Nonfiction

Who owns your parts?

 Henrietta Lacks in the 1940s.The Lacks family saga has recently resurfaced in the news.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black Virginia farmer born in 1920. She was one of ten children and went on to have five, herself. But she was more than that, Henrietta was also said to have been beautiful, generous and kind. And though she died at the age of 31, part of her is still very much alive and with us, some 62 years later.

Mrs. Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, she had a mass of rapid-growing tumors caused by HPV. After her death, it was discovered that the tumors had spread throughout her body. Cells from her tumors were harvested without her knowledge and sent to a researcher. Unlike other cells used in scientific research until then, Henrietta's cells never died.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot explores Henrietta's life, her family, the lives of her cells and her cancer-related death. Some members of the Lacks family had an entirely different set of explanations about her illness: it was a curse. That curse continued to plague the Lacks' when the news of her cell line was revealed to them. The family was left with the burden of knowing that Henrietta had suffered terribly until her death, that her cells were taken without her consent, and that for more than 50 years the scientific community had been benefiting from her sacrifice. Research using these HeLa cells has lead to major discoveries including the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, in vitro fertilization and cloning. To this day, the Lacks' have not been compensated for the genetic material or any other commercial products that have come of the research.

The book reads like a mystery and a tragedy. It brings up ethical issues about our medical data and our bodies. Routine samples that we leave at hospitals and clinics for testing are considered abandoned property and we no longer have any claim on them. How can we protect our medical information while keeping research data open to the scientific community? Are we entitled to compensation if millions are made from our genetic data? What makes you, you? Who owns that? And who owns the parts of us that we leave behind?

Speak out in the comments.

Posted on: August 13, 2013, by Jenera Burton, Piedmont Ave branch

The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot

Hello Everyone,

Ten of us were at Lakeview to discuss The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot and all liked it!
 

We started out discussing the writing style of David Talbot. Three of us mentioned it was difficult to track at times and maybe more editing could have helped that. One pointed out that most of it was based on interviews Talbot had done with participants and observers of these events. The rest thought there was no problem with the writing at all and that the book was gripping and the details based on the extensive research filled gaps we didn't know we had in our own knowledge, which was based on news or books written right at the time. We all felt we understood San Francisco better and many shared their own experiences and knowledge which expanded on the book's information. 

Our personal stories included antiwar events, taking a coyote to schools to talk about protecting the wilderness and experimenting with new life styles.

 We thought the author cared about his topics. One noted a review which mentioned frustration that Talbot did not include women's history and its forward movement at the time. Another mentioned that the 60s were a sexist time and we all agreed. I thought he did focus on a few major female leaders who arose at that time and loved the details about those lives such as Dianne Feinstein.

Topics we discussed, from the many covered by Talbot, were the loss of the Fillmore District and the reduction of the Black population in San Francisco from around 30% to 17% (partially remembered numbers on my part). Others were the saving of neighborhoods with the rise of power of the people, with a special note of the quiet and strong uprising Asian communities. Other topics were free clinics, Zodiac and Zebra murders, the charisma and corrupt power of Jim Jones...how if he were stopped when people in charge began to understand his power, that a mayoral election might be overturned, the clash of conservative blue collar Irish and Italian Catholic with the new hippie movement, the magic of the early love and Flower Power times and their disintegration into crime and repression by the city, the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the power of the press, the stories of lawyer Hallinan and his activist wife, the rise of the gay population and the start of the aides epidemic, the Harvey Milk assassination and the candlelight march of hundreds of thousands of mourning citizens and the legacy of all these events.
We wondered, "Why San Francisco?" for all these major events? We kicked around some ideas and came up with that it started with the Gold Rush in 1849 when San Francisco created itself as a wild, free place where anything goes. We mentioned the feeling people get when leaving a conservative world elsewhere and arriving in San Francisco to the freedom to be different. We discussed the many gay people who were severed from the military during World War II and the Viet Nam war and stayed, creating new lives and a new culture.
We talked of the influence of Herb Caen and The 49ers Superbowl victory on the city. Out of the upheaval of that era has come gay marriage, medical marijuana, immigration sanctuary, universal health care, recycling and renewable energy.
If you haven't read it yet, I would say that this is one you might want to put on your list. Both people who lived in San Francisco or the Bay Area at that time and people who were in other parts of the country felt they understand San Francisco better and are glad they read this modern history.
 
Happy Reading!
 
Mary
 
Mary Farrell, Lakeview Branch Manager