author’s purpose was in writing this book? What ideas was he or she trying to get across?

19. How original and unique was this book?

20. If you could hear this same story from another person’s point of view, who would you choose?

21. What artist would you choose to illustrate this book? What kinds of illustrations would you include?

 

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

Author: 
Quindlen, Anna

In this irresistible memoir, the New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize Anna Quindlen writes about looking back and ahead—and celebrating it all—as she considers marriage, girlfriends, our mothers, faith, loss, all the stuff in our closets, and more.

As she did in her beloved New York Times columns, and in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Quindlen says for us here what we may wish we could have said ourselves. Using her past, present, and future to explore what matters most to women at different ages, Quindlen talks about. . .

Marriage: “A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage. You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation.”

Girlfriends: “Ask any woman how she makes it through the day, and she may mention her calendar, her to-do lists, her babysitter. But if you push her on how she really makes it through her day, she will mention her girlfriends. Sometimes I will see a photo of an actress in an unflattering dress or a blouse too young for her or with a heavy-handed makeup job, and I mutter, ‘She must not have any girlfriends.’ ”

Stuff: “Here’s what it comes down to, really: there is now so much stuff in my head, so many years, so many memories, that it’s taken the place of primacy away from the things in the bedrooms, on the porch. My doctor says that, contrary to conventional wisdom, she doesn’t believe our memories flag because of a drop in estrogen but because of how crowded it is in the drawers of our minds. Between the stuff at work and the stuff at home, the appointments and the news and the gossip and the rest, the past and the present and the plans for the future, the filing cabinets in our heads are not only full, they’re overflowing.”

Our bodies: “I’ve finally recognized my body for what it is: a personality-delivery system, designed expressly to carry my character from place to place, now and in the years to come. It’s like a car, and while I like a red convertible or even a Bentley as well as the next person, what I really need are four tires and an engine.”

Parenting: “Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor: We are good parents not so they will be loving enough to stay with us but so they will be strong enough to leave us.”

From childhood memories to manic motherhood to middle age, Quindlen uses the events of her own life to illuminate our own. Along with the downsides of age, she says, can come wisdom, a perspective on life that makes it satisfying and even joyful. Candid, funny, moving, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is filled with the sharp insights and revealing observations that have long confirmed Quindlen’s status as America’s laureate of real life. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. In the opening lines of the book, Anna Quindlen says about the arc of her life: “First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her.” Looking back over your own life, do you identify with Quindlen’s experience? Do you think you’ve “invented” yourself as you’ve grown older, or become who you always were? And how would you differentiate between the two?
 
2. Anna Quindlen loves everything about books—from the musty smell of old bookstores, to the excuse reading provides to be alone. Books, she writes, “make us feel as though we’re connected, as though the thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and sometimes nutty are shared by others, that we are all more alike than different.” What do you most love about books? Be specific: Is it the entertainment, the escape, the sense of connection? Something else entirely?
 
3. Anna writes hilariously about the small white lies—the cost of a kitchen renovation, for example—that can keep a marriage healthy. Do you agree? If so, fess up: Which of your innocent fibs do you think has spared your relationship the most grief?
 
4. Anna tells her children that “the single most important decision they will make…[is] who they will marry.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
 
5. Anna calls girlfriends “the joists that hold up the house of our existence,” and believes that they become more and more important to us as we grow older. Have you found this to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case? What do you think close girlfriends offer that a spouse cannot?
 
6. The difference between male friendships and female friendships, Anna writes, is that “all male phone conversations were designed to make plans,” while phone calls between girlfriends “were intended to deconstruct the world.” What other differences between male and female friendships does Anna illuminate in the chapter “Girlfriends”? What other differences and/or similarities do you think exist between male friendships and female friendships?
 
7. In the chapter “Older”, Anna writes: “Perhaps if we think of life as a job, most of us finally feel that after fifty we’ve gotten good at it.” Do you think you’ve gotten good at life? What aspects do you think you could improve? And better yet, which have you nailed?
 
8. “One of the amazing, and frightening things about growing older,” Anna writes, is that you become aware of “how many times it could have gone a different way, the mistakes that you averted, not because you were wise, perhaps, but because you were lucky.” Can you think of an example in your own life, of when you might have gone another way? How might things have been different? Are you grateful you ended up on the path you’re on?
 
9. Anna writes about our attitude toward aging and our looks: “Women were once permitted a mourning period for their youthful faces; it was called middle age. Now we don’t even have that. Instead we have the science of embalming disguised as grooming.” How does she think that our society’s love of youth, and youthful looks, affect the way women lead their lives? Do you agree?
 
10. At her age, Anna writes, she’s stopped trying to figure out why she does what she does. “I fear heights, love liver and onions, prefer big dogs over small ones, work best between the hours of ten and two. Who knows why? Who cares?” What are some of the quirks you’ve stopped fighting, the eccentricities you’ve come to embrace in yourself? In your friends, your family?
 
11. “Those little stories we tell ourselves,” Anna writes, “make us what we are, and, too often, what we’re not. … I can’t cook. I’m not smart. I’m a bad driver. I’m no jock.” Anna recounts her own story of overcoming one of these “little stories,” and doing something she once thought impossible: a headstand. Do you have “little stories you tell yourself” about who you are, and what you can do? Are there times when you, or a friend or family member, have overcome one of these “mythic” obstacles and done something you thought impossible?
 
12. Anna calls her body a “personality-delivery system.” She doesn’t require a “hood ornament”—what she really needs “are four tires and an engine.” Do you find this notion comforting? Or do you feel appearance is more important than that? Discuss.
 
13. Anna draws some meaningful distinctions between parenting young children and parenting young adults. As she puts it, “It is one thing to tell a ten-year-old she cannot watch an R-rated movie; it is another to watch her, at age 30, preparing to marry a man you are not convinced will make her happy.” What do you think are some of the biggest challenges in parenting young and older children? Some of the greatest joys? What has parenting taught you about yourself?
 
14. The “alchemy of parenthood” is watching “so much scut work”—dinners, sports, school, doctors’ offices—manifest itself in “unique and remarkable human beings.” Why do you think it’s so difficult to see the end product on the horizon—the “Sistine Chapel,” as Anna writes—during the day-to-day routines? Or, do you think there are moments within the daily routines when parents can catch glimpses of the larger thing they are helping to build?
 
15. In the beginning of Part I, Anna’s daughter asks her what message she would give to her 22-year-old self. Anna has two answers: first, that her younger self should “stop listening to anyone who wanted to smack her down,” and second, that the bad news was that “she knew nothing, really, about anything that mattered. Nothing at all.” Did this advice ring true to you, too? If you were to give a message to your younger self, what would you say?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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