If you haven’t heard the story of Henrietta Lacks, sit down and strap in. This is a true story that reads like a medical thriller and you will think about it long after you put it down. Her name when she was alive was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists around the world today know her as HeLa and it is more than likely that your life has been affected in some way by her existence.
Feeling ill, she went to Johns Hopkins (the only hospital in her area that treated black patients) and it was determined that she was suffering from cervical cancer. While there, a sampling of her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent and those became a vital tool in medicine and are still used today. Her cells, grown in culture, are literally “immortal”, still alive today, even though Henrietta herself died over 60 years ago. Imagine you could take ALL the HeLa cells ever grown and put them on a scale – they would weigh as much as 100 Empire State Buildings. Henrietta’s cells were vital for developing the polio and the Covid-19 vaccines; they were used to discover secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; they helped lead to medical discoveries in fields such as in-vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and they have been bought and sold by the billions. Biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific, who is only one of more than 100 corporations who have profited off of the HeLa cells, make an estimated 35 BILLION DOLLARS a year from them.
But Henrietta? When Henrietta died in October of 1951, she was buried in an unmarked grave near her birthplace in Halifax County, Virginia. To this day, no one is certain exactly where she was buried. Until Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published in 2010, Henrietta was virtually unknown. Her own family did not know her cells had been harvested and were being used until 1975, over twenty years after her death, and they never saw any of the monetary profits. Oh, did I mention Henrietta Lacks was a black woman?
This is a story of Henrietta, yes, but also of the entire Lacks family — past and present — and it is also a story of this country’s history of experimentation on African Americans, the beginning of the field of bioethics, and whether we can legally control what makes us us. As I read this book, I had to put it down over and over just to sit and think about this family’s story, how the death and after-life of their mother/sister/wife/grandmother affected all of their lives to this very day, and really how her death affects us all.
When Cheryl Strayed was 22, her mother, who was only 45, died from lung cancer only 49 days after her diagnosis. Horrible enough on its own, her mother’s death was only the first of many unfortunate life issues Strayed found herself dealing with. Her stepfather, brother, and sister became distant after her mother’s death. Strayed and her husband divorced. A lover convinced her to try heroin. Strayed found herself in the middle of seemingly unending grief, dealing with internal struggles. At the age of 26, she decided she needed to do something drastic to heal herself and to pull herself out of a downward spiral. With zero hiking experience, she set out from the Mojave Desert, hiked through California and Oregon, ultimately ending at the Bridge of the Gods in Washington. Again, with absolutely no prior experience, she hiked 1,100 miles, and she did it completely alone. For her, it was like walking back to her life.
Wild is the memoir Strayed wrote 12 years after her journey ended, and it was remarkably successful upon its publication. This was surprising to many because it is the story of one woman, dealing with terrible circumstances, teaching herself how to get through the ugly and learn to live her life. And she does it on her own. Without the help of anyone. Without the help of a man. To many, it would seem that it is a book where nothing really happens. Yes, she encounters difficulties while she is on the trail, but ultimately, everything happens. She finds herself while on that trail. Hers is a spiritual journey, a tale of personal redemption, and it is one that will speak to anyone dealing with life’s many traumas.
Educated by Tara Westover is, much like Wild, a story of re-inventing yourself, of dealing with grief and struggles, and of finding a way through, no matter what. Westover came from a family of survivalists who lived off the land and shunned most things that the “outside” world offered them. No doctors, nurses, or medicine (her father didn’t trust them), no formal education, no one to check in on them to make sure everyone was healthy and safe. As a teenager, she wanted to know more about the world beyond her front yard and so bought textbooks and began teaching herself. She took the ACT test and was accepted into Brigham Young University. She was 17 before she ever stepped into a formal classroom. She would eventually go on to get a Master’s degree and a doctorate, both from The University of Cambridge at Trinity College.
Ultimately, this is a story of a survivor in a survivalist family, the coming-of-age story of a girl who wanted more than what she could have if she stayed where she was. Overcoming the rigidity of her family’s rules and beliefs, she broke free and forged her own path. Of her family, she said, “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them, and you can miss someone every day and still be glad they’re not in your life.”
It’s Michele Obama. Do I really need to say anything else?
Okay, I’ll say a few things.
She makes her husband (you may have heard of him) do the dishes.
She practiced piano so much when she was growing up, her family used to beg her to stop.
She loves reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke” show and watched “The Brady Bunch” so often she had multiple episodes memorized.
She wrote her memoir, Becoming, because she wanted people to know her story. She wanted people to know she was more than just his wife, that she was an accomplished woman in her own right, before she ever met him. This is her story of how she became who she was, and how she struggled to stay that person under the watchful eye of the entire world. This is her way of showing the woman behind the icon. And this is just another way that she continues to encourage the women of the world, especially black women, to love themselves and to become who they most want to be.
Hopefully you find some inspiration inside these books, but we’d love to know – who are the inspirational women in YOUR life? Tell us in the comments!