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'The Immortal Life' still has plenty of juice

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 9:05 p.m.
'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot, author of 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'
The South Broadway Manor living room in Scottdale on January 22, 2013. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

Almost three years after her first book was published, Rebecca Skloot figured she'd be working on a new project. Instead “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has taken on a life of its own, becoming inextricably linked to everything she does.

“It's been a pretty intense ride,” says Skloot, who appears Monday as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. “I spent 11 years, basically, researching and writing the book, and then, when it came out, it was an enormous relief. I thought, ‘OK, I'm going to move on with my life. I'll write another book.' ”

But not yet.

“The Immortal Life ...” is a global phenomenon, translated into more than 25 languages. Skloot estimates she's appeared at more than 1,000 speaking engagements since the book's publication. The story about a poor black woman's cells and how they transformed science has indelibly marked Skloot, who earned an master of fine arts in nonfiction writing degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 2008.

“If I go to a store and buy something, people see the name on my credit card and ask ‘How's the Lacks family, how are they doing?' Skloot says, laughing.

Skloot was 16 when she first learned about HeLa cells, and the qualities assigned to these cells seemed wondrous to her. Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to test the first polio vaccine, and they have been used in cancer, AIDS and genetic research.

But who was Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells bore the HeLa designation?

While she was studying for her masters degree at Pitt, Skloot began to piece the book together. She worked with Lee Gutkind, founder of the creative nonfiction program at the university and the magazine Creative Nonfiction.

Gutkind, her graduate adviser, counseled Skloot on aspects of her craft beyond writing.

“A lot of writers focus on the craft and just think they can go to a cabin in the woods, write, and send it out into the world,” Skloot says of Gutkind's admonishments to learn the business side of writing. “It just doesn't work that way, and that was one of the most important lessons I got from Lee.”

Another Pittsburgh literary figure played an equally important role in the book's development. Albert French, author of novels including “Billy” and “I Can't Wait on God,” and the memoir “Patches of Fire,” was Skloot's neighbor in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Skloot encountered opposition from some members of the Lacks family when she was first researching Henrietta Lack's life in Clover, Va., in the 1940s and early 1950s, and was at a loss as to how to proceed.

“Albert said, ‘Their resistance to you is part of the story,' ” Skloot says. “ ‘Find out why they are so afraid to talk to you and you will find out what the real story is.' That was absolutely true. Their resistance to me was because of everything that had happened to them before I came along.”

The Lacks family had good reason to be wary. Henrietta Lacks' cells had been harvested without the family's consent by researchers at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Millions of dollars were made from the sale of the HeLa cells, while many members of the Lacks family could not afford health insurance.

At one point during a phone conversation, French made a dinner wager with Skloot about who could find an address for a Lacks family member first.

“I found where one of (Henrietta's) cousins lived, called him up and said, “I won,' ” Skloot says with a laugh. “But, of course, he never tried. He never picked up his phone. ... He just laughed. He said, ‘Now you go and do it.' He just knew I needed somebody to push me to that first step.”

David Lacks, Henrietta's son, will also speak at Monday's lecture.

The Lacks family has not been compensated for the use of Henrietta Lacks' cells; there was no legal requirement for consent from Lacks family at the time of her death in 1951. Skloot, always determined to help the family, started the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide assistance to Lacks family members. So far, the foundation has 36 grants for medical and educational needs.

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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