December 11, 2011


 I first met Rebecca Skloot at a conference in Baltimore in August, 2003.  On that occasion, she did a fifteen-minute reading  from the manuscript of her new book, due out the next year.  The book was about a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who appeared one day in 1951 at the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore.  She had terminal cervical cancer and died not long after.  The story doesn't end there, though. Her cells (known as HeLa cells) are still alive, still replicating, and still the basis for a multi-millon dollar worldwide industry in cancer research.

HeLa cell
Skloot writes that scientists had tried for years without success to keep human cells alive in culture. Lacks' cells were different. They "reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped.  [Italics mine.] They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory."  (NPR book excerpt.)

HeLa cells

According to an interview with The Root, Skloot first heard of the cells in a biology class when she was 16. The woman behind the cells, though, was a mystery.  Even her family didn't know until the 1970s that her cells were preserved. The HeLa cells mattered, but their origin did not, which is to say that Henrietta Lacks, the human being, didn't count, nor did her family. Because of Rebecca Skloot, that situation changed.

In 2004, I heard Skloot read a second time.  Again, she was introduced as an author whose book would be released the following year.  It was a nightmare of a reading; her printer had failed an hour earlier, so she was stuck reading from  reading from her laptop, with the usual accompanying pauses and breaks in attention.  Didn't matter.  The text was riveting, the writing smooth and smart and muscular and wildly informative.  I made a mental note to watch for the book's release the next year.

HeLa cells

And I did.  I watched for it in 2005, in 2006, in 2007, in 2008, in 2009, and in 2010.  And then one day, it happened. Rebecca Skloot put an update on facebook saying The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was soon to be published.  In an excerpt from the book on NPR, Skloot describes what carried her through those years:  an obsession with Mrs. Lacks, her family, and the ethical questions raised by the use of HeLa cells.

Tonight I was watching an interview with Publisher's Marketplace news editor Sarah Weinman, and I learned that, in 2011, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the third-most-purchased book on the New York Times combined list of paper and electronic bestsellers. Number Three on the over-all NY Times book list.  How great is that?

HeLa cell splitting
 I am happy for Rebecca, for the scientific community, and for the rest of us, because the ethical issues she reports on belong to every one of us. Not until tonight did I remember my own personal example.   My husband died in 2000.  Ten million of his blood cells, though, give or take a million, are are alive and well and frozen in Little Rock, Arkansas. My husband Fred, who had a vicious cancer, was scheduled for two autologous stem cell transplants, requiring the harvesting of his own stem cells. At the time of apharesis, we signed a document giving any left-over blood cells to the hospital.   Fred's failing health allowed only one transplant; and so The University of Arkansas Medical System owns a living piece of him.  Perhaps the cells are still frozen. Perhaps they've been thrown out. Perhaps they're being used. How odd to imagine; and how kind of Rebecca Skloot to have prompted the thought that he may still be carrying on.  (He always said he'd be the last one off the planet and would turn out the lights as he departed.)

Going back to my long wait, this evening I  read on the Niemann Storyboard that the Henrietta Lacks book took 11 years for Skloot to write.  There was the extensive, time-consuming research, of course, but Skloot also says in that posting that "Figuring out the [triple narrative] structure of this book was maddening, and it took me a very long time."

Persistence.  Showing up.  Doing the work, redoing the work, expanding the work, documenting every weather report and every statement from at least two sources, struggling with material enough and themes enough to swamp any writer -- Skloot didn't know how to write the book when she started.  Eleven years later, she did.

I've mentored two dozen or more writers over the last ten years.  Often, they ask if they should keep working; if they're capable of being writers; it the work is worth pursuing. There are three equally accurate answers:  Yes.  Also: Nobody knows.  Also: How much time do you have?

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