I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction recently: a history of France; Sacred Trash, a fascinating book about the Cairo geniza, which prompted me to begin reading a biography of Yehudah Halevi, (currently put to one side); Jews and Power by Ruth Wisse, also very interesting, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, borrowed from our daughter.
Henrietta Lacks was a young American woman, suffering from cancer in the early 1950s. Doctors at the time were trying to grow cells, to use for experiments, and took a sample from her tumour, as a standard procedure. The cells grew and reproduced in the lab, in a way which other cells did not, and subsequently became the most commonly used human cell line. They have been used to test and develop many medical discoveries, including the polio vaccine and much cancer research.
The book looks not only at the medical aspect of HeLa, but also at the effect of Henrietta’s death on her family, (she left five young children) and the continuing effect of the discovery that part of their mother/wife/sister was still “alive”, on the family. The Lacks family were a poorly educated black family, living near Baltimore. It was very disturbing to see, comparatively recently, the racism, both institutionalised and casual; lack of opportunities and eventual descent into both use and sales of illegal drugs, which an apparently normal family were subjected to. Some of the children managed to pull themselves out of this, but overall, the family was severely damaged both by the death of their mother and by their subsequent discoveries about her cells.
Reading this book made me reflect on just quite how privileged we are and how fortunate our children are to grow up in loving stable households. A few weeks ago, our three-year-old had a nightmare. He started flailing around and whimpering. While I was patting him and trying to comfort him, he started shouting, “No! I don’t want ketchup on my plate!” “It’s OK,” I said, “there isn’t any ketchup on your plate.” “No!” he insisted, and continued flailing. Eventually, I said what any mother would say in this situation – “It’s fine, sweetie. I’ll get you another plate.”
Although I laughed about it in the morning, it was very poignant to compare the nightmares of a much-loved, secure child with the living nightmares experienced by many children all over the world.