Learning about Law through Literature

CAS writing seminar inspires students to consider legal issues presented in books, including In Cold Blood, 1984, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

| in Community, Features

By Mara Sassoon

In February 1951, doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., collected a sample of cervical cancer cells from a 31-year-old Black patient named Henrietta Lacks. While Lacks went on to receive painful radium treatments for her cancer, her cells were taken—unbeknownst to her—to be cultured and researched at a tissue lab at the hospital. The treatments proved unsuccessful; Lacks died eight months later, leaving behind a husband and five children. But over in the lab, her cells survived and would later provide the foundation for multiple medical breakthroughs. In the 70 years since, those cells have been used in research on genome mapping, HIV/AIDS medications, and polio and HPV vaccines.

For decades, Lacks’ story went mostly unknown. That all changed in 2010 when Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, exploring the ethical concerns behind the use of her cells. Taking cells from patients without their knowledge or consent was routine practice at the time, but Lacks’ cells are unique for becoming the first “immortal” cell line and going on to be used in so many scientific advancements.

The issues Skloot brought to light in her book are still being debated today—including in Jamie Robertson’s CAS writing seminar, Literature and the Law. Students read and analyze the book, then discuss topics including discrimination, inequities in healthcare, and informed consent. The course aims to improve students’ writing skills through having them explore various legal issues presented in fiction and nonfiction books. Many students interested in pursuing law careers take the class, but it also attracts those who enjoy a good legal thriller and want to boost their communication skills. 

Debating Privacy

“In teaching this class, it’s always my goal to make sure the students don’t really get a sense of what I think—what my opinions on a law or a case are—because I really want them to feel free to figure out for themselves what they think.” – Jamie Robertson, CAS Writing Program Lecturer

Robertson, a Writing Program lecturer who joined CAS in 2020, attributes her law interest to her husband, Christopher, a professor of health law and the associate dean for graduate and international programs at BU School of Law. “When he was in law school, I’d sometimes sit in the back of his classes and listen. My interest evolved from there.” She’s taught the course, which she initially founded at the University of Arizona, for six years.

In addition to Henrietta Lacks, students also read George Orwell’s 1984, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber—for which they participate in a mock trial to argue the guilt or innocence of a character who shoots her husband. Robertson invites guest speakers who specialize in the areas of the law relevant to each book, while she handles the literature part of the course.

“I want my students to become very critical readers and realize that the authors might be trying to shape their opinions,” says Robertson. “I want them to be aware of that and to think about the narration that was chosen, the tone that was chosen, how every word matters.”

When teaching Henrietta Lacks this past fall, she invited Andrea-Gale Okoro (LAW’18), an expert in health law who works on the product counsel team for the family benefits and support app Cleo. Okoro discussed the legal issues presented in the book, including what US law says about informed consent, privacy in healthcare, and research with human cells and tissue. Currently, it is legal for scientists to use people’s tissue for research without letting them know, as long as their identities are kept private.

“In teaching this class, it’s always my goal to make sure the students don’t really get a sense of what I think—what my opinions on a law or a case are—because I really want them to feel free to figure out for themselves what they think,” says Robertson. “With Henrietta Lacks, there’s often a lot of disagreement between students over the use of the cells.”

1984, George Orwell’s tale about a dystopian future with mass surveillance brought up further important discussions over privacy laws. Having grown up with the rapidly evolving internet and a changing social media landscape, students discussed their concerns with guest speaker Felicity Slater (LAW’22), a third-year law student specializing in privacy law. Though Orwell—who published his book in 1949—didn’t foresee the internet, “the kind of worries he had over privacy and surveillance are so relevant today,” Robertson says.

The Interdisciplinary Impact

Robertson kicks off each book with a lesson about the author’s writing style and narrative techniques, and how they went about creating the work. She says she selected In Cold Blood, which tells the story of the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Kansas, primarily for Truman Capote’s literary methods. “Students get to experience excellent writing. It’s just a really well written true crime story.”

Robertson says In Cold Blood always stirs conversations over the death penalty (the two men convicted of murdering the Clutters were sentenced to death by hanging). “I have found that students come in thinking they knew the reasons for being for or against the death penalty, but they usually end up being a little confused after the class discussion because they learned so much about capital punishment.” This past semester, second-year law student Henry Oostrom-Shah (LAW’23), who is specializing in criminal law, came to class to explain to students the stages of penalty for murder.

The discussions these books produce have motivated some of Robertson’s former students to pursue legal careers. She recently received a note from one student who credits reading J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace in her class with inspiring her to attend law school. The student has family in South Africa, and the political and social themes presented in the book—which is set in post-apartheid South Africa—had resonated with her.

One of Robertson’s favorite parts of the course is bringing together two seemingly disparate fields, especially through the guest speakers that come to class. “I am a strong believer of interdisciplinary approaches,” Robertson says. She gives the example of one guest speaker, a retired criminal defense attorney, who has joined the class in the past.

“He could write the most amazing briefs. He wrote them like stories. He talked about how it really can help your case to write a good brief,” says Robertson. “I like the interdisciplinary aspect of this class because it shows students the value of communicating through writing. It’s far more than just sitting down and reading a good book—good, persuasive writing can change the world.”

You can learn about another seminar from Robertson, Writing with a Sense of Taste, in BU Today.

Banner/Feature Photo Credit: Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash