The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the light of the Reader's Response Theory
The reader is a necessary third party in the relationship that constitutes any literary work. The reality of the work of literature is not governed by the external world, the text, but it greatly depends on the mental perception of the externals, in this case, the readers. The relationship between the reader and the text has been studied by many scholars since the 1930s. The prevalent idea was the importance of the text, and the text only in creating meaning. The reading process as a whole was also examined, and scholars such as Stanley Fish, Wayne Booth, and Louise Rosenblatt dismissed the idea that the reader’s response was relevant in interpreting the meaning of a text, and thus only the text is the primary focus of any literary work. Since the first book we read in “Facing the Fact: An Exploration of Non-fictional Prose” class, from our conversations and discussions, postings we have made and questions we have put forward, I have come to realize that the reader has a big role in giving meaning to the text. I have to disagree with the scholars mentioned above and disregard the idea that only the text is the “primary focus” of literature. In this paper, I will present the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks written by Rebecca Skloot as an illustration that “the meaning comes into existence not when the text is written, but when it is read and responded to.”
There exists a complimentary role between the text and the reader and the relationship that arises between them. This is one of the basic beliefs of the Reader’s Response theory, which acknowledges that the role of the reader cannot be disregarded from our understanding of any literary work, and stresses the importance of the individual reader’s subjective interpretation of the text. Jane Tomkins wrote about the Reader’s Response criticism in her book Reader-response criticism: from formalism to post-structuralism. She explained that a poem cannot be fully understood apart from its psychological effects on the individuals since “the meaning [of the poem] has no effective existence outside of its realization in the mind of a reader.” The extent to which the reader plays a role in interpreting the literary meanings of the text, the attitudes of the authors towards their readers, and the status of the reader concerning the reading process are all questions that come to mind when discussing the reader’s response theory.
Different readers may read the same text very differently. Constantly, the reader is actively reading any work of literature in an attempt to extract the meaning from the text; he/she does not passively absorb the meaning presented to them. In my experience reading literary books in my English class, I have got interested in listening to the responses that I and my classmates share with the rest of the class, and I can clearly see that in the end, the reader plays an important role in interpreting the work of literature and that his/her opinions are crucial in shaping the literary work. Different types of response include the initial emotional reaction, the analysis, the questions, the summary, the argument with the author about the believability of the text as a work of fiction versus non-fiction, and rethinking about your conclusions after reading the book. These constitute the relationship between the text and the reader which leads to the end result, the meaning.
In the light of reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I realized how during each chapter I read in the book my emotional responses changed throughout. I saw how my emotional attachment to the book was very strong especially when I was reading about the life of Henrietta and her family, their problems, their pains and challenges dealing with Henrietta's death and the communication barrier between the doctors and the Lacks family. I was very touched by the reactions of the family to defining the word “immortality” in terms of their mother, wife, and grandmother and/or in terms of the cells. At one point, Deborah testifies to the author that the immortal cells represented accurately her mother. This is manifested on page 265 when the author says “It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.” For Gary, he remains convinced that the “cells are Henrietta” as he tells the author on page 295. The contrast becomes clear when scientists start talking about Henrietta and her cells. I saw the shift in my reaction towards the text as I became resentful of the way the doctors treated Henrietta and her cells, especially when one of the scientists says on page 215 that “HeLa have become a separate species,” denying that those cells came from a woman who was once alive. It is further confirmed by another researcher who said on page 216 “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being bits of Henrietta because it is much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they came from…” emphasizing the great contrast between the science and the people. These two last statements stood out to me and formed the picture that this book is about the injustices of a woman who lived in a time where blacks were not treated equally by scientists and researchers.
As a reader, the book was a story about the challenges a woman with cancer faced in her life and the effects of such circumstances on the people around her. The text for me also represented the confusion that mounted members of the Lacks family. I saw that each and every member was so vulnerable and they were not treated the way they should be by people who had authority, that is, the doctors. At one point, on page 265, Debora asks the author “…you mean none of our mother regular cells still livin? Just her cancer cells?” clearly showing that she was never told the basic foundation of what was happening. It is not only the barrier and lack of good communication between the Lacks and the doctors that has appeared in the story lifetime of the woman Henrietta Lacks, but also the communication between the Lacks family itself. Henrietta never shared with her family members anything about her illness, her misfortunes, and what was happening to her body every time she went to the hospital. Deborah never heard anything about her sister Elsie. Henrietta’s husband never asked his wife about her illness or followed up her results at the hospital. Again, all these familial reactions and the inner secrets and lies of the life of Henrietta Lacks have touched me the most.
My interpretation of the meaning of those quotes and testimonies from the Lacks family, or in other words, my interpretation of the text, is what I made of it in the light of my experience and other people’s responses. According to the Reader’s Response theory, readers are “encouraged to use their various life experiences when they engage texts…” One of my classmates commented on the link between her family and the Lacks family. She said that “each thread [of the book] appeals to me as a reader in a slightly different way, just as my reactions to the narratives vary throughout.” Her experience reading the book was different and unique because for her and other people in the same shoes, have benefited from the treatments and medications that were the result of the discovery of the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks. For her, the life of Henrietta touched her on a personal level because of the science behind her cell's discovery. For other students in the class, the book was the discussion about the ethical issues that the book brought forward, or about the role of religion in the lives of the Lacks family, and even the relationship between race and medical research at that time. This just confirms the Reader’s Response theory especially that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has combined different genres of nonfiction, each directed in a certain direction, and thus has targeted different readers. The book as a result, has been interpreted differently, and given a certain meaning through the eyes of all the readers.
Yet some scholars may challenge my view that the text only comes into existence once it is read and responded to. After all, many scholars view literature as “text-centered…it assumes that literary meaning is contained in the words on the page.” However, I remain convinced that the reader has the major role in shaping any literary work and producing his/her own interpretation. I believe that the author is the messenger and it is up to the reader to decide where the next step would be.
1. Dalke, Anne. "Soundings: Where Words Arise, and Wherefore." (2007): 65-74. Print.
2. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York, New York: Crown Publishers, 2010. 1-329. Print.
3. Tompkins, Jane. Reader-response criticism: from formalism to post-structuralism. Baltimore, Maryland: the John Hopkins University Press, 1980. Introduction pages. Print.
4. "Reader-Response Criticisim." (Accessed December 2, 2010).
The best book blurb I’m aware of came from Roy Blount Jr., who said about Pete Dexter’s 1988 novel, “Paris Trout”: “I put it down once to wipe off the sweat.” I’m not sure I know what that means. Was the sweat on Mr. Blount’s forehead? On the dust jacket? On the inside of his fogged-up reading glasses? But I like it.
I put down Rebecca Skloot’s first book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” more than once. Ten times, probably. Once to poke the fire. Once to silence a pinging BlackBerry. And eight times to chase my wife and assorted visitors around the house, to tell them I was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.
A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of “Erin Brockovich,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “The Andromeda Strain.” More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.
The woman who provides this book its title, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor and largely illiterate Virginia tobacco farmer, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. Born in 1920, she died from an aggressive cervical cancer at 31, leaving behind five children. No obituaries of Mrs. Lacks appeared in newspapers. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lacks’s cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming “immortal” and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, “trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.” Laid end to end, the world’s HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times.
Because HeLa cells reproduced with what the author calls a “mythological intensity,” they could be used in test after test. “They helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization,” Ms. Skloot writes. HeLa cells were used to learn how nuclear bombs affect humans, and to study herpes, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and AIDS. They were sent up in the first space missions, to see what becomes of human cells in zero gravity.
Bought and sold and shipped around the world for decades, HeLa cells are famous to science students everywhere. But little has been known, until now, about the unwitting donor of these cells. Mrs. Lacks’s own family did not know that her cells had become famous (and that people had grown wealthy from marketing them) until more than two decades after her death, after scientists had begun to take blood from her surviving family members, without their informed consent, in order to better study HeLa.
Ms. Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating. She reports, for example, on the history and science of cellular research, about its pioneers and its calumnies. But “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” resonates most as a complex and vital human document and a searching moral inquiry into greed and blinkered lives.
Ms. Skloot tells the story of Mrs. Lacks’s life, from those tobacco fields in small-town Clover, Va., to the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the 1950s, where she was treated for her cancer, and where her cells were harvested. She follows the members of Mrs. Lacks’s family to East Baltimore, where many of them live today, still struggling with her complicated legacy. As one of Mrs. Lacks’s sons says: “She’s the most important person in the world, and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is packed with memorable characters, from quirky if brilliant early researchers to Nobel Prize-winning Nazi sympathizers to long-haired Rolling Stone reporters in the 1970s to a con artist known as Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield. (Just when you think things can’t get weirder, Judge Joseph Wapner the “People’s Court” television judge makes a cameo.)
Ms. Skloot is a memorable character herself. She never intrudes on the narrative, but she takes us along with her on her reporting, as she moves around the country in her battered, muffler-free black Honda. Her most complicated job is to get Mrs. Lacks’s family, who are tired of white people trying to pry information from them, to speak with her. She does eventually win them over. And Mrs. Lacks’s daughter Deborah is dead-on when she says to Ms. Skloot: “Get ready, girl. You got no idea what you gettin’ yourself into.”
Ms. Skloot writes with particular sensitivity and grace about the history of race and medicine in America. Black oral history, she points out, is full of stories about “night doctors,” men who could pluck black patients off the streets to experiment on their bodies. There was some truth behind those tales.
The author traces events like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which poor and uneducated black men with syphilis were recruited and then allowed to die terrible and entirely preventable deaths, while doctors lied to them and kept life-saving penicillin from them. Ms. Skloot makes it abundantly clear why, when Henrietta Lacks’s family learned that her cells were still living, the images that ran through their minds were straight out of science-fiction horror movies.
Mrs. Lacks had another daughter, Elsie, who was deaf and mute and possibly retarded. Elsie was shipped off at a young age to Crownsville State Hospital in Maryland, formerly known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, and died there at 15. Perhaps the most devastating moment in this book comes when Ms. Skloot, along with Deborah, finds a grim photograph of Elsie in the hospital’s records and uncovers some of the horrors of what life there must have been like.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is also, from first page to last, a meditation on medical ethics on the notion of informed consent, and on the issue of who owns human cells. When they’re in your body, it’s obvious they’re yours. But once they’ve been removed? All bets are clearly off.
This is the place in a review where critics tend to wedge in the sentence that says, in so many words, “This isn’t a perfect book.” And “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” surely isn’t. But there isn’t much about it I’d want to change. It has brains and pacing and nerve and heart, and it is uncommonly endearing. You might put it down only to wipe off the sweat.
More Articles in Books »A version of this article appeared in print on February 3, 2010, on page C1 of the New York edition.