Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.
I’m on the last hundred pages of my book club’s choice for this month, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I’m feeling pretty disappointed. The Immortal Life… deals with the story of a black, working-class American woman called Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer at the age of only thirty-one. When a sample of cells was taken from her cervix, they unexpectedly became ‘immortal’, and became central to much significant scientific research in the decades to come as the HeLa cell line. However, nobody told Henrietta’s family what had happened to her cells, asked for their consent, or explained the facts of the matter when they did find out what was going on. This was obviously traumatic for a family haunted by the history of medical experimentation on enslaved black Americans, more recent scandals such as Tuskagee, and their own lack of access to medical treatment. Skloot deals with both the medical history of the HeLa line and the story of Henrietta’s family.
The Immortal Life isn’t working for me for two main reasons. Firstly – as someone who is used to undertaking oral history and applying to ethical committees for clearance – the ethics of Skloot’s project remain unclear. Skloot writes scathingly about other attempts to uncover Henrietta’s life, but is not specific enough about why hers is any different. Why did an elite white woman decide so unwaveringly that this was the story she wanted to tell? The scene where she badgers Henrietta’s relatives until they agree to talk to her made me feel particularly uncomfortable. Skloot frequently alludes to the idea that Henrietta’s relatives approve of her book, but I wanted her to say a lot more about what they saw and how they vetted it – if not in the book itself, than in the Afterword.
My second concern is more to do with me as a reader. I’m finding the scientific material in The Immortal Life frustratingly simplistic, especially after having recently read Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race, which gave me a lot more to get my teeth into. While I’m not knowlegeable enough to fully critique it, Skloot misses out the really interesting details and proceeds at a sub high-school/A Level rate (a cell is ‘like a fried egg’); she also definitely gets some things wrong (shortening telomeres cannot be straightforwardly linked to cell ageing). This isn’t what I want in my popular science, and as the medical ethics aspects of the book also fall short, my overall impression is that this book was a bit of a wasted opportunity.
I’ve just finished the first season of 3% on Netflix, a Brazilian-made, low-budget show that’s been (annoyingly) dubbed into American English but is pretty watchable all the same. The set-up is Hunger Games-esque; the population lives in poverty, but when you turn twenty, you have one chance to join the elite 3% who live on the Offshore by passing the Process, a series of mental, physical and emotional tests. I’m enjoying the diverse cast (lots of characters of colour, including a prominent disabled character who actually gets to have a love life) and the twist at the end of the first season promises interesting avenues to explore in the future. I’m also looking forward to Netflix’s new series of Anne With An E and Orange Is The New Black, both of which I love.
Outside Netflix, my local independent cinema, the Tyneside, is having a Jane Campion season. Having already seen two of her best-known films, The Piano and Bright Star, I’m planning to see Holy Smoke and a collection of her very early work, Two Friends and Early Shorts, in the next few weeks. I will also continue enjoying the terribleness that is Holby City on the BBC (and celebrating its genuinely refreshing depiction of a happy relationship between a bisexual woman and a lesbian, both in their fifties) and Channel 4’s Bake Off: The Professionals (formerly Crème de la Crème) which I controversially prefer to the actual Bake Off.
I’ve just got back from the Children’s History Society conference at the University of Greenwich, which was full of interesting papers that gave me things to think about for my own work on the history of childhood. I particularly liked Emily Barker’s paper on adult ideas about children’s play in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and the tensions between those who promoted play – should play spaces allow children to have absolute freedom from adult authority, or should play be guided by trained adults (‘playworkers’)? This mirrored some of my own research on progressive/child-centred education in the same period. A fantastic panel on ‘Moving Histories of Child Welfare’ featured research from Jono Taylor, Sean Male and Michael Lambert on child evacuees and children in care in wartime and post-war Britain, while the two other speakers on my panel, ‘Young People, Education and Political Engagement’, Helen Sunderland and Rebecca de Schweinitz, both gave great papers. Helen’s research – on how deeply politically engaged elite Victorian and Edwardian adolescent girls were – was particularly fascinating, and she’s also found some evidence of political engagement among working-class girls, some of whom struck from school in 1914 when a half-day at the local boys’ school wasn’t extended to them (the male teachers got time off to watch a football match!).