I finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot the other day. I love the feeling just after a book is finished. An odd sort of quiet where the characters still stir in your mind and time seems suspended over it all. This book has so much going for it. Nonfiction that feels unreal. Funny dialogue. Heart gripping characters. But what I keep thinking about is not the HeLa cells, Henrietta Lacks, Johns Hopkins, or science, but of her daughter, Deborah.
What a life this woman lived. Not one of ease, but of hardship and struggle. In every imaginable way. But her attitude kept coming back to one of desiring knowledge and understanding. Pretty remarkable, considering the story and her family’s differing opinions.
But I am not even really stuck on her life experiences. Or even her personality. But the way I viewed her throughout the story. In a moment, a page or chapter, I would think one thought. Like, she is crazy! Or she is having a panic attack! Only to read another couple pages and realize a whole different truth. It has me thinking about how we judge folks. Perhaps even ourselves.
If lives are lived out on a timeline, we can block off episodes from point x to point y and they look one way. (The woman has mental health issues!) But expand that point y a bit further and you find out that the story is vastly different. (Oh my word…she had severely high blood pressure and blood sugar!) imagine the many times we have looked at the lives of others and missed what came just before or right after. How differently we would react if we knew the other side.
My students and I were talking about meeting people for the first time in a cold-call sort of situation. Some were great experiences, others, rotten. We threw out possible reasons for the rotten ones. The person on the other end just was diagnosed with cancer. Her dog just threw up on the floor. Her husband just left. That changed the whole perspective. I used to try that when driving in the city. If someone was particularly angry, I thought maybe they had just received bad news, or were late to a crappy job. Maybe I was excusing bad behavior, but in a way, I think I would rather do that than judge harshly.
So, while my thoughts are not totally gathered over The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, my impression is still one of high regard. People need to read that story. It is important, but maybe not for the reasons we think when we glance at the cover. Funny how that works.