Saturday, 7 September 2013

Review: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley

Book cover of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley
I apologise in advance for any typos or odd symbols that find their way into this post. I'm typing this on my boyfriend's shiny new Windows Surface that is balanced precariously perfectly safely on a cushion on my knee. Thing is, because a) it doesn't have a proper keyboard and b) I am shit scared of breaking it, I'm writing rather like my dad right now... *pokes button with index finger* *pauses* *pokes again*

Summary: Like twelve million other Americans, Sandra Beasley suffers from food allergies. Her allergies—severe and lifelong—include dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Add to that mould, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool, and it’s no wonder Sandra felt she had to live her life as “Allergy Girl.” When butter is deadly and eggs can make your throat swell shut, cupcakes and other treats of childhood are out of the question—and so Sandra’s mother used to warn guests against a toxic, frosting-tinged kiss with “Don’t kill the birthday girl!”

It may seem that such a person is “not really designed to survive,” as one blunt nutritionist declared while visiting Sandra’s fourth-grade class. But Sandra has not only survived, she’s thrived—now an essayist, editor, and award-winning poet, she has learned to navigate a world in which danger can lurk in an unassuming corn chip.
Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is her story.

So I don't have a whole lot of great experience with illness memoirs, as I've decided to call them. The only other I've read is Chocolate and Vicodin, which could have been great but... wasn't. Far be it from me to snobbily assess the merits of a person's illness, but it read like a rather long whine about how tough the author's life is.

Enter Sandra Beasley. She does not whine, or rant, or bitch. She does not melodramatically hold her hand to her forehead or sink to her knees amid wails of despair. Instead she just kind of... gets on with it. She doesn't state what her motivation for writing Don't Kill the Birthday Girl was, but it reads as a tool to raise awareness of just how dehabilitating severe food allergies can be.

It's fairly obvious that eating out at a restaurant can be problematic if you have allergies, but this book opened my eyes to the less obvious ways in which they can impact your life. What if you're a devout Catholic unable to take Communion? Or a child at a birthday party who sees all their friend eating cake? Sometimes you just don't think through the consequences of what can seem like a rather trivial illness.
All the rites of eating I've ever envied have been secular - defined by pop culture, geography, or my era. But in scenarios where the ritual is religious, and strictly codified, those with food allergies or other dietary restrictions experience a more profound exclusion. Around 2001, a controversy arose when Boston's Roman Catholic Church (seconded by the Archdiocese of New York) affirmed its decree that rice-based wafers were not an acceptable substitute for wheat-based Communion wafers - even for those unable to ingest wheat.
Or, as the pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish was quoted as saying during a 2001 interview with the Associatied Press at the time of the Boston controversy: "We many are sharing one bread and becoming one with Christ. We can't make different flavors for different folks and maintain that theological reality."

It's evident that an awful lot of research has gone into this book, in addition to the information that the author has presumably accumulated over several years visiting allergy specialists. There are historical and sociological points brought in, as well as visiting allergies from lots of different perspectives. The result is almost an accessible examination of allergies through the ages and it works really, really well. It is a memoir as Ms Beasley frequently draws upon her own experiences, but it's much more well-rounded and objective than you'd think.

For example, despite obviously, obviously, obviously having sympathy for allergy sufferers of all types (it would be odd if she didn't), she's able to discuss whether perhaps certain aspects are overhyped - there's a whole chapter on how peanut allergies have been blown out of proportion and she doesn't agree with nut-free airplanes, etc. Just to clarify, this lady is severally allergic to dairy, beef, soy, shellfish and a whole host of other things and yet she still doesn't need the world to alter itself just for her.

Not only do I like the book, I also like Sandra Beasley herself. Sometimes it can be difficult to review a memoir objectively when the voice and opinions of the author get in the way, but here she only adds to the value. This is an informative, objective look at allergies from the perspective of a likeable long-term sufferer. I really can't recommend this highly enough.

Visit Sandra Beasley's website here or find her on Twitter.


  1. I should probably read this. But I feel kind of meh about it. I have not, so far, *wanted* to read it.

    My 13yo is a milder version of Allergy Kid. She has a long list, with peanuts at the top. Mostly we do fine. Recently at church we got a gluten/allergy free option for communion, too. (In our church, they just use loaves of bread. Once or twice someone has grabbed bread that was poison for my kid, and we've always carefully scrutinized the bread before letting her have it. So a nice dependable corn tortilla option makes us happy, and also the several gluten-free people in the congregation.)

    On the whole, I fall into the school of not depending on others to make sure my kid will be safe. I would love a nut-free classroom, but I would never trust it. (Actually my kid is homeschooled, but other kids have told me stories of peanut-allergic kids who get PB&Js shoved at them from kids who think it's hilarious, not thinking about the real live danger.) It's a bad idea to trust others to make the environment secure; people who don't live it are forgetful.

    Anyway, about planes--well, before I figured out what's it's like to have a peanut allergy, I was against nut-free planes too. I love a nice little packet of salty plane peanuts. Then I had a kid who gets sick from the smell of peanuts! Smells are particles, and particles can successfully poison a person. Being enclosed in an air-borne cylinder full of recycled air that contains peanut particles really would be a death sentence for some folks. So now I appreciate the nut-free planes--someday, when I can afford a plane ticket or two, I'd like to take my kid on a trip. I could not do that if planes served peanuts.

    Maybe sometime I'll read the book though.

    1. I'm glad your church is thoughtful enough to provide for your daughter and other sufferors. I hadn't thought about the multitude of different ways in which they can feel isolated before this book.

      Other kids have told me stories of peanut-allergic kids who get PB&Js shoved at them from kids who think it's hilarious.

      You're kidding!? People actually DO that? I mean, I know they're children and don't always understand the implications, but surely at that age they're old enough to realise what it could mean for the allergic child? I would have hoped they'd have been better educated than that.

      The author talks about the particles in the air in relation to airplanes, but I can't remember what she says. I think she was discussing why there are nut-free planes, but not dairy-free planes or beef-free planes when people can be just as allergic to other things. She wasn't dismissing nut-allergies (as she's severely allergic herself), but just wondering why that particular allergy has hit the headlines when the others haven't.

    2. You're kidding!? People actually DO that?

      Absolutely. Education really is not very good. IME there are many, many people who do not take allergies seriously, who assume that it is motherly paranoia or made up for attention--and I'm talking grownups. (I did not start off paranoid. Paranoia was beaten into me through hard experience. :) ) There are lots of kids who would do something like that, simply because they are not thinking and do not understand the consequences.

      Peanuts, for some reason, seem to be uniquely virulent when it comes to smell. I don't know why that is, but my daughter has gotten sick several times from being in the same room with a PB&J (especially if the PB is warm, like on toast), and she has never had that reaction from, say, bean soup or tofu or tuna melts or even walnuts--though when I was offered a tour of a walnut-processing plant as a field trip, I said no way!! Walnuts are a big crop here. Anyway, I wouldn't stick her face into a jar of Nutella to smell--I bet that would be bad. I love Nutella but I don't keep it in the house because of its stickiness and strong smell (which I love). Even peanut M&Ms will make her sick; the nuts are entirely covered with chocolate and candy, and yet they smell strongly of peanut and she has gotten ill from them.


    I think I first spotted this book on your wishlist - or was it the other way around? - and then I knew you had a copy so I've been waiting for this review ever since! I still haven't read my copy of Chocolate and Vicodin - though I'll definitely bear in mind the whiny thing, see how I feel about it - but this one's now shot up my wishlist.

    *coughs discreetly* Maybe we should go to a bookshop and see if we can find me a copy? Huh? :)

    1. I saw it on your wishlist. I'm almost positive because it occurred to me that it languished on MY wishlist for ages and then it took me more than a year to read it after I eventually bought it... and I still read it before you! ;)

      I think I found Chocolate & Vicodin through you as well, actually. I definitely preferred this one though. It's more informative and educational, and I like the author a whole lot more. One day I'll write a book about ME/CFS! #butprobablywon't

      Would it be under 'Biography,' do you think? But yes. I told you, I'm easy - I can fit in with whatever you and Charlotte decide!

  3. Me & my boyfriend were JUST talking about how much it must suck to be one of those people who are deathly allergic to things like peanuts and soy and dairy, so how interesting! And I'm glad she doesn't sound whiny about it, because people being whiny (even when they have a pretty decent reason) in books just annoys me. Added to my to-read list immediately.

  4. Huh...I never would have thought that I'd even be half interested in reading a book about allergies and yet! Here I am, probably about half interested in reading a book about allergies.

    One of my closest friends at high school was allergic to nuts and dairy and I always felt awful for her when we went out to eat. I remember once we went to Pizza Express and she asked for a pizza without cheese and the waitress barked really loudly, "Without CHEESE?! Are you sure?!" and I remember thinking I would have been mortified if that had been me (because teen me got embarrassed easily). She dealt with it really well because she must have been used to it but I suppose it's a fair example of how intolerant people are of the less...famous (?) allergies.

    So yes, I won't say that it's launched to the top of my wishlist but I'll keep half an eye out for it next time I'm a-browsing (which will definitely NOT be before I can see you and Ellie - I am saving all of my book-buying for that day when I am able not to be chained to my desk during office hours :D)


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