The Travels of Beth and (parts of) Henrietta Lacks


Beth was generous enough to share with us her latest literary Muni adventure, involving the story of the (geographically and temporally) lengthy travels of one woman’s cancer cells.  Beth is not only a prolific muni rider (count the number of lines she uses!!), but also a prolific writer, whose own work can be found  at http://www.bethmattson.com/, and all over.


Aside from peering and squinting at the print in the hands of other Muni riders, my main method of finding books to read is to have them recommended by NPR, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, has been all over NPR. At least three separate podcasts had convinced me that the adorable and clever Ms. Skloot had written an amazing book featuring the astounding story of clandestine cancer cells stolen from Henrietta Lacks, grown in perpetuity in petri dishes without the knowledge of her family. So imagine my surprise when I managed to get my grubby little hands on a copy of the fresh hardcover from the public library within a couple of weeks.

Most days, I take the 22 Fillmore from my home in the Mission to the 5 Fulton and ride it all the way to 18th Ave and the school of my young nannying charge, where we play and frolic until evening when I hop on a 1 from their house in Laurel Heights back to the 22 home. But on special days, when the Mission Branch of the San Francisco Public Library alerts me that there is a new treasure with my name on it, I walk to the library snatch my newest paper companion and ride BART from 24th St to Powell, where the 5 shoots me all the way into the Richmond while I fondle the new read.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was so absorbing that I didn’t even manage to extract myself from its pages long enough to leave the downtown 5 stop and peruse the clearance at Old Navy. I stepped off of my 5 Fulton ride to work half an hour too early to pick up my nannying charge and simply sat on the flippy seats under the Muni shelter, drooling over the pages.


Rarely does a born story-teller grasp science and history well enough to treat them as the documented and peer-reviewed arts that they are, and rarely does a learned science geek manage to tell a beautiful and moving tale that includes family dynamics and deep heartbreak. Rebecca Skloot has done both. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is creative nonfiction at its best. Historical tidbits and biological concepts are grippingly explained and nicely referenced; the story of a dying woman and her non-consensual contributions to science are woven so impeccably with the reactions of her devastated family that no doubt remains that laboratory work and human lives are inextricably linked.

The cells from Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer were cultured outside of her body in 1951, and when they survived, unlike all human cells before hers, they grew into the most important line of cells ever used for laboratory research. But Henrietta wasn’t told before her death, and her family wasn’t told until well after commercial labs could charge big dollars for vials full of Henrietta’s cells. The family with the genes changing the face of medicine were too poor to see doctors themselves, Henrietta’s only surviving daughter often cutting pills in half to make her medications last longer.

I was so sucked into this book that I failed to make the appropriate transit connections on multiple occasions. As I learned about cell cultures and the brave family of a long-dead heroine, I missed the appropriate transfer from one late night BART train to the other, and I didn’t care one bit. I just sat on the concrete bench, snuggling Rebecca Skloot’s masterpiece. It only took me six Commuter Days* to finish this beautiful tome. Its fuchsia and orange tie-dyed cover looks great against a Muni seat, and I suggest that you forget about your transportation while you get lost inside Henrietta’s cells and ride well past your stop.

*Commuter Days: As there is no reliable Muni transit schedule, Muni riders simply stand at Muni stops hoping that their ride will come at their appropriately estimated time. The timers are regularly wrong and/or late, so this allows for lots of time to read at the bus stop, even if, when the bus arrives, it is too full to sit and read and one must grip a Muni pole for dear life. Thus, Commuter Days vary in the length and quality of reading time that they provide. Some days, when conditions are ideal both ways, two hours of commuter reading can occur. Other days, barely fifteen minutes of literary joy can be sucked out of a bumpy and un-joyous commute. Take this measure of length and ease of read with a grain of salt.

Thanks for the recommendation Beth!! Great story, and we can relate to your definition of “Commute Days” only too frustratingly well!

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3 thoughts on “The Travels of Beth and (parts of) Henrietta Lacks

  1. I don’t live in SF, and the Muni doesn’t run between West Salem and Mindoro Wisconsin, but I remember listening to the story on NPR. I was driving home to Mindoro and had just passed through the Mindoro Cut when the story of Henrietta Lacks was on.

    What surprised me is that the courts decided against Herieta’s family in an effort to get get some financial reimbursement.

    Bob

  2. Pingback: Of Zombies and Good Spankings « Between The Lines

  3. Pingback: Of Zombies and Good Spankings « Between The Lines

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