Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks attracted a great deal of media attention when it was published a few years ago. Here are a few articles that may enhance your understanding of the book.
Smithsonian Magazine: Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells
Boston.com: Why Henrietta Lacks Matters
Wired Magazine: Henrietta Everlasting
Newsweek/The Daily Beast: How Henrietta Lacks Changed Medical History
November’s choice is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Visit the author’s web site to read an excerpt.
Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace. It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah’s mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta’s death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot’s portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people. (Publisher’s Weekly)
1. Start by unraveling the complicated history of Henrietta Lacks’s tissue cells. Who did what with the cells, when, where and for what purpose? Who benefited, scientifically, medically, and monetarily?
2. What are the specific issues raised in the book—legally and ethically? Talk about the 1980s John Moore case: the appeal court decision and its reversal by the California Supreme Court.
3. Follow-up to Question #2: Should patient consent be required to store and distribute their tissue for research? Should doctors disclose their financial interests? Would this make any difference in achieving fairness? Or is this not a matter of fairness or an ethical issue to begin with?
4. What are the legal ramifications regarding payment for tissue samples? Consider the the RAND corporation estimation that 304 million tissue samples, from 178 million are people, are held by labs.
5. What are the spiritual and religious issues surrounding the living tissue of people who have died? How do Henrietta’s descendants deal with her continued “presence” in the world…and even the cosmos (in space)?
6. Were you bothered when researcher Robert Stevenson tells author Skloot that “scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from”? Is that an ugly outfall of scientific resarch…or is it normal, perhaps necessary, for a scientist to distance him/herself? If “yes” to the last part of that question, what about research on animals…especially for research on cosmetics?
7. What do you think of the incident in which Henrietta’s children “see” their mother in the Johns Hopkins lab? How would you have felt? Would you have sensed a spiritual connection to the life that once created those cells…or is the idea of cells simply too remote to relate to?
8. Is race an issue in this story? Would things have been different had Henrietta been a middle class white woman rather than a poor African American woman? Consider both the taking of the cell sample without her knowledge, let alone consent… and the questions it is raising 60 years later when society is more open about racial injustice?
9. Author Rebecca Skloot is a veteran science writer. Did you find it enjoyable to follow her through the ins-and-outs of the laboratory and scientific research? Or was this a little too “petri-dishish” for you?
10. What did you learn from reading The Immortal Life? What surprised you the most? What disturbed you the most?
Here are the top ten most frequently asked questions about Those Who Save Us. I hope you find the answers illuminating, but please be aware: some of the answers contain spoilers. I’ve located these toward the bottom of the page.
10. Why don’t you use quotation marks in the novel?
I deliberately chose to omit quotation marks in Those Who Save Us because quotation marks are very lively punctuation. They snag and maintain the reader’s attention by saying, “Psst, let’s eavesdrop on this conversation.” Usually, this is a good thing. But for Those Who Save Us, I wanted an austere, sepia atmosphere, since the novel is so much about the characters being haunted by memory. Quotation marks punctured that atmosphere, so I omitted them. For those readers who missed the quotation marks, good news: My new novel, The Stormchasers, has quotation marks in it.
9. Why is Trudy’s name spelled differently throughout the novel, sometimes with a –y, sometimes with an –ie?
Trudy’s name is spelled with an –ie when she’s a child in Germany, since Trudie/ Trudi is the German diminutive for Gertrude, her given name. Her name is spelled Trudy when she’s an adult in America, signifying that she’s assimilated to her adopted country.
8. Why does the novel have its back-and-forth structure?
A secret: I didn’t write the novel the way it reads. I wrote all of Anna’s story first—she took me six months. I wrote Trudy next; she took me two and a half years. (When they say writing is rewriting, they aren’t kidding.) It would have been too hard to write the novel any other way, to change channels from 1940s Nazi Germany to 1990s Minnesota. When I was done with the two ladies, though, I shuffled their stories together because Anna’s, to me, was more powerful—most war stories have innate intensity. I feared if I put Anna first and Trudy second, Trudy would feel anticlimactic. Many readers now say they like the back-and-forth structure, that it helps build tension and that Trudy’s contemporary sections provide breathing room in what might otherwise be an unbearably intense Anna experience.
7. Can you talk about the title, Those Who Save Us?
The title comes from the pivotal scene on Christmas morning in New Heidelburg when Jack asks whether Anna loved the Obersturmfuhrer, and Anna, trying to answer, wants to say “We come to love those who save us” but can’t speak—because she’s not sure whether she wants the word save or shame. To me, Anna is the ultimate symbol of Stockholm Syndrome, a woman who comes to depend on her captor to the point of loving him. The book’s title speaks to her relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer, which warps her psyche and, to a great extent, her daughter’s.
I also like the title because thematically, the novel is like a big chain letter of saving and being saved: everyone saves everyone else, literally and metaphorically. Max saves Anna, Anna saves Max, Mathilde saves Anna, the Obersturmfuhrer saves Anna, Anna saves Trudy, Jack saves them both, Rainer and Trudy save each other…. But the chain letter also winds heavy links around the characters’ ankles. Being a savior and being saved often comes with very unpleasant burdens, such as survivor’s guilt. I wanted the novel to explore and illustrate that high emotional cost.
6. Does Anna love the Obersturmfuhrer?
I think she does. But since Anna is a sufferer of Stochholm Syndrome, her love for the Obersturmfuhrer is not anything we’d consider healthy or ideal. She herself comments toward the novel’s end that she knows she’s been born with the ability to love but that the Obersturmfuhrer has blighted it; she can’t properly show love to her husband or daughter. The Obersturmfuhrer has trained Anna in his own particular brand of the emotion.
5. Why does Anna take the photo of herself, little Trudy, and the Obersturmfuhrer?
When Anna takes the incriminating photo, she’s not making a conscious decision. She grabs it as a gesture toward the most crucial shaping event in her life thus far: her relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer. She can’t talk about it, and she can’t talk about Germany, but the photo is Anna’s souvenir of the existence she has left behind. When she gets to America she stows the photo in her sock drawer and forgets it; she would be horrified to know that Trudy looks at the photo for years afterwards and draws such a damning conclusion about her parentage.
4. (spoiler alert!) Why doesn’t Anna ever talk? Why doesn’t she explain to Trudy who Trudy’s father is?
We can perhaps understand the reasons Anna doesn’t talk about the Obersturmfuhrer. There are so many, the first being that Anna is a trauma survivor, and many survivors never speak about their experiences. Some of the Jewish survivors I interviewed for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation had not talked about their pasts for over fifty years and, once interviewed, requested their testimonies be sealed until after their deaths. Also, Anna is ashamed of her sexual relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer; she doesn’t have the emotional or psychological vocabulary to explain it even to herself, let alone her daughter. And Anna is of a generation and a culture that doesn’t talk about such things freely.
But why couldn’t Anna tell Trudy, “Your father wasn’t a Nazi; he was a heroic Jewish doctor”?
In short, poor Trudy doesn’t ask the right question. She never asks Anna, “Who was my father?”—because Trudy assumes the Obersturmfuhrer is her father. Instead, Trudy says to Anna, “Tell me about the officer.” And the Obersturmfuhrer is the one topic Anna will never, ever be able to talk about. Sadly, the chill in the women’s relationship is based upon a misunderstanding, as many such situations in life seem to be. They miss each other by inches.
3. (spoiler alert!) Once Trudy finds out the truth, do the two women ever talk about Max and the past? What happens after the book is over?
No, mother and daughter never do talk about the past. Anna will never discuss it, with Trudy or with anyone. This is the vow she’s made to herself. Trudy, however, finally has the peace of knowing who she is. She has Mr. Pfeffer to go to for more detailed answers about her background. And without her daughter’s ceaseless questioning, Anna too can have relative peace.
Here’s what I think happens to them: Anna and Mr. Pfeffer have a lovely courtship that turns into a relationship. He buys a winter house in Florida for her with his mysterious, ill-gotten gains, and every year they fly down there, and every day at 3 PM Anna walks to the ocean in her skirted bathing suit and her bathing cap with the daisies on it and floats around, very quietly, in the water.
Trudy doesn’t get back together with Rainer. But because she’s unburdened herself of her secrets and discovered who she is, Trudy is now able to form a healthy relationship. So after a period of readjustment to get used to her new half-Jewish self—imagine finding out you were not who you thought you were after fifty-odd years—Trudy finds her man.
If you miss my German girls, take heart: in my second novel, The Stormchasers, Trudy and Anna make tiny cameo appearances.
2. Can you explain the Trudy-Rainer relationship? Why did they get together? Why did he leave?
Trudy and Rainer come together because they recognize in each other the same type of survivor—they were both wounded during the Nazi era. Theirs is a complicated relationship—initially love-hate, since what they’re attracted to is really the past in each other. But then Trudy is able to tell Rainer what she’s never been able to confide in anyone: she thinks she’s an SS officer’s daughter. And he tells her what really happened to his brother.
So why does Rainer leave? Rainer has sustained what I think of as “first-degree trauma,” meaning he believes himself to be responsible for the death of another. He truly believes he doesn’t deserve to be happy. Trudy is a “second-degree trauma survivor”; she’s been affected, but she doesn’t blame herself for causing the death of another. Her experience during the Nazi era wasn’t participatory. Trudy’s therefore able to heal once the wound has been lanced. Rainer isn’t. But they will always be in touch and be very special, close friends.
1. When will there be a movie version of Those Who Save Us?
Soon, I hope. Those Who Save Us has been optioned for a film, so my fingers are crossed that it won’t be too long before we see our casting choices for the novel on the silver screen. While I was writing Those Who Save Us, one of my favorite breaks was to walk along the Charles River and cast the characters in my mind; many of you have since played this favorite game with me at book clubs and events. Across the board, Meryl Streep is the favorite for the older Anna. The young Anna? Kate Winslet is a popular choice. I often envision Jodie Foster playing Trudy. And the one casting decision I’ve insisted on all along: for the Obersturmfuhrer, Alec Baldwin. (To see an account of my stalking Mr. Baldwin for the part in real life and how this turned out, please visit the My Date With Alec Baldwin entry on my blog.)
Our October selection is Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. There will be copies available for checkout at the Harrison circulation desk. We can’t wait to hear what you think about the novel!
For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Anna’s daughter Trudy was only four when she and Anna were liberated from Nazi Weimar by an American soldier and went with him to Minnesota, so Trudy can’t remember much….but she has one piece of evidence from the past: a family portrait showing Trudy, Anna, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.
Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.
Combining a story of passionate but doomed love, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother-daughter drama, New York Times bestseller Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.
1. How would you categorize Those Who Save Us: as a war story, a love story, a mother-daughter story? Why? How is it different from other novels that address the issues surrounding the Holocaust? What new perspectives does it offer?
2. Discuss the novel’s title, Those Who Save Us. In what ways do the characters save each other in the novel, and who saves whom? How does Blum play with the concept of being saved, being safe, being a savior?
3. In the beginning of the novel, what is Anna’s attitude towards the Jewish people of Weimar? Does her attitude change? If so, where does this transformation occur and why?
4. While she is hiding Max, Anna thinks she would “pay a high price to be plain, for her looks pose an ever-greater danger to both herself and Max.” Do you see Anna’s beauty as a blessing or a curse? What role does it play in shaping her destiny? How do her looks affect her relationships with Max, Gerhard, the Obersturmfuhrer, Trudy?
5. When living with Mathilde, Anna asks why Mathilde risks her life to feed the Buchenwald prisoners “when everyone else turn a blind eye.” Why does Mathilde take this risk? Why does Anna? Do you think American women would react differently than German women in similar circumstances, and if so, why?
6. What are Anna’s sexual reactions to the Obersturmfuhrer, and what effect do they have on how she sees herself? How do they shape Anna’s relationship with Trudy?
Do you see Anna’s relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer as primarily sexual, or are there places in the novel where their relationship transcends the sexual?
7. Do you see the Obersturmfuhrer as a monster or as human? What are his vulnerabilities? To what degree is he a product of his time? If the Obersturmfuhrer had been born in contemporary America, what might he be doing today?
8. Toward the end of the novel, Anna thinks that the Obersturmfuhrer “has blighted her ability to love.” Do you think he has forever affected her ability to love Jack? To love Trudy? What are Anna’s real feelings for the Obersturmfuhrer, and what are his true feelings toward Anna and her daughter?
9. Are Trudy’s difficulties with her mother caused only by the secrets Anna keeps? If the past had not come between them, what would their relationship have been like? In what ways are Trudy and Anna typical of mothers and daughters everywhere? What parallels can you draw between their relationship and yours with your own mother?
10. Trudy has been familiar with shame all her life, both her own shame and Anna’s. How does Trudy learn about shame from Anna? Does Trudy’s shame stem solely from her suspicions about her Nazi parentage or from her German heritage as well? How has her shame manifested in her adult lifestyle?
11. Anna’s consistent response to Trudy’s questions is, “The past is dead, and better it remain so.” Why does Anna keep her silence? Is this fair to Trudy? Were you surprised that Anna refuses to talk about her past even when she has been confronted and deemed a heroine by Mr. Pfeffer? In her position, would you do the same?
12. During his German Project interview, Rainer plays what he calls “a dirty trick” on Trudy by reading a prepared statement about his aunt’s experience and eventual deportation to Auschwitz instead of telling his own story. Why does he do this? Why is Rainer so angry with Trudy? Is he angry with her? Do you think his anger is justified?
13. Why does Trudy get involved with Rainer? Is Trudy and Rainer’s relationship a healthy one? When Rainer departs for Florida, he says, “I do not deserve this . . . . I am not meant to be this happy,” a statement with which Trudy agrees. If Trudy and Rainer’s relationship were not affected by their wartime pasts, would it have been happy? Would it have existed at all?
14. What does each of Trudy’s interview subjects—Frau Kluge, Rose-Grete Fischer, Rainer, Felix Pfeffe—represent about German actions during the war and how Germans feel in retrospect? What does Trudy learn from her German subjects?
15. At the end of Those Who Save Us, the characters’ fates are ambiguous; Trudy, for instance, is left in a “vacuum between one part of life ending and another coming to take its place.” Why does Blum do this? What statement, if any, is she trying to make? Do you feel that the novel’s end is a happy one for Trudy? For Anna? Why or why not? And what do you think has happened to the Obersturmfuhrer?