Skepticism and Henrietta's Story
In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Skloot weaves together three stories: Henrietta’s and her family’s, Henrietta’s cells’ and her own. The BBC documentary The Way of All Flesh, while presenting similar information as Skloot’s novel, gives a vastly different understanding of this story. While both accounts are similarly comprehensive and factually alike, they give very different impressions of the ethics of using Henrietta’s cells simply in the way that each is presented.
The Way of All Flesh casts Henrietta’s cells as the main character of her story. The title of the film does not feature Henrietta’s name but rather leads the viewer to believe that the main character will be her “flesh,” or the cells themselves. The main supporting characters are therefore the doctors who handled her cells as much as Henrietta and her family are, as both had roles in culturing the cells. The film narration begins: “In 1951, a woman died in Baltimore in America. She was called Henrietta Lacks. These are cells from her body.” While offering the background information about Henrietta necessary to introduce the cells, the film quickly focuses on the cells and their miraculous features. The narration continues: “These cells have transformed modern medicine. But they also became caught up in the politics of our age.” While both Skloot’s account and the documentary attempt to explain the controversy surrounding use of the cells, the film focuses on how the cells affected medical and political history and Skloot’s novel focuses on Henrietta’s life and how the use of her cells affected her family.
The documentary then gives a very short overview of Henrietta’s life before her diagnosis, but also offers a more lengthy background on the work of Dr. Gey, a scientist involved with the discovery of the cells’ potential. By initially focusing on the scientific aspect of the cells’ history and leaving out the controversy surrounding their acquisition, the film gives the reader the impression that scientific discovery will be the protagonist of this story, in a sense, while Henrietta is forgotten. While the antagonist in Skloot’s novel seems to be the scientific community, the enemy in the documentary is certainly cancer (and the Russians, polio virus, anything or anyone but the doctors who used Henrietta’s cells for research). The ominous music playing as images of Henrietta’s cells dividing fill the screen attempts to convey the horror of a cancer diagnosis.
Whereas Skloot interviews Henrietta’s family members to document their confusion and anger in learning the fate of Henrietta’s cells, the film’s interviews document these same emotions but in their learning that Henrietta developed cancer. Later in the film, a segment of an interview with Henrietta’s daughter-in-law seems to show that in fact she was excited about the use of Henrietta’s cells, although mystified by their presence. Only in the final minutes of the film, the anger of certain family members is mentioned. While Skloot focuses on the family’s bitterness because of her apparent exploitation, the film includes interviews conveying the family’s preoccupation with the money and fame they could gain by exposing the story of the cells. Although each portrayal elicits a different reaction from the reader or viewer, one is not necessarily more accurate than the other as both versions include mere selections from actual interviews.
After seeing images of children with polio and of the prisoners who were unlawfully injected with her cancer cells, the documentary viewer forgets the circumstances of the woman they came from and thus somewhat dismisses the ethical implications of their use. When comparing the use of cells without the owner’s consent to virus epidemics and the horrors of human experimentation, the exploitation of Henrietta and her family does not seem so severe. While including this disturbing material in the film might seem unnecessary, used as a tool to elicit a certain emotion from the viewer, the same argument could be made about the inclusion of Henrietta’s daughter Elsie’s heartbreaking fate in Skloot’s novel. While the film viewer forgets Henrietta’s tragedy when bombarded with images of ill patients, the reader forgets the good that has come from research using Henrietta’s cells because of the trauma her family has suffered. Because the focus of Skloot’s story is primarily her family interviewees, it might seem more organic and therefore honest than the film. However, one could also argue that the film’s interviews with scientists make it a more believable account. Neither of the versions could possibly have provided all angles of this story, nevertheless neither is truly complete.
One might find that Skloot’s novel puts the story of Henrietta and her cells “in perspective,” as most who are familiar with HeLa cells know only of the scientific advances achieved using them. However, when viewing the film after reading Skloot’s novel, one’s emotional reactions to Henrietta’s story might be rightfully overcome by the feeling that more good has come from the use of her cells than evil. When reading the book after viewing the film, one’s emotional connection to Henrietta’s family might overcome one’s feelings of contentment in learning about the scientific achievements associated with the use of HeLa cells. While neither version of the story is biased in a way that renders it untruthful, certainly one’s opinions based only on the novel or solely the film would be flawed because of the specific angle with which each tells this story.
In order to form a valid opinion on a subject must we therefore understand multiple representations of the facts? Can any one account of a story ever be trustworthy? In “The Demon-Haunted World,” Carl Sagan advocates questioning new ideas. While he finds that “it takes work to be skeptical,” one must always be wary of those who “have a motive to shade the truth” (184). Perhaps Skloot unintentionally exaggerated the anger of the Lacks family in order to make her novel more appealing or her hard work more worthwhile. Similarly, creators of The Way of All Flesh could have been initially inspired by exciting and yet biasing advances in cancer research. Sagan does not suggest that we dismiss all inevitably biased accounts but rather think critically them. While Sagan’s “critical thinking” may seem exhausting, he claims that this “small investment of skepticism” will inevitably pay off (184). So even if one is not motivated to learn the entire truth about Henrietta’s cells, the exercise in critical thinking might prove beneficial when being a skeptic really matters.
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown, 2010.
The Way of All Flesh Dir. Adam Curtis. BBC, 1997.