Summer Porn Reading Lists (Part 3): The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

It’s bad enough when a high school graduate, bound for his freshman year at an elite university, does not understand the concept of pornography, and the ignorance causes him to “refuse” to read a book based on his assessment of said book as pornography. (I still wonder if he actually did read it, and got upset by a small number of depictions of acts in which he cannot participate.)

I find it more disturbing when a woman old enough to have produced a teenager condemns a book as pornography, based on a very small extract (albeit one which is pivotal to the narrative).  Jackie Sims, whose 15 year old son was assigned (again, as summer reading) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks–a combination of biography, medical history, and social commentary by Rebecca Skloot, says “I consider the book to be pornographic”.  And on her “consideration”, her son is entitled to an alternative assignment.  This is not good enough; Ms. Sims wants the book removed from reading lists for all students in the district.

She is “shocked” that the book contains so much “graphic information.”  Is it graphic?  Yes.  Mrs. Lacks, an impoverished African-American woman, whose husband’s infidelities almost certainly infected her with a particularly virulent strain of HPV, as well as both gonorrhea and syphillis, finds the tumor she suspects she has, and which eventually costs her life:

She filled her bathtub, lowered herself into the warm water, and spread her legs.  With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find:  a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening to her womb. (p. 15)

It is a highly descriptive moment:  not intending to create sexual arousal (a characteristic of pornography), but to convey the terror of being poor, suspecting and discovering serious illness, and not being believed by those most closely related.

Mrs. Lacks’ illness and death in 1951 were devastating to her family, who continue to live in poverty to this day. Yet everyone who has received treatment for cancer, or vaccines against many dangerous illnesses, owes this woman a debt.  It was cells from her tumor, known as the HeLa strain, which were used in research for an unimaginable number of diseases.  Her family has received no monetary benefit from Mrs. Lacks’ contribution to medical science.

Ms. Sims misses these points, and does not demonstrate an understanding of the difference between the kind of writing in Skloot’s work and “pornography”.  It’s easy enough to blame it on her living in Tennessee, and to assume that her geographic location means she is a conservative Christian to whom any mention of sex-specific anatomy, however clinical, means “pornography”.  There are no references to her religious views, and we should not assume the only people who see “pornography” everywhere are those with deeply held, if very conservative, Christian beliefs.

In a discussion on my Facebook page, one friend said she would have a difficult time (if she had children) allowing a 15 year old to read the book, because it handles “adult” themes, and covers a “nasty” portion of Mrs. Lacks’ life.  This is a person I like and respect, although I’ve only “known” her electronically.  I have to disagree.  This is not a book about sexuality.  And the “adult” themes are something with which people in their mid-teens need to encounter:  they are no longer children, and as you grow toward adulthood, you have to deal with a lot of the unpleasantness described in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Like poverty.

Disease.

Infidelity.

Abusive relationships.

Racial inequalities.

Medical ethics (or the lack thereof).

Death.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a children’s book, to be sure.  But its graphic descriptions of female anatomy are clinical, not pornographic.  For a public school district in Tennessee to assign the book is a tribute to those in charge of curriculum–they believe their students are mature and thoughtful enough to handle the topics in the book.  My problem is not with the book itself, but with it being assigned as “summer reading”.  If it is worthy of being an academic requirement (I think it is), it deserves time during the school term, with discussions led by a variety of instructors:  social studies, history, biology, health. It’s a serious work, and demands to be treated as such. Leaving it to “summer reading” reduces the gravity of the work, and eliminates the opportunity for students to engage deep and troubling realities in the company, and under the guidance, of informed adults.  Ms. Sims’ son may not get such chances if works such as Skloot’s are consigned to “summer reading”.

Teenagers who can grasp even half of the important themes contained in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should be admired–not have their reading censored by adults (even their parents) to “protect” them from unpleasantness.  The ability to read such a book, ask intelligent questions, discuss important issues, is a tribute to the students.  And believe it or not, a tribute to the parents, including Ms. Sims, who have raised thoughtful and insightful young people.  They’ve been protected as long as they needed to be, and now it’s time to give them some scope to explore ideas beyond those approved by their parents.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks cannot, by thoughtful people, be mistaken for pornography. It uses clinical language that is almost invariably absent in pornography.  The use of correct anatomical terminology–impersonal as it seems–paradoxically does what vulgar, slang equivalents cannot possibly do: it shows respect for the humanity of the person who is the object of discussion.  It makes her no longer an object, but a subject, a human person with feelings, fears, aspirations, decisions to be made, limitations.  It is a mature work of science, medical history, ethics, racial tensions, and economics–told in the only way possible.  It is tells the story of a young black woman whose life was cut too short by a horrible disease, whose sickness and death has afforded humanity insights into some of our most dreaded ailments.

It’s all the more shocking because it’s not told in a way meant to increase shock value.  It’s shocking because it really happened.

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