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Tracing The 'Immortal' Cells Of Henrietta Lacks
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Today we'll listen back to an interview about science, ethics, class and race.
One of the obstacles that used to face medical researchers was the difficulty
of finding human cells that would keep multiplying in the culture of a Petri
dish. That problem was solved in 1951, when one doctor took cells from the
cervix of a poor African-American woman who was dying of cervical cancer.
For some reason, her cells were unique. They multiplied and multiplied and have
been used in tens of thousands of research studies. They were essential in
developing the Salk polio vaccine, as well as drugs for treating herpes,
leukemia, influenza and Parkinson's disease. They even went up in the first
space missions so scientists could study the impact of zero gravity on human
This line of immortal cells that have contributed so much to science is called
HeLa cells, named after Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom the original cells
were taken without her knowledge. The He in HeLa is for Henrietta; the La is
It took 25 years for her family to find out about HeLa cells. Her daughter
Deborah wondered: If our mother's cells have done so much for medicine, how
come her family can't afford to see doctors?
Last year, Terry spoke to science writer Rebecca Skloot. Her book about this
amazing story, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," is now out in paperback.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Rebecca Skloot, welcome to FRESH AIR. What makes Henrietta Lacks' cells, the
HeLa cells, so special, so different from other cells?
Ms. REBECCA SKLOOT (Author, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"): It's sort
of a mystery, in a sense. There are a few things we know for sure about them. I
mean, one of them is that they were first immortal human cell line ever to grow
Scientists put them in culture in 1951, and they just never died. They kept
growing and growing and growing. And scientists had been trying to do that for
decades, and it had never worked.
She had - when she went to the hospital, she had a tumor on her cervix that was
about the size of a dime. And within six months, nearly ever organ in her body
was taken over by tumors. So her cancer grew incredibly fast in her body.
When scientists put them in culture, they just took off. They doubled every 24
hours, and they sort of piled on top of each other and grew in these enormous
sort of quantities that no cells had never done before.
GROSS: So the cells that the doctors took that have reproduced so much and have
been used in so much research, those were her cancerous cells that they took?
Ms. SKLOOT: Yes. Yeah, they took both. They took a small sample of her tumor
without her knowing, and they took a small sample of her normal tissue. And
this was part of a larger study. So to sort of put it into historic context, in
1951, when she went to the hospital, the Pap smear had just recently been
Very large numbers of women were dying of cervical cancer. And the Pap smear
had reduced those numbers a bit, but no one really knew exactly how to diagnose
cervical cancer yet.
So doctors would do a Pap smear, and sometimes they would look at it and say,
oh, that's just, it's a bacterial infection, and they'd give a woman
antibiotics when she actually had cancer. Other times, they'd look at it and
say, oh, that's cancer and give a woman, you know, do a hysterectomy on a woman
who actually only had an infection.
So this doctor at Hopkins decided that if he could just grow cervical cancer
cells and normal cervical cells in culture, you could look at them under the
microscope and establish this is what a cancer cell looks like, this is what,
you know, a normal cell looks like. And it would help figure out this diagnosis
So he took samples from her normal tissue and from her tumor, and the normal
ones died very quickly in culture. They never really went anywhere. So it was
the cancer cells that really took off.
GROSS: Well, it's amazing that they can use cancer cells for medical research
since cancer cells are so different from healthy cells. So is that a problem
for the research? How can they use cancer cells?
Ms. SKLOOT: You know, it's - there are things that are completely abnormal
about HeLa because they're cancer, but there are a lot of things that cancer
cells do that normal cells do. You know, they metabolize. They create energy.
They, you know, they get infected by viruses. So there's a lot that you can
study that applies to all cells using cancer cells.
The other big thing is that they're used almost like factories. You can infect
them with a virus or various other things that you want to produce, and they'll
grow those viruses in large quantities.
And they're also sort of - they're like a baseline. They're almost treated like
the white lab mouse or the fruit fly. Part of why they're so useful is that
they just grow in these massive quantities.
GROSS: Henrietta Lacks, her story is so interesting. I love the way you balance
the personal story and the science story in your book.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor, African-American woman who, in 1951, when she had
cervical cancer, she'd never heard the words biopsy or cervix before. And I was
kind of shocked to read a little bit about her medical story.
First of all, at Johns Hopkins University, where she was, she was in the
colored ward. There was a colored ward in 1951.
Ms. SKLOOT: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And another thing I found kind of shocking was the radiation treatment
that she got, and I want you to describe that treatment.
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah, the treatment was - that was the standard for the day, you
know, regardless of where you went for your treatment, pretty much, was that
the doctors would take tubes of radioactive material called radium and
literally sew the tubes to the surface of the cervix.
They would put them in little pouches. And, first, they would stick a few tubes
up inside the cervix, and then they would sew the pouches full of these tubes
to the outside, and they would leave them there for a few days, just sort of
emitting radioactive material inside of you.
And, you know, this is the kind of stuff where it's the radioactive material
that glows. It's that kind of radioactive material. And so it would essentially
burn off the cancer, and then they would remove the tubes and send you home.
GROSS: Was this a standard procedure then, or was this considered experimental?
Ms. SKLOOT: Absolutely standard. And this is one of the interesting things,
it's sort of an important point in the history of Henrietta Lacks. Her story
has often been held up as one of, you know, these sort of, you know, awful,
white doctors who did these really kind of vicious treatments to her and stole
her cells without telling her because they knew they'd be valuable, and that
really wasn't the case at all.
They were taking cervical cancer tissues from any woman who walked into Hopkins
with cervical cancer, and this was absolutely the standard treatment. And, in
fact, it was considered the sort of top of the line.
But, you know, there are other questions about, you know, this was a colored
ward. This was the Jim Crow era. You know, the reason she was at Hopkins in the
first place was because she was black, and there were not really many other
hospitals around where she could have gotten treated.
She also had no money, and Hopkins was a charity hospital. So she was in the
public wards. And, you know, there have been plenty of studies that have looked
at how segregation affected health care delivery.
So she did get the standard care of the day, but she was definitely sent home -
many times after her radiation treatment, she came back complaining of various
pains and was sent home and sent home and sent home until she eventually
refused to go home and said no, put me in the hospital.
And at that point, her cancer had spread so much, and there probably wasn't
anything the doctors could have done either way. But, you know, the question of
how race played into her health care is a hard one to answer.
GROSS: So you were able to tell this story about Henrietta Lacks, her cancer,
her cells, how her cells were used scientifically, in part because you met
members of the family.
Once you decided that you were fascinated by the story, you tracked down the
Lacks family. Of course, Henrietta Lacks was dead, but her daughter Deborah was
alive. So how did you make contact with Deborah, and how old was she when you
Ms. SKLOOT: She was in her early 50s when I finally got in touch with her, and
she was very hard to find, and I realized later because she didn't want to be
found. But I eventually tracked down a scientist who had her contact
information, essentially, and he was the only scientist at that point who had
done anything to sort of thank the family for the HeLa cells. He had organized
a conference in Henrietta's name.
So he essentially grilled me for about three days over the phone just to find
out what my intentions were and to basically see if I was someone he was
willing to put in touch with the family.
GROSS: As opposed to what? Were they used to people getting in touch with them
for questionable reasons?
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah, well, you know, I mean, in the - I didn't know it at the
time, but I came along in the '90s, and at that point, I was just another of a
very long line of essentially of white people coming who wanted something
having to do with the cells. So scientists coming saying we want to take
samples from you to do research to learn more about the cells, journalists
coming and wanting to, you know, essentially tell the same story over and over
and over again.
And the reason why it was so upsetting for the family is because no one ever
told them anything. You know, the first time the family heard about the cells
was 25 years after she died. No one had ever told them these cells had grown,
and yet they're all over the world being used in this research. And the way
they learned about it was essentially a scientist called them wanting to do
research on the family to learn more about the HeLa cells.
This was the very early days of gene mapping, and they thought if they could
take some samples from her kids, they could use their genes to study HeLa cells
So Henrietta's husband had a third-grade education. He didn't know what a cell
was. And he got this phone call one day, and the way he understood it was
essentially we've got your wife, she's alive in the laboratory. We've been
doing research on her for the last 25 years, and now we have to test your kids
to see if they have cancer, which wasn't what the scientist said. But, you
know, the scientist said we need to look at your HLA markers and your this and
your that, and he had no idea what the science was.
He actually, you know, to him, the only cell he'd ever heard of was, you know,
the kind in the jail where one of his sons was at that point. And Deborah was
in her 20s, and she had feared her 30th birthday her entire life because she
knew her mother died in her 30s, or she was diagnosed at 30, died at 31.
So she knew her mother died right around 30, and she figured the same thing
would happen to her. No one had told her why her mom died. So it made perfect
sense for doctors to be calling, saying it's time to test you for this thing
that killed your mother.
So the family got sucked into this world of research that they didn't
understand, and it was all pretty terrifying for Deborah. She didn't know if
this stuff that they were doing hurt her mother. You know, they would say
things like we sent this stuff to the moon, and she would think, like, was that
okay for her mom?
And when they injected them with chemicals and radiation, she was very worried
that this was doing something very damaging to her mother's - either her
mother's spirit or actually her mother might feel the pain of this stuff. So
there was a lot of fear surrounding that.
GROSS: So were you in a position to explain to Deborah what this was about once
you found out?
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah, eventually. I mean, you know, Deborah, the one thing I got
from our first phone call was that she was desperate to know who her mother
was. Deborah was two when her mom died. So she had no memory of her and had
spent a lot of her life really fixated on wanting to meet wanting to understand
her mother's story and, you know, did she like to dance, and what was her
favorite color. And, you know, she just, she grew up with a lot of men. She was
very badly abused, and she held up her mother as this person who could have
And so, I knew that she really wanted to know about her mother. So I would go,
and as I learned stories about her mother by interviewing distant relatives and
finding people she grew up with, I would call and leave messages on Deborah's
voicemail saying, you know, hey, I talked to your, you know, cousin Cliff(ph),
and he told me this great story about your mom, you know, and they used to do
And so eventually, she called me and said okay, fine, I'll talk to you but, you
know, only if you don't hide anything from me. And I said hey, you can come
with me, if you want, on my research trips. I will share with you everything I
learn. I'm, you know, I'm not trying to hide anything from you.
So then, you know, she really did learn about the cells as we were going, you
know, as we were doing this research. We'd go into labs, and she would -
scientists would explain to her, you know, the basics of the cells. So she
really did eventually learn about it.
DAVIES: Writer Rebecca Skloot, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with science
writer Rebecca Skloot. Her book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," is the
story of a dying woman whose cervical cells were harvested in 1951 and used in
thousands of research studies.
GROSS: Let's get back to Henrietta Lacks, who had a body riddled with cancer,
and her cancer cells have been reproduced by scientists, and those cells have
been used in so much medical research for decades.
It's quite ironic that the - ironic isn't exactly the word. The family didn't
find out about this until 25 years later, and the family is in a position where
they can't always afford to go to a doctor. Some of them have, correct me if
I'm wrong, some of them have health insurance; some of them don't. They've
never seen a penny. They've gotten very little recognition for what their
mother contributed. Legally are they owed anything now?
Ms. SKLOOT: Legally? No, in part because it's not clear who would owe them
anything. You know, the cells were grown at Hopkins by George Gey, who then
gave them to everyone who wanted them for free. He just gave them out because
this was this unbelievably exciting development, you know, in research. He was
like: Here, everybody, do great things with these.
And then it was down the road, you know, someone started the first company
that, you know, this was the first company to ever sell human tissue or human
cells. So somebody started a company selling them because scientists, you know,
needed that. And that led to, yeah, multibillion dollar corporations now.
So it's impossible to calculate how much money has been made off of them. But
no, historically speaking, there have been other cases where people have found
out hey, someone's using my tissues for research, and they've made, you know,
in one case, a scientist patented someone's cells and sold the - licensed the
patent for millions of dollars, and the man sued, and the court said no, people
don't have the right to profit off their body because the fear is that it would
interfere with science.
GROSS: Meanwhile, getting back to the HeLa cells, the cells that reproduce so
well that so many scientists have used for research, the cells from Henrietta
Lacks, the He for Henrietta, the La in HeLa from Lacks. These cells are now
actually contaminating a lot of experiments. What's going wrong?
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah, well, this started in the very - essentially in the
beginning, and no one knew it. So, you know, when scientists first grew HeLa
cells, when George Gey first grew HeLa cells, people thought he had just
discovered the recipe and the sort of formula for doing it. And so, everyone
started taking samples from themselves and their kids and their patients and
really quickly created this huge library of samples, which was being used in
all sorts of important research.
And in the '60s, at some point, one scientist basically realized these were
pretty much all HeLa cells, and this was an enormous shock to the field. This
was a big controversy. It meant potentially, you know, some people were
potentially fabricating data, and there was millions of wasted research
And the thing is that HeLa cells can - they can float on air dust particles in
the air. They can travel on unwashed hands. You know, if you use a pipette to
suck cells out of one dish and put them in another, and then you reuse that,
you can transfer HeLa cells other places. And because HeLa cells are so hardy,
they will essentially outgrow any cell that they encounter, and the other cell
will die because it can't keep up, and HeLa cells take over.
So what, you know, scientists thought they had all of these samples, and it all
turned out to be HeLa. And, you know, it started this decades, basically
decades-long quest to try and from a few scientists trying to clean up the
contamination problem, and it's still happening. I mean, HeLa cells are still
contaminating cell lines all over the place.
GROSS: Your father, in 1988, had a viral infection that caused brain damage,
and it immobilized him. He was in a clinical trial after this viral infection.
And since this relates so well to the subject that you've been writing about,
except it's much closer to your life history, what was the study that your
father was involved in, and did he even know he was in a study?
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah, he did. He volunteered for the study. So he had this - he got
this, yes, viral infection that causes brain damage, and no one knew what was
really wrong with him at that point. There were, you know, it was the late
'80s, and people were like maybe this is some strange form of AIDS we haven't
seen, or maybe its cancer, and they were throwing out all these scary
And eventually he got lumped under the umbrella of chronic fatigue syndrome,
which was at that point, where they were putting everyone that they couldn't
really explain what was wrong with them.
You know, he seems, you know, he can't move. He's got chronic fatigue syndrome.
So there was this study that was looking at this particular drug to see if it
would help people with quote-unquote chronic fatigue syndrome.
So he enrolled in it, and there were a lot of sort of ethical questions about
it in the end. And, you know, I was 16. I had just gotten my driver's license,
and he was unable to drive because of his brain damage. So I would drive him,
several times a week, to this hospital, where he'd get these infusions of
either a placebo or the drug, and I would just sort of hang out and watch him
and these other patients being used in the study.
And at the time, you know, it was this incredible lesson for me as a kid - and
I don't even think I realized I was learning it at the time - of like the hope
of science and, you know, really thinking this thing was going to fix my dad.
You know, he went from a marathon runner to being this guy who couldn't move
almost overnight. And that was the same year I first learned about the HeLa
So I was 16 and in this basic biology class, and my teacher, you know, as all
biology teachers do at some point, they say oh, these are the first human
cells, immortal cells ever grown in culture, and they're still alive today even
though she died in '51. Like, people learn the basics of this in biology. And
for some reason my teacher knew her name. He said, you know, her name was
Henrietta Lacks, and she was black.
So I, you know, immediately went up after class and asked my teacher: so, you
know, what do they know about her? Tell me more. And he was just like, sorry.
That's it. That's all there is. And that sort of planted the seed that, you
know, all these years later became my book.
GROSS: With your father's story, like watching him from the age of 16 have this
mysterious disability that radically transformed his life, and then watching
him slowly try to put the pieces back together - to the extent that he was
capable of doing that - how did that affect your sense of the vulnerability and
the resilience of the human body?
Ms. SKLOOT: Oh, I'm sure it affected it a lot, probably more than I, you know,
than I ever have really thought about. And yeah, and I think part of it is it
also gave me a different appreciation for just illness in general and what a
transformative experience it can be internally and sort of emotionally.
And he's a very different person now than he was before he got sick. You know,
a lot of people say this happens to people often when they go through really,
you know, difficult illnesses. And he's a much warmer guy. He's a much happier
guy. He realized how important, you know, people in his life are and things. So
I think that, more than anything, that's something I got out of it is how
transformative it can be to sort of fight through something like that.
You know, and I saw that with Deborah. I mean, you know, Deborah, she was -
watching her go through this sort of arc of learning about her mother and the
traumas of all of that and then coming out the other side was so inspiring.
I mean she was - she, you know, the strongest woman I've ever met in my life.
You know, she had no education really, and she had a very difficult time
reading. So everywhere we'd go she'd carry this little tattered dictionary
around with her and look up words that scientists said to try to follow what
was going on.
I mean she so badly wanted to learn things that, you know, it was really
inspiring to watch. And then, you know, she did come out the other side,
eventually, feeling very differently about the cells and really embracing the
great things that they did for science. And, you know, so the transformation
that trauma can cause is really amazing.
DAVIES: Rebecca Skloot's book is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." We'll
hear more of her interview with Terry, recorded last year, in the second half
of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
We're listening to Terryâs interview recorded last year with science writer
Rebecca Skloot, author of the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.â Itâs
now out in paperback.
Lacks was a poor African-American woman who was dying of cervical cancer, when
her doctor cultured some of her cervical cells and found they kept multiplying
in the Petri dish. They were the first human cells to keep multiplying, which
is why theyâve been used in tens of thousands of research experiments. These
cells named HeLa cells, were essential in the development of the first polio
vaccine and many medical treatments.
HeLa cells are still being used for research. But the cells were taken from
Lacks without her consent or knowledge, and her family didnât find out until 25
GROSS: This might seem a little arcane to people, you know, whether this
woman's cells should have been paid for, what kind of acknowledgement she
should get. But you point out in your book, we all have cells that are stored
someplace. I never really thought of it that way, but is that true, we all have
cells that are stored someplace?
Ms. SKLOOT: Pretty much. It's hard to say everybody does. But yeah, the
majority of Americans at this point certainly have, very likely have their
tissues on file somewhere.
GROSS: How, like why?
Ms. SKLOOT: Well, so there are a lot of different ways that this happens, and
one of them is through, you know, you go to the doctor, and you get a biopsy.
In a lot of cases, you know, you sign a consent form that says the doctor can
dispose of this however, you know, he or she sees fit. Some cases it says you
can use this for educational research or research purposes. And that basically
means they can take them, store them and do whatever they want with them.
And in a lot of cases, so any child born in the U.S. after since the 1960s,
it's a law that you have to all newborns have to be tested for genetic
diseases. So everybody gets a little, you know, blood prick, and they test you
for diseases, which is great. We need that. It's saved a lot of lives. But then
a lot of those samples are often saved. So pretty much any child born since the
'60s has gotten has their stuff on file somewhere. Circumcision samples are
often saved, you know...
GROSS: Where is all that stored?
Ms. SKLOOT: Oh, there are banks and banks and banks, and there are so many
difference places. Some of them are for-profit, some of them are non-profit.
Some of them are in hospital basements. The range is really huge. Some of them
are just these enormous factories, and the others is, like, some guy's
basement, you know, with a bunch of vials in them.
GROSS: You write in your introduction, that about while you were trying to make
sense of the history of cell culture and the ethical debate surrounding the use
of human tissues in research, you were accused of conspiracy, slammed into a
wall both physically and metaphorically, and that you eventually found yourself
on the receiving end of something that looked a lot like an exorcism. So choose
the best story from those examples and tell us what happened.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SKLOOT: There was actually a moment during the research process, and
Deborah and I are traveling together and learning various things about the
cells, where someone actually performed essentially like a faith healing -
laying on of hands - laying hands on her to remove the cells from her. You
know, this sort of take the burden of these cells from this woman. Lord, she
can't take it anymore. And I was, you know, the reporter sitting in the room
with my notebook just sort of scribbling notes going, oh my god, I've never
seen anything like this. And, you know, they're screaming and praying and
singing and then all of a sudden, you know, he said take these cells from this
woman, and he turned to me and he put his hands on either side of my head and
said, give them to her.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SKLOOT: And I just went, oh. You know, as a journalist, this is not
something you'd necessarily expect and, you know, I'm not a religious person
and I'd never encountered anything like that. And it was such a powerful moment
for so many reasons, which I'll leave to people to read in the book. But for
me, that was actually the moment I knew I had to be in the story.
I had been doing all this research for years and, you know, I would come home
from these research trips and I would tell my friends and my family these
stories and they kept saying, you have got to put this in the book because the
family's reaction to you is the thing that tell - that illustrates how really
damaged theyâve been by this. And how are you going to show this any other way?
And I was like no, no, this is not my story. This is their story. I actually
have issues with writers who put themselves in books where they donât belong.
So I was like no, it is not my story. And I just refused for years. My agent
would harass me about it, and then that moment when he said, give them to her,
I just went, oh god, I have to be in the book.
You know, and I mean it wasnât like my first reaction, but that I really - I
realized in that moment that I had no choice because I had really become
essentially a character in the book and that I realized it would sort of be
dishonest to leave myself out.
GROSS: So did you or Deborah feel any different after this faith healer?
Ms. SKLOOT: Oh, she was utterly transformed, yeah. It was pretty incredible to
watch. And not only was she really released from so much that was so much of
the upset, or so much of the anxiety and fear that she was going through, but
she was also completely transformed in her relationship towards me. You know,
she didnât trust me. Even once she started talking to me, she was terrified
that I was going to do something to her. She would have these moments where,
for long periods, she was fine, and then she would have moments where she would
think, maybe Johns Hopkins sent me and I'm going to take her somewhere and take
And, you know, she would have these kind of paranoid moments that out of
context sound a little crazy. But when you look at them in the grand scheme of
her life and think okay, someone came to her, you know, 25 years after her
mother died and said hey, part of your mother is still alive and there's enough
of it that if you put her cells in on end they'd wrap around the Earth three
times. You know, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons. And that was
true, you know, and so whatâs too strange?
Her entire barometer for what sounded possible was just completely off kilter
because of the things that were done with the cells. And so she would have
these moments of utterly fearing me. I wasnât allowed to ride in her car, so we
would go on these trips and take two cars and I would follow her. And after
that moment that everything changed in our relationship. She actually - that
was the day she first let me get in her car and so I think that...
GROSS: Why, because part of her was now in you?
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah.
GROSS: In her line?
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SKLOOT: Well, right and I had yeah, like part of the cells was in me. And I
think also because in that moment, one of the things that, you know, the person
who was performing this faith healing or laying on of hands, I guess, one of
the things he kept saying is youâre not alone in this. She kept saying, I can't
take this by myself; I can't do this. And he said, you know, youâre not alone
and then he did that, you know, sort of transferring the cells to me. And I
think part of it was realizing that yeah, I was actually there and in this
really long hall with her.
You know, I mean this book took 10 years to write and, you know, I think that
was the moment she realized I wasnât going anywhere for real and that, you
know, and that I wasnât - that I was maybe, you know, not going to hurt her.
GROSS: So when the cell were quote, "transferred" to you by the faith healer...
Ms. SKLOOT: Mm-hmm. Uh-huh.
GROSS: Did you feel anything transformative?
Ms. SKLOOT: In some ways, yeah. I mean this whole all this religious, you know,
the faith and spiritual stuff in the story its pretty heavy. You know, her
family really, some members of her family believe that Henrietta's the Lord's
first immortal being, you know, chosen and brought back to life as these cells
to cure diseases and, you know, and she sometimes causes problems. You know,
Deborah always says the whole contamination thing was Henrietta getting back at
scientists. She's like, you know, you donât piss Henrietta off. She will sic
HeLa cells on you. You know, she'll have them come and destroy your lab.
But all that was very hard for me to kind of wrap my head around initially. I
was raised; I have no religious background at all in terms of that stuff. So,
but it was transformative. In a lot of ways what - the thing that was building
in me, which became even in some cases in some way more powerful right then was
the weight of the story, the responsibility that I felt to tell this story, and
to get it right. To not, you know, to write it in a way that people will want
to read and will get through and all of those things, and to just get it all
out of my head and on to the page, I was, I felt such a burden of that.
GROSS: Since you raised so many ethical questions about medical research in the
story and informed consent, were there any ethical questions that entered into
your relationship with Henrietta Lacks' daughter Deborah?
Ms. SKLOOT: Oh, absolutely. And in a lot of ways, I think this book is just as
much about journalism, you know, and the ethics of telling people's stories as
it is about science. You know, they're so many questions about, you know, do
you - who has the right to tell your story and do you own your own story? And,
you know, they're a lot of questions about that. You know, one of the first
questions that - once Deborah's family agreed to talk to me - the first
question they asked was: What are you going to pay us? You know, here you are
yet another white person who showed up at our house wanting to do something
that you are going to eventually profit off of that we might get nothing out
You know, at the time I was in my 20s. I was paying for all my research using
student loans and credit cards and I was like, I donât even know if this
thing's ever going to get published. And, you know, but I said to them, you
know - and there is a code of ethics in journalism that says, you know, you
donât pay people for their stories. It changes the relationship. It becomes a
business partnership, not a sort of journalistic endeavor. And I felt like, you
know, I felt like I couldnât pay them for their story. But at the same time, I
didnât want to be another person who just sort of came along, got stuff from
them and left.
So what I told them in the beginning is if, you know, this thing ever actually
happens, I'm going to create a foundation, a Henrietta Lacks Foundation that
has a scholarship fund and I will put some of my money into the scholarship
fund from the book and it will be open for any scientist, you know, university,
corporation, you know, anybody in the world can donate to this thing and it
would be a scholarship fund that would help send, essentially educate any of
the descendants of Henrietta Lacks and, you know, others in similar situations.
So, you know, when I said this I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I
didnât know how you'd create a foundation or a scholarship fund, but I did. I
did it. And so the foundation actually just went live.
And my hope is that, you know, and Deborah was, this was something that was
very important to Deborah. She came to realize as were going through this whole
book process that one of the biggest problems within the story was that she
didnât have an education. So she came to a point where she realized if she had
just been able to, you know, ask the right questions to the scientists and if
she had had a little more exposure to science - even on a basic level - she
might not have been so scared and the stuff might have not been so traumatic
for her. And she might have just been able to say at some point hey, wait a
minute, this isn't clear to me, you know, and just to sort of be comfortable
questioning things a bit more.
So for her, one of the big important elements of this is, you know, she wants
the future Lacks generations to be educated. She does not want them to go
through what she went through. You know, carrying her dictionary around trying
to understand something so scary to her, and so I felt like that was what I
could do for that. But then, you know, there were a lot of other ethical issues
that I sort of grabble with in the book, about telling the story. And in the
end that's why I'm in it, because I felt like if I wasnât then that would be
journalistically unethical, in a sense.
I felt like I had to show the impact I had on this family, which, you know, I
put them in some really hard situations that had some pretty bad effects on
Deborah in the moment. I think in the end it was all good for her. But, you
know, there were some pretty bad things happened, and so I felt like that all
had to be in there as, sort of just to be upfront about what was going on in
the story and my role in it.
GROSS: Rebecca Skloot, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SKLOOT: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: Rebecca Skloot is the author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,â
which is now out in paperback. Terry spoke with Rebecca Skloot last year.
Hereâs an update on the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. The foundation, which is
funded in part by proceeds from the sales of the book is now an established
non-profit organization. The foundation reports that to date itâs given out
eight educational grants for Henriettaâs grandchildren and great-grandchildren,
in addition to grants for medical care for Henriettaâs descendents.
Deborah Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta Lacks, passed away in 2009 at the age
And finally, Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball are producing an HBO film version of
Rebecca Sklootâs book. They hope to be in production by the fall.
Coming up, reissued Stan Getz from the â50s. Our jazz critic Ken Whitehead has
a review of a new collection.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Before 'Ipanema,' Stan Getz's Exquisite 'Quintets'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Before saxophonist Stan Getz became famous for popularizing bossa nova with
"The Girl from Ipanema," and before recording the great jazz and strings album
"Focus" in the early â60s, and then leading a hip electrified band with Chick
Corea, Stanley Clarke - Getz recorded with small jazz groups all through the
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new reissue of Getzâs quintet recordings.
He says Getz was one of the best at playing pretty.
(Soundbite of song, "Body and Soul")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Stan Getz on "Body and Soul," 1952 from "The Clef & Norgran"
sessions on three CDs. When he recorded that at age 26, he'd been playing
professionally for a decade - since joining trombonist Jack Teagarden, who
taught him a lot about relaxation, on or off the bandstand.
Teagarden was an economical ballad player and extravagant drinker. Stan Getz
became a star with Woody Herman's postwar orchestra; his gorgeous sound stuck
out even in that great band. Like other young white tenor players, Getz
emulated Count Basie star Lester Young, master of aloof improvisations that
floated over a band. You can really hear his influence at quick tempos, when
Getz does his take on Young's pet move, riding one barely changing note.
(Soundbite of song, "Feather Merchant")
WHITEHEAD: Lester Young wasn't always thrilled to have an ardent admirer more
successful than he was. Stan gets the money, he'd grumble. But where Young
cultivated a cool timbre like a foghorn in a fog, Getz's tone was luxurious. He
had one of the most beautiful and recognizable tenor sounds in a music brimming
with great saxophonists. Stan Getz said he tried to take the reed out of his
sound, and put his breath into it. His tone was soft but consistently strong
all over the horn - one reason John Coltrane dug him - that, and his way of
obsessing over little phrases sometimes.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: The "Stan Getz Clef & Norgran" sessions includes seven quintet dates
made between 1952 and '55, with sidekicks including guitarist Jimmy Raney and
trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. There's also a quartet session with Jimmy Rowles on
piano, but it's really Getz's show. He likes fast tunes too, but the ballads
are the real grabbers. Getz had myriad ways to tease a standard melody,
caressing each note, and letting one impromptu phrase inspire the next; it gave
his solos a sense of direction. He mines every moment, every detail. This is
from "Stars Fell on Alabama."
(Soundbite of song, "Stars Fell on Alabama")
WHITEHEAD: Stan Getz the saxophonist is a master of poise and the poignant
statement. Getz the man had a sitcom star's helping of booze and drug dramas,
and could be a little difficult. He was known to disparage the idea that his
touching ballads concerned his own feelings.
Getting sentimental? I don't think about those things, he once said.
Not that it matters; watching a knockout screen performance, I don't worry what
Meryl Streep was really thinking about that day. Stan Getz had an exquisite
sound, and played shapely variations on classic tunes, and created bell-clear
improvisations. Shouldn't that be enough?
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. His new book is
"Why Jazz: A Concise Guide." He reviewed the new reissue "Stan Getz Quintets:
The Clef & Norgran Studio Albums" on Verve.
Coming up, David Edelstein on the new Paul Giamatti film, "Win-Win."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Win-Win': A Go-For-It Movie With Dissonant Notes
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
New Jersey-born Tom McCarthy is an actor you might remember from TV shows like
"Boston Public" or as the overly ambitious newspaper reporter in the fifth
season of "The Wire." But heâs also the writer and director of two acclaimed
features. "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor." His new film "Win-Win," is a
feel good comedy starring Paul Giamatti as a down on his luck lawyer who
moonlights as a high school wrestling coach.
Film Critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Few trajectories on film are as compelling as the journey from
intense isolation to the embrace of a surrogate family - an arc that's Tom
McCarthy's specialty. In his blessedly serene comedy "The Station Agent," the
dwarf protagonist, played by Peter Dinklage, arrives in a small New Jersey
town, silent and unsmiling, like Clint Eastwood shrunk down - and then begins
to attract a band of outcasts who warm up his world.
McCarthy's next film, "The Visitor," featured Richard Jenkins as an emotionally
closed-down economics professor who's thrown together with a bunch of illegal
immigrants - and lo, he comes out of his shell and creates a new family.
McCarthy's terrific new comedy, "Win-Win," opens, of course, with a lonely
He's Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti at his most likeably schlubby(ph),
a suburban New Jersey attorney with two daughters - one an infant - who can't
pay his bills and can't bring himself to tell the truth to his wife, Jackie,
played by Amy Ryan. The first shot of him is from behind on a jogging path as
he staggers to a halt and gets passed on either side by a pair of peppy
runners. Moonlighting as a high-school wrestling coach, he watches his scrawny,
hapless team lose match after match. Mike is a heavy, haunted man - a heart
attack waiting to happen.
Then a way out presents itself. He can take $1,500 a month from a near-senile
court-appointed client, Leo, played by Burt Young, under the pretense of acting
as the old man's guardian. But now he's even more isolated. Heâs violated his
professional and personal ethics. He is a lost soul.
Relief arrives in the guise of disaster. Leo's emotionally damaged grandson
Kyle, played by Alex Shaffer, turns up at his grandfather's house - on the run
from his druggie mom and her abusive boyfriend, and circumstances lead to his
moving into the Flahertys' basement. At first, Mike's wife Jackie is scared of
the kid, with his bleached hair and one black eye and eerily flat demeanor. But
when she hears about his past, she gets riled.
(Soundbite of movie, "Win-Win")
Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI (Actor): (as Mike Flaherty) We're not in the position to take
care of another kid right now.
Ms. AMY RYAN (Actor): (as Jackie Flaherty) I donât care. I'm not sending him
back there. I canât. And for the record, I'm not very happy about it.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) Fine, then we donât have to do this.
Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) Yes we do, Mike. We do. Makes me so angry and so
damn sad to see him in this situation. Heâs just a kid.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) Yeah. I know. I know.
Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) I want to go to Ohio and beat the crap out of
Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) Okay. Come on.
Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) No. I do. I want to beat the crap out of her and
her stupid boyfriend.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) Okay.
Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) Iâm serious.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) I know you are. I just I donât think that
beating the crap out of everybody is the best solution. Thatâs all.
(Soundbite of heavy sigh)
Ms. RYAN: (as Jsckie Flaherty) It feels like it.
EDELSTEIN: What I love about that scene is how the edge in Ryan's voice seems
to cut through all the fatty resonance in Giamattiâs and goad him into action.
They're a perfect screen couple. And "Win-Win" is a symphony of marvelous
voices, including Shaffer's. In his acting debut, he has a stoner drone that
suggests a kid whose emotions are pushed way down. As luck - and of course
McCarthy's slickness - has it, Kyle turns out to be an accomplished high-school
wrestler. As he joins Mike's team and turns the season around, we're blind-
sided - as in "The Blind Side."
But like that other indie winner "Little Miss Sunshine," "Win-Win" is a go-for-
it movie with all kinds of dissonant notes. That's what saves it from being
cloying. Before Kyle wrestles, he insists that Mike give him a hard slap across
the face to quote, "wake him up." It's funny, because Mike is such a gentle
soul and can't believe what he's doing - and funnier when others on the team
request a slapping, too. But the subtext is ghastly. It suggests that Kyle's
wrestling talents are fueled by abuse. When his mother shows up, he leaps out
windows to avoid her. Played by Melanie Lynskey - best known for her role
opposite Kate Winslet in "Heavenly Creatures" - she has a breathy, seductive
little voice with a touch of Marilyn Monroe but a beady eye on the main chance.
There's tension all through "Win-Win." We fear that Mike will get caught for
his financial fraud, yet on some level we want him to be caught, to own up for
his soul's sake and the sake of the family that now includes Kyle. Is a win-win
scenario even possible? The title gives you a hint.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazines.
You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you
can download Podcasts of our show on our website at freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Terry Gross returns Monday. I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: On the next FRESH AIR, we talk about the final episode of HBOâs "Big
Love" with the showâs creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, who say itâs
going to be hard to let the characters go.
Unidentified Man: They are in your head 24/7. Yeah. Youâre on the toilet, the
characters are talking in your head.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man: Youâre shaving, the characters are in your head. Youâre doing
the dishes, youâre talking to the characters.
DAVIES: Join us.
(Soundbite of "Big Love" theme song)
Unidentified Artist: I may not always love you. But long as there are stars
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.