'Allergies are quirky beasts," understates award-winning poet Sandra Beasley in the beginning of her exceptional memoir, "Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life." Beasley, whose personal list of food allergies would have most of us running for the nearest plastic bubble, was born in 1980, "when the world was a small-town waitress: it didn't know what to do with me." There were no peanut-free zones, no gluten-free cafes for Beasley, whose allergic reactions to more than 20 different food and environmental triggers could quickly put her into anaphylactic shock. Needless to say, this made for a very uncomfortable childhood for Beasley, as well as her parents, who struggled against skeptical waiters, ignorant teachers and the purely innocent who forgot that even Elmer's glue used to contain casein (a form of dairy).
Beasley skillfully weaves the personal with the scientific, exploring the origins of allergies, how allergic reactions have been played for sympathy as well as laughs on television, and the psychological effects of her own dependence on over-the-counter drugs for controlling her allergic reactions. She unflinchingly describes her teenage and college years, where even being in the same room as one of her triggers could leave her curled up on the floor, gasping for breath, while one of her friends called for an ambulance. Nothing says "awkward" like trying to impress a guy by eating a forkful of risotto, only to be wheeled away moments later by a couple of paramedics.
As Beasley entered adulthood she continued to explore the limits of her medical condition, coming up against challenges with every wedding she attended and every new relationship. She even took several cooking classes in order to explore her culinary options, and balked at a chef's cheerful attempt to offer substitutions for the multiple foods that are off limits to Beasley, reinforcing the voice in her head, "the one that whispers 'You'll never really be one of us.'"
At a time when "intolerance" is used interchangeably with "allergy" and celebrities promote a gluten-free diet as way of life, Beasley is the voice of reason. With no self-pity, anger or despair, she eloquently pulls back the curtain on what is the way of life for the medically (as opposed to self-) diagnosed 12 million people living with food allergies today. Not only is her memoir an invaluable resource for parents of children with allergies, as well as the children themselves, it also is a testament to Beasley's admirable strength and sharp sense of humor in the face of personal adversity.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.