Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Author Rebecca Skloot, daughter of acclaimed Portland writer Floyd Skloot, takes us on a journey back into the 1950s, when an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks contracted aggressive, advanced cervical cancer. Her cells, taken without her permission,
became the first immortal human cells grown in culture. They are still alive today and have multiplied billions of times. All of her cells multiplied today would weigh more than 50 million metric tons. Her cells were instrumental in critical research for polio, cancer, and viruses and contributed to major medical advances.

But before Rebecca Skloot published her book, Henrietta Lacks was virtually unknown...even by all of the scientists, doctors, and researchers whose work benefited from her contributions to the field.

Skloot tells the story of how Lacks was treated in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital. She excavates her family history and gradually develops trusting relationships with Lacks' children and other family members, many of whom are too poor to afford steady health insurance.

This is the story of Skloot's journey into this story, Henrietta's history, her family, and medical research and ethics over the decades. It's history, race relations, science, and personal journey rolled into one book. What's particularly amazing about this book is not only its insight into this fascinating story--and how a poor black woman was taken advantage of--but the fact that it was written by a young white woman who grew up in Portland, Oregon, a long way from Baltimore or Clover, Virginia. It took her a long time to get the Lacks family to trust her, but she did it. Now she has established a foundation with educational and medical scholarships for Henrietta's descendants, so they can finally get some financial benefit out of her legacy.      

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Mama Boy's Myth

The Mama's Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger, by Kate Stone Lombardi

This is SUCH an important and desperately needed book.

New York Times contributor Kate Stone Lombardi makes the fascinating point that of all the possible parent-child relationships (e.g., father-son, father-daughter, mother-daughter), the most circumspect and maligned is that of the mother and son. This was an illuminating beginning to this book.

Close mother-son relationships are abundant, but they are kept in the closet. While fathers are lauded for teaching their daughters traditionally masculine tasks or skills, mothers are shamed for doing the same thing (for example, teaching a son to knit or just talk more openly about his feelings).

Lombardi interviewed over 1,000 moms online and in person. She found that nearly nine in ten moms described themselves as "extremely close" or "very close" to their sons. And the result of these close relationships is that we are creating a generation of boys who will become strong, loving spouses and partners, with a higher level of sensitivity and emotional intelligence. As Lombardi notes, "A new and growing body of scientific literature shows that sons who are close to their mothers are emotionally and physically healthier than those who are not."

She writes of stereotypes about boys and girls and how some mothers long for daughters so they can develop close relationships with them. In some cases (like mine), feminists look forward to raising strong women who have opportunities they or their mothers did not have. As one mom said, "When it came time to have children, what I had in mind were daughters. All of my feminist friends laughed, 'Look at the hand you were dealt.' I had to process that loss. I had daughter envy." Why do women assume that girls will be more emotionally available than boys?  We make assumptions that boys will grow apart from their mothers, based on culturally acceptable mother-son norms.

Mothers battle not only cultural expectations of how they relate to their sons, but also sometimes their own husbands or family members. Some women shared examples of their husbands accusing them of babying their sons if they showed any affection, even at very young ages, and one woman told a story about a power struggle with her husband about her nearly-two-year-old son's curly hair. She told him she'd cut his curls when he turned two, but a month before he turned two, her husband cut off all the boy's curls while he was taking a bath. "He thought I was turning his boy into a girl." Mothers are criticized for hugging their teen sons or touching them at all. Then there's the nosy strangers who think they know best and think that mothers are scarring their boys for life if they allow them to wear a "girl's" Halloween costume. She cites the work of artist JeongMee Yoon, who has a project with side-by-side images of actual girls' and boys' rooms, entirely in pink and blue. It's incredibly sad (and also another good example of why it's good I have boys--I am no fan of pink!).

Lombardi delves into the origin of Freud's Oedipal theories and the hidden fears of homophobia inherent in this bullying of moms and sons. Mothers involved in their sons' lives are made into the villains in popular culture, at best (think "Psycho"!), and at worst are thought to create "sissys," "Mama's boys," or overly dependent and feminine. She talks about the "boy crisis" and some prominent authors' views that boys need to disconnect from their mothers and instead form stronger relationships with their fathers, instead of recognizing the need for both father and mother bonds. Well-known author Michael Gurian "argues that mothers' apron strings are strangling the manhood out of boys." It's all the mother's fault, of course!

In a fairly well-known parenting book, Get Out of My Life, but Please Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony E. Wolf, the author talks about the "problem of mommy," which he defines as the theory that adolescent boys' strong feelings for their mother might be "tinged with sexuality and might therefore become really unacceptable." Why is that mothers' close relationships with their sons are often described as sexual? Thank you, Mr. Freud!

Since when do people say that teen girls have crushes on their fathers if they feel close to them? Lombardi points out that we never see "mother-son dances," but only "father-daughter" ones...because no one ascribes anything sinister to that relationship. However, as a brochure for a North Carolina father-daughter dance said, "Every father needs to 'date' their daughter, and every daughter needs an example of how a young lady is to be treated by a man." This dating analogy is creepy because sexual abuse in families is much more likely to occur between a father and a daughter. Incest between mother and son is exceedingly rare (female perpetrators are between 1 and 4 percent of all sex abuse cases). So why is that relationship such taboo?

When boys reach a certain age, they are often embarassed to be seen alone in public with their mom or to talk about close relationships with their mothers. It's really only the big, tough football players or otherwise macho men who are allowed to get away with close relationships with their mothers.

Then there are the men and women who play into the idea that feminism or stronger women's roles are creating weak men. Lombardi mentions the book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. Although author Kay Hymowitz notes that it's important for young men to have strong relationships with both their moms and dads, the title makes it sound like weak men are all the women's fault. Lombardi notes that she agrees that this can be a confusing time to be a young man, but "mothers play an important role in helping their sons through this transition by giving them the skills they need to help them mature and succeed in school and in the workplace." As she concludes, "Why on earth would (women) want to do anything to harm men? We are the mothers of sons."

Gradually, our culture will find mother-son relationships more acceptable. The younger generation will see that this changes. In 2011, many of the Academy award nominated films featured difficult mothers (The Fighter, Black Swan, and The King's Speech). In the acceptance speeches, however, many of the winners thanked and paid tribute to their moms. Tom Hooper, who won best director for "The King's Speech," thanked his mother for giving him the idea for the movie. "The moral of the story is," he said, "Listen to your mother."

I confess that I always imagined having a daughter, but I am so thankful to have sons. Although many women idealize mother-daughter relationships, I've observed that in many cases, these relationships can be strained or not meet expectations. Daughters can be very hard on their mothers.

This book affirms that I can have truly deep relationships with my sons, and they will be better prepared for adulthood because of our strong mother-son relationships. It also made me feel incredibly grateful to be a parenting partner with a man who affirms my close relationships with my sons and (1) is not afraid to share his sensitive, emotional side, and is just as likely as I am to be brought to tears during a touching moment, and (2) never tells me I need to toughen the boys up or worries about them not acting manly enough! It also made me feel thankful for all the wonderful men I know, including my dad, brother, brother-in-law, and many male friends, who build strong relationships with boys and support women in doing the same.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who has a son or works with boys.

The Book Thief

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

I read this for our May book group selection, and I loved it. I have been aware of this book for many years, and in fact we gave it to our friends' teenage daughter one Christmas. But it wasn't until one of our book group members highly recommended it AND both my sister and my husband read it for their book groups and also loved it, that I finally dug in.

It's the story of Liesel, a German girl living in a small town near Munich during World War II. It's about the Holocaust, of course, but more than anything it's about Liesel and her relationships with others, including a Jewish man who hides in her basement, her foster parents, and her best friend Rudy. This book is unique because it's not directly about the Jewish experience but rather about the Germans. It gives one a different perspective of a German child's experience of the war.

Liesel finds a way to transcend her difficult circumstances (she loses her family of origin) by finding herself in words, through the books she begins stealing. She doesn't steal very many books, but just enough to make her life more interesting.

I loved the way Liesel's foster father teaches her how to read (in the middle of the night), the rough way her foster mother calls everyone a "saumensch" and a "saukerl," the unrequited young love between Liesel and Rudy, the beautiful books Max creates for Liesel and her unconventional friendship with him, the stolen trips to the library of the mayor's wife, and the beautiful way words and music are woven through the book. In the midst of a society full of distrust for books and words, Liesel reads aloud from her books to all of the people gathered in the bomb shelters. My book group friends all liked the narrator being death, and especially found the last page to be beautiful.

This book is undeniably sad, but well written and beautiful at the same time.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier

I picked this one up because I loved Cold Mountain, Frazier's first novel, which takes place during the Civil War. Nightwoods, which takes place in 1960s Appalachia, paled in comparison. Luce is the caretaker of an old, decrepit resort lodge, and after her sister is brutally killed by her evil husband, Bud, she finds herself to be the guardian of her sister's mute, damaged children. Bud gets away with the crime and comes after the children, convinced that they have his money.

We know from Cold Mountain that Frazier has a gift for writing, but Nightwoods suffers from too much description of place and weak description of characters and story. The plot plods along until the end, when it finally explodes in a few pages. As a writer/editor, I didn't particularly care for the incomplete sentences and odd lack of quotation marks (Frazier's style).

I didn't feel much sympathy for any of the characters, even the main character, Luce. I appreciated the fact that she took her sister's children in and tried to become the surrogate mother than she never had herself...but beyond that she was a bit hollow. What had she been doing all those years since high school? How old was she? What did she look like? We just didn't get a real sense of her. That goes for the other characters too...what made them into who they were?

This book is a coldhearted reminder of how children can be so easily damaged by neglect, cruelty, and violence. It's a brutal story, but without a whole lot of redemption in it.