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For “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”: Rebecca Skloot at 92Y

April 13 just so happens to be my maternal grandparents’ anniversary and as I sat in the majestic auditorium at the 92Y on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side, the date seemed fitting. After all, one of the panelists would be speaking about the legacy of her grandmother, Henerietta Lacks.  

Henrietta Lacks is the Beyonce of the medical community to put it simply. Known to researchers and scientists alike as HeLa, her cancerous cells are the only ones to date that have continued to grown outside of the human body. Thus, they have been instrumental in every ground breaking medical advance, such as the polio vaccine, cancer treatments including the cervical cancer vaccine, AIDS cocktails, Parkinson’s disease, and in vitro fertilization. 

The woman behind the woman (Henrietta Lacks) is author Rebecca Skloot. She's an author, teacher, and journalist, but none of these titles seem to do her justice. The work she did for science and cultural awareness merits her a Pulitzer Prize as far as I am concerned. She brought the tragic story behind HeLa cells, that of the woman who was Henrietta Lacks to us all, but most importantly to her children and family. 

Skloot has allowed for their knowledge, consent, and legacy that they can work towards to honor their beloved family member. Skloot worked for almost twenty years before her first book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was published and to say that this story has become truly immortal in the years since is an understatement. Next Saturday, April 22, HBO will premiere the movie of the same name staring Rose Byrne, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and of course Ms. Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks. 

Here is the trailer for the HBO film:

Deborah Lacks was Henrietta’s daughter and only two years old at the time of her death. She and Skloot collaborated on this masterpiece together although she died shortly before the book was published. I could go on and on about this story and all of those in and behind it but really you just need to read it. It will change your life which is why I included it on the list of books that have impacted my life ( in my blog post from October 2016.

This night at 92Y was the first event to promote the HBO movie. We were also the first audience to see more clips than just the trailer. From the first one I was sobbing, on the inside. It really brings the emotion all to the surface. The book is infectious and you just can’t believe what you are reading. That is the reason my former co-workers and I began to race to the end. 

Hearing Rebecca Skloot, Actresses Rose Byrne and Renee Elise Goldsberry, granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye, and daughter-in-law Shirley Lacks talk about their experiences and how this story has affected their lives was unlike any other event I will ever attend. I was hooked on each word and trying to process all I was learning as fast as possible. I know for one thing I need to re-read this book this week.

Rebecca’s writing uncovered so many things Deborah had yearned to know about her mother, facts that everyone has the right to know. The journey from research to writing has made Rebecca Skloot’s bond with the Lacks family quite special. 

When discussing the move, Rebecca said she was listening to the thousands of audio tapes she had of Deborah and her from the many years they worked together trying to find the perfect clips to give to Oprah for her portrayal of Deborah. That was when she found a conversation of Deborah saying that way back in 2000, ten years before publication, that the book would be published, become a hit (it has been on the New York Times best seller list for six years), and that Oprah would play her in the movie. Talk about a bittersweet moment. Renee Elise Goldsberry (who plays Henrietta Lacks) talks about the paths we follow in life, how when things are meant to be they occur as if that had been the plan all along. That evening the stars were certainly showing their alignment.

Australian actress Rose Byrne appears to be a doppelganger of Ms. Skloot so much so that when Rebecca appeared to the set for the very first time they were wearing IDENTICAL outfits down to the ties around their shirts. It was then Rebecca knew Rose got her. 

In addition this discussion went on to cover the updates in the past seven years since the book came out. Rebecca was the first one to find out that the HeLa genome had been published publicly without the family’s consent. Technically it was not illegal but it is immoral. With what scientists now understand about DNA, they could use this information to find out what the diseases the Lacks family has genetic markers for, even if THEY didn't want to know. It might not seem like a big deal but there is no part of you that the world should have without your knowledge or consent. That is the lesson here. With Rebecca’s help and the cooperation of the National Institute of Health, the Lacks family agreed to a restricted access profile so that with their permission research with HeLa cells can go on to benefit future generations. Talk about generosity. 
I simply ache for this movie to premiere I might bust. This event made me that much more eager. I am such a fan of the work, the actresses, and the writer I can’t wait for everyone to know what I know. 

Ironically enough the last time I was seated in this theater was April of last year. It  was one of the most special nights of my life ( I was there to see Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt discuss their book “The Rainbow Comes and Goes”. Talk about a pinnacle moment in my life. As happy as I was to be there I was not surprised it was happening at 92Y. Their programs just seem to get better any better. It is by far one of my favorite places on Earth. In fact when telling my brother about this particular event this week his response was “you love that place”. I sure do. And after seeing Rebecca and her panelist co-stars I love it even more.

The American Association of University Women have a wonderful article on Henrietta and her cells on their website. As part of that post they have the words that are inscribed on her gravestone, which was finally laid beside her in May 2010, nearly sixty years after her death, thanks to Morehouse School of Medicine professor Dr. Roland Pattillo.

Below the text, AAUW writes:

 “Henrietta Lacks was a mother — a mother who never got to raise her children. But her legacy may one day save your child, your mother, or you. Maybe it already has.

Thank you, Henrietta Lacks.”

They are some of the most beautifully appropriate words to describe her.

In keeping with a promise she made Deborah and as a way to not be another soul taking from the Lacks family, in 2010 Rebecca Skloot founded The Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

The mission statement is as follows:

“We provide financial assistance to individuals in need, and their families, who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent. The Foundation offers those who have benefited from those contributions — including scientists, universities, corporations, and the general public — a way to show their appreciation to such research subjects and their families.”

Through the foundation many members of the Lacks family has revived education and health insurance. Rebecca mentioned during the talk that many family members of the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies have also been helped, as they qualify for the grant. I found that interesting and it so moved me. Just recently I had watched “Miss Ever’s Boys” and I have those men on the brain often. 

This foundation is so important I beg of you to remember on Giving Tuesday and just about any other day you are in a position to give to someone who may be in need more than you. As the Easter and Passover season is upon us there is no better time to donate than a holiday, after you have spent time looking around a table, appreciating your family and friends.

Now, at this point in time, I need to say thank you.

Thank you Henrietta.

Thank you Lacks family. 

Thank you Rebecca Skloot. 

Thank you from me and all of those who still don’t know about the sacrifices you've made, that have already changed all of our lives, and our loved one’s lives for the better.

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