Millsaps College expects all incoming students to share a reading and writing experience prior to their campus matriculation. The summer reading assignment has several purposes which include promoting a context for campus-wide discussion, fostering dialogue about issues of mutual concern and interest, and creating an opportunity for members of the freshman class to share a common intellectual experience before their arrival on campus. Once on campus, you will be able to participate in a variety of conversations related to the book.
This year's book is Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In the book, Skloot investigates the background of the HeLa cells, a tissue sample harvested in 1951 from a poor black tobacco farmer, Henrietta Lacks. Lacks died from the cancer for which she was being treated, but her cells became famous participants in the development of vaccines and medical treatments and therapies.
Her story is almost an infamous one: the cells were collected without her permission or knowledge, and her family has struggled to both make ends meet and make sense of a world where Henrietta's cells have generated fortunes for many but where they have trouble affording basic medical care. Skloot's book raises many questions about the ethics of medicine and research and brings out the human story behind what she initially experienced as a footnote in a science textbook.
As part of the summer reading and writing program, you should undertake the following assignment after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In a short (three to four page) essay, respond to one of the following writing prompts.
1. A number of culturally disadvantaging factors (race, class, gender) intersect to complicate the ethical conversation surrounding the collection and subsequent deployment of Henrietta Lacks' cells. Write an essay in which you explore the complexities of this intersection through a representative moment from the narrative.
2. Early in her book, Skloot makes the following comment on her relationship with Henrietta's daughter, Deborah: "slowly, without realizing it, I'd become a character in her story, and she in mine" (7). In this moment, Skloot reveals one of the paradoxes of the sort of narrative non-fiction that she writes: the story that she tells is not an objective one, but a story written through a particular individual perspective. Throughout the book, she shares passages from Deborah's journal in an attempt to give Deborah her own voice in the story, but the book remains Skloot's from start to finish. Write an essay in which you consider this necessary narrative tension, drawing textual examples from both voices to support your ideas.
3. Examine the consent form that Henrietta Lacks signed when admitted to the hospital for treatment (see page 31). Drawing support from the text, write an essay in which you argue for or against the idea that her signature constituted informed consent to all procedures - including the collection of cells for further research. What measures, if any, would be necessary to facilitate informed consent?
Essays should be approximately three to four pages in length and should be submitted to the Writing Program office by Monday, August 5. You may also submit your essay electronically via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail it to Writing Program, c/o Anita DeRouen, Millsaps College, 1701 N. State Street, Jackson, MS 39210.
These essays will be included in the material given to each new student's advisor and Freshman Seminar Instructor; you will discuss and revise this essay during the first two weeks of your Freshman Seminar course, so make sure that you bring your copy of the book to campus. After the revision exercise, you'll be invited to submit your essay for the Community Voices contest; contest finalists will be invited to share their essays at a special campus Forum during the Fall term and the writer of the best essay will receive a prize. If you have any questions, please feel free to call the Writing Program Office (601.974.1296).