Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/03/2011

Henrietta Lacks — Not the Passive Voice

The passive voice is the scourge of good writing .

A couple of days ago I came across an example that may (although I doubt it) finally help my students understand the absurdity and ineffectuality of using the passive voice.

One cannot “die” in the passive voice. Period. “She died.” A simple, powerful, expressive active voice statement.

“She was died” (dyed?). A simple but passive statement that means she was dipped into a vat of FD&C Red Dye #40. Who did the dipping and why is not explained in the sentence, but obviously she was made red.

“She died.” “She was died.”

One cannot die passively (1).

For a week I have not been able to write, a normal condition of folks like me: one writes and writes and cannot stop, and then one stops and stops and cannot write. Instead of following my natural urge to write, I was strangely willing to do what I needed to do (grade papers, take the online defensive driving course for a speeding ticket). I was also conflicted with internal compulsions I may write about some day.  And I could not face—or begin to put into words—the subjects about which I needed to write, a totally incomprehensible condition for me.

I was blocked.

That is an interesting twist. One cannot die passively, but one cannot block oneself actively. She died. I was blocked (I suppose one can “have” writer’s block, but that’s a statement of possession not condition).

All incoming students at our university this fall will read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2). Henrietta Lacks, in a strange and unsettling way, died passively. She died in 1951 of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. For decades her story lay furtively hidden in the annals of medical chicanery. When Dr. George Gey, her physician, discovered the cells of the tissue sample he took from her in 1951 would live in a culture as no other human cells ever had, he made generations of them available for medical research. The Baltimore City Paper (3) details the astounding contributions Henrietta Lacks has made—and is still making—to medical science. Henrietta Lacks’ family didn’t know until recently that her death has benefited everyone—literally!—who can read this blog. Her family has never received one penny of the billions (trillions?) of dollars of profit medical and pharmaceutical companies have made from her death.

I wonder how one grieves the death of a parent or grandparent or great-grandparent whose body is, in an almost incomprehensible way, alive sixty years after her death.

In her essay “The Rationality of Grief,” Carolyn Price holds that the understanding of some psychologists that grief is “irrational” is a correct understanding. She, however, goes on to say that this “irrationality” is healthy and natural. She explains this irrationality as arising

from a conflict between the subject’s belief that their loss is irreparable and their anguish for the person who has died. I have suggested that this conflict can be labeled “irrational” . . .  but . . . this form of irrationality is of a familiar and explicable kind (4).

In fact, she says, this “irrationality” is of value

despite the pain that it entails. For the pain of grief not only reflects, but also calls our attention to the importance that our commitments hold for us: through grief, as much as through joy, we perceive what matters in our lives (5).

Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family. The question how one would possibly grieve in the situation of the Lacks family is, it seems to me, not specific to them. Rather, it is a universal question which their situation magnifies in a startling way: How does one make sense of the irrational that we all experience in grief? Price’s understanding of grief as both anguish (feeling the loss of the loved one) and desolation (feeling that one’s life can never be the same again) “makes it possible to explain how grief can involve both yearning and despair, without supposing that grief implies an incoherent appraisal of the situation.”

In a sense, we all have the experience of the Lacks family. We all grieve while the person we have lost is with us. That hardly needs explanation. Our loved one is with us in memory, in memorabilia, and in our feelings.  Those of us who have reached a certain age have begun to feel the loss of loved ones and the desolation that life can never be the same again with regularity. The experience is universal.  One of my most beloved friends (who was my age) died last Saturday. I recently listed in a posting here my loved ones who have died in the last few years: my ex-wife, my brother-in-law, my mother, and my life partner. I have grieved all of these and more and have, through the grief, “perceive[d] what matters in [my] life.”

In an even more physical sense, my experience is to grieve while persons I have lost (am losing) are still present. These days, my family and I grieve (have already grieved) the passing of my father. His body and some part of his mind and spirit are still with us. But in a very real sense the man we know and love is gone. We experienced the same with the others I mentioned above. And certainly the discovery that a loved one is seriously ill—especially among those of a certain age—can be the cause of grief. The unknown can be as grievous as the known.

The current clever notion that “60 is the new 40” may be true for one’s work and pleasure. The reality, however, is that grief becomes a familiar experience at 60. This familiarity is not necessarily negativity. For me, it is bringing an understanding and acceptance of “what matters in my life” I did not expect. This seems as corny as a Hallmark card, but it’s true. I have come to reevaluate the importance of my personal relationships. I know exactly, with no question or reservation, what is most important in my life. And I was able to express that to the person who needed most to hear it just yesterday.

I return to the passive voice. In the article in which I discovered the clever explanation of the passive voice, Brother David Steindl-Rast says

if we were fully alive right now, we wouldn’t have to worry about being fully alive when it comes to dying, and at that time we would know how to deal with it. You have to be very alive to deal with dying. It is something very active—the word “to die” in the English language, as in many other languages, has no passive voice. . . And so, if you really know how to live actively, you will also be able to die actively when life asks that from you (6).

And—I’m beginning to have an inkling—that probably means you will also be able to grieve actively, irrationally and well, when life asks that from someone you love.
(1) Kramer, Kenneth P. “Explorations and Responses Dying Before Dying: Interview with Brother David Steindl-Rast.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 45.4 (2010): 632-644.
(2) Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010.
(3) Smith, Van. “Wonder Woman: The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science.” Baltimore City Paper. 4/17/2002. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. .
(4) Price, Carolyn. “The Rationality of Grief.” Inquiry 53.1 (February 2010): 20-40.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Kramer, ibid.


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