A packed house greeted Rebecca Skloot at Powell's Books this week, and well it should have: The author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is a hometown girl who has written a critically acclaimed bestseller, a nonfiction book about a black woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s and left the tissue sample that produced the HeLa (short for Henrietta Lacks) cells now standard in laboratory research. Skloot, who attended a Portland alternative school that's just up the street from Powell's, said she got the idea for the book 20 years ago from a community college course she took while in high school. She was poised and gracious, proud of the two sets of parents (including her father, writer Floyd Skloot) who formed the core of her "Team Immortal," which helped set up a promotional tour that's been just part of her publicity blitz. Among other things, she has even fenced with Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. (Colbert, in his role as a comedic version of the incisive interviewer, tends to throw extreme and hilarious curve balls. She said she was given no advance warning of which way they'd fly.)
Describing her ten-year effort on the book, Skloot said that Lacks' family initially turned her away because she was just the latest in a string of callers who wanted something from them. She noted that African-Americans had good reason to be suspicious of scientists bearing test tubes, given how medical research has sometimes exploited them in the past. But when a questioner asked if the book was about racism, Skloot pulled in her horns: Her focus, she said, was more about a lack of education on the part of the subjects and the failure of scientists to explain their mission to those of us without Ph.D.s in biology.
She said that the Lacks family has never received a dime for Henrietta's cells, but paying them would set an inhibiting standard for research. Wisely, she is trying to make some recompense through the back door: She has started a foundation that provides scholarships for Henrietta's descendants and is contributing some of her book royalties to it.
Eloquent as she was, however, for me the best line of the night was not Skloot's. After the Q&A ended and the author sat down to sign copies of her book, I overheard a group of women behind me talking about her. "I thought she'd never finish high school," one of them said. I turned, looking surprised, and the women gave me a collective, knowing nod. Apparently it wasn't just Henrietta's cells that had come a long way, baby.
I left the building thinking less about the marvels of the HeLa cell and more about the possibilities that lie within any non-conforming teen. All he or she needs is a good brain, good instincts and good guidance. Come to think of it: That's a lot.