March 18, 2009
Between them, father and daughter writers Floyd and Rebecca Skloot have produced quite the body of work. Or maybe that should be work of the body - human and otherwise.
by John Calderazzo
Award-winning science and medical writer Rebecca Skloot (’97, B.S., Biological Sciences) writes frequently for The New York Times Magazine, works as a correspondent for the NPR show “RadioLab,” and has appeared on PBS television’s “Nova ScienceNOW.” Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is so highly regarded by her publisher, Crown, that they assigned her the same editor who’s worked with our national Writer-in-Chief, President Barack Obama.
Rebecca’s dad, Floyd Skloot, has appeared in dozens of top-flight literary magazines. He’s picked up a barrelful of prizes and published 15 collections of poetry and essays. About half of them, including his celebrated memoir In the Shadow of Memory, have appeared since 1988, when Skloot suffered a virus attack to his brain that disabled him, forcing him to learn to think and write anew. That struggle, and triumph, has been the subject of much of his work.
Father and daughter talk by phone nearly every day. “And we’re obnoxiously proud of each other,” Rebecca says. But there was a time when the idea of writing seemed less than thrilling to her.
When she was a fourth-grader in Portland, Oregon, Floyd came to do a reading at her school. In an auditorium of Rebecca’s teachers and classmates, Floyd announced that he would read a sonnet, “My Daughter Considers Her Body.”
Body?! Rebecca screamed silently. As he read it, he didn’t notice that she was trying to squirm down through the bottom of her seat.
The story has since become a source of amusement to them both.
As a former teacher of Rebecca’s, I remember reading that anecdote when it jumped out at me from a pile of papers in one of my nonfiction writing workshops. Wow, I thought, she can really write. And Rebecca’s previous CSU English teachers, Jon Leydens and Mary Golden, had thought the same.
Rebecca had taken the first of those writing classes because she didn’t want to take a foreign language. She’d come to CSU with a lifelong goal of becoming a veterinarian, and she paid her way through school by working in neurology labs and the CSU veterinary morgue and emergency room.
But it wasn’t long before she realized that combining her science knowledge with her developing writing skills might mean she could make a living telling stories about science instead of doing it. Besides, she loved the challenge of showing that science wasn’t boring, that in fact it is full of mystery, beauty, and as much drama as any piece of literature. When she told her dad that she wanted to go into the family business, he was thrilled.
Since then, Floyd Skloot has often been thrilled. Writing at the top of her field, Rebecca has explored worlds that many of us don’t know even exist. Goldfish plastic surgery. Disabled people who depend on assistance monkeys, ducks and parrots. The fate of blood and sample tissues routinely given at doctors’ offices.
One day in 2003, when Rebecca was living in New York City, her 14-year-old dog, Bonny, was badly mauled by unchained junkyard dogs that had mauled or killed many other dogs. As Skloot nursed Bonny back to health, she discovered a loophole in the city’s laws that prevented anything from being done about this.
So she wrote a first-person story for New York Magazine, “When Pets Attack.” Television stations picked it up, and the mayor’s office was flooded with demands to solve the problem. The story was voted best essay of 2004 by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Bonny died just this year, two months short of her 20th birthday.
Skloot has been interested in medical ethics since she was a teenager watching Floyd go through treatment for his illness. And ethics lie at the core of her forthcoming nonfiction book, The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, which is part medical thriller, muckraking journalism, and a meditation on the collision between science and personal rights.
The book tells the story of the infamous HeLa cancer cells, which in 1951 were taken from Henrietta Lacks, a dying African-American mother of five children, without her knowledge or consent. They became the first immortal human cell lines ever grown in culture, helped create the polio vaccine, and are still living and multiplying today. The family did not learn about any of this for decades. Skloot spent years gaining the confidence of the Lacks family so the story could be told from their side.
Now an assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis, Skloot uses her experiences to teach students to write about science and many other topics. She and her father teach each other, too. “Because I’m good at structure and his brain injury sometimes makes organization difficult, I can help him with that,” she says.
“And Pops uses his poet’s discerning eye to make sure I don’t write sentences that will get me into trouble.”
Trouble of a more creative kind may be brewing for the Skloots. They’re thinking about writing a book together, a first-time effort that would further solidify their writing dynasty.
Shortly after coming to CSU in 1986, John Calderazzo developed the English Department’s creative nonfiction writing track. His most recent book is Rising Fire: Volcanoes and our Inner Lives.
This story first appeared in the April 2009 issue of Colorado State Magazine.