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Whose voice is telling the story?

Last week I finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I first heard about the book when I saw Skloot on the Colbert Report and what intrigued me most was not the science behind the story but that the cells that had gone on to impact medical science in such immeasurable ways had been taken without Lack’s knowledge and the development of ethical standards for conducting research.
Without giving away too much of the story (although most of it is now widely known) here are my thoughts. For the most part, the story is told in a compelling way, starting with the author’s imagined scenario of Henrietta’s visit to Johns Hopkins to have a”knot” checked out. Skloot tells the story of Henrietta and the impact of her cells on medical science while alternating between her history, her children’s stories, and those who played a key role in how her cells were used in medical research.

Several pages into the section of the story where author Skloot delves into Lacks’ history, I began to feel uncomfortable. Skloot discusses her methodology for creating imagined scenes based on interviews with those who knew Henrietta and extensive research but I was still uneasy about how Lacks was characterized. While I imagine that Skloot was attempting to bring Henrietta out of the shadows, so to speak, and humanize the person whose cells had been unacknowledged for so long, it seemed contrived and – exactly what Skloot didn’t want to do – exploitative.

To me, the real gem of this book is that Skloot makes public the way research involving humans has often been unethical. I took a fascinating course about moral and ethical dilemmas in family decision making a few years ago, and many of the issues Skloot brings to the surface in her book we discussed in this class; questions about who owns human tissue once it’s no longer attached to the person? When does an individual’s concerns about biomedical ethics supersede the greater good for all? Should important decisions be made by others if a person is deemed not competent or knowledgeable enough to make that decision when it comes to their health and medical procedures?Continue Reading →

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

I’ve often called research the equivalent of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and friends are quaking in their ruby slippers at the booming voice and larger than life head of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, only to find, thanks to Toto’s curtain-revealing revelation that the powerful Wizard is just an ordinary man.

Last week, a story was published in Psychology Today by Santoshi Kanazawa, faculty at the London School of Economics, that claimed there was objective evidence that African American women are less attractive than women of other racial and ethnic backgrounds (the original article was pulled, but you can find it here). The so-called evidence for this “finding” was, as it turns out, not objective at all. In fact, the author of the study, known for his provocative research and articles, used a data set in which the “data” about the attractiveness of African American women was based on researcher observations and ratings of the sample – in other words, it wasn’t the sample that was asked to measure attractiveness, it was the researchers who rated the sample themselves (in this case, participants in a longitudinal study that followed participants from adolescence to young adulthood).

The data Kanazawa used and obscurely referred to was taken from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health (Add Health Study). The Add Health study does not survey how American adolescents define or measure attractiveness. Rather, Kanazawa used the data in which researchers themselves “objectively” measured the participant’s attractiveness.Continue Reading →

Inside the mind and heart of an internationally adopted child



This afternoon, a children’s novel I ordered online arrived in my mailbox and a few short hours later I had devoured the book. Betti on the High Wire is the story of a young girl, Babo, living in an unnamed country devastated by war. Babo finds herself unexpectedly adopted by Americans (or “melons” as Babo refers to them because of their round, pink faces) and soon she is living in an unnamed town in the U.S. with a new name, new sister, new parents – and she vows to never “adapt” or forget where she came from.

Author Lisa Railsback was inspired to write the story from her work volunteering in a refugee camp. As a Korean adoptee, I am often skeptical about how international adoption is portrayed in novels, particularly the feelings and thoughts of the internationally adopted child themselves. Often I find children’s books about international adoption to be largely about making adoptive parents feel better as much as they may be outwardly intended to reassure the internationally adopted child. Babo/Betti is a complex child and I found Railsback’s conception of what Babo/Betti thinks and feels about her experience being adopted by Americans, and having to leave everything she has known and loved in her country – especially her chosen family there – to be the most realistic and complex portrayal that I have read.

Adoption books for children being what they are – that is typically all nicely resolved in the end, this book doesn’t exactly challenge the dominant narrative about adoption. The unnamed country is, after all, portrayed in pretty stark terms, providing exactly the American-style justification for taking Babo away. Babo and the other children of course must be dirty, mostly illiterate, scavenging for food, etc., yet remain likable (i.e. not prone towards Reactive Attachment Disorder). And while Railsback does critique the consumerist, materialist and consumptive patterns of Americans to some extent, as well as portray how mean white American children can be towards children who are different, it is unlikely that a real internationally adopted child of this age would adapt as quickly as Betti does in the book. While the choice to make Babo able to speak some English helps the reader, it is pretty unrealistic in my opinion and serves more as a device to move the character through the story plot more quickly than it is realistic for most older, internationally adopted children (such as the little girl adopted in the movie Wo Ai  Ni Mommy, who would have been close to Babo’s age in the story).

Even so, I recommend this book for its most nuanced portrayal of an internationally adopted child’s inner thoughts and feelings that I’ve read so far. If I were an adoption agency, I would require all prospective adoptive parents to read this book before any child adopted internationally was placed in their home.

Updates

It’s been a busy few months but I am finally coming up for air! I am in the exam phase of my doctoral program and just submitted my specialized exam paper, as well as completed all my final assignments for the last of my courses. Hard to believe that I am now finished with my coursework! It feels great, but I have to admit that I am one of those students who LOVES to take classes. I always enjoy learning new things. I’m eying another certificate program but have to hold myself back….maybe one day I’ll be able to take more classes.

Additionally, in the midst of finals I was traveling for fun and for business, presenting at a conference and taking a training and preparing for a webinar which I just presented today. The summer is going to busy too, but not nearly to the same extent. I’m presenting for the local chapter of the NASW’s conference in June, keynoting at an adoption family camp in July, and in between working on my dissertation proposal. Exciting times ahead!