Review | Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life,
by Sandra Beasley
Crown Publishers, 2011
Chances are, you don’t spend much time thinking about food allergies unless you or someone you love happens to have them. Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life aims to bridge that gap. The book strikes a balance between memoir and reportage as it deals not only with Beasley’s experiences growing up as someone with severe allergies and their effects upon her life, but also with the cultural context surrounding those experiences. In its blending of fact and anecdote, this book is more akin to an extended personal essay than what we might conventionally call memoir. Beasley isn’t only reflecting on her own experiences; she’s addressing larger questions of how we deal with allergies culturally and as a society, and what those answers mean to the millions of people who experience allergic reactions regularly.
“One of the more than 12 million Americans who has been diagnosed with food allergies, a figure that includes almost 4 percent of all children,” Beasley is allergic to “dairy (including goat’s milk), egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard.” Beasley uses personal narratives from throughout her life both to keep us entertained and to give us a full picture of the way allergies have influenced her experiences and development (and, by extension, the way they affect the lives of many allergy sufferers).
The extent of vigilance that’s required on the part of severe allergy sufferers may surprise a reader who lives without allergies. In one anecdote, Beasley talks about celebrating her best friend’s engagement:
While they deliberated about the food, I scrutinized the laminated place mat that doubled as a drink menu, looking for something Sandra-friendly that didn’t contain Irish cream, Midori, or chocolate. The house specialties cater to someone who has the sweet tooth of a five-year-old and the sense of humor of a fifteen-year-old. No other explanation justifies the Buttery Nipple.
“What about Lemon Drops?” I asked my friends.
The conventionally prepared shooter would’ve been safe for her to drink, but she later found out that the bar where they were celebrating added sour mix to their version of the drink.
Commercial drink mixes, as any student of chemistry or cheap margaritas might tell you, contain a boatload of ingredients that separate rather unappealingly over time. So a milk derivative is added as a binder . . . In that moment at Maarten’s, I knew none of this. What I knew, as soon as I set my drained shot glass back on the table, was that my esophagus was on fire. What on earth? Vodka, lemon, sugar: I wasn’t allergic to any of those things. What was I missing?
And so Beasley spent a night that was supposed to be celebratory curled up around a toilet seat—“A quintessential night of college drinking, minus much actual drinking,” she jokes. She goes on to reflect on how she might’ve double-checked the ingredients or taken a test sip of the shot instead of knocking the whole thing back at once if the circumstances had been different. Beasley points out that “this was not a drink; this was a toast. To question or hesitate violates the ritual.” In drawing attention to the way the circumstances of this situation influenced the unfolding of its events, she illustrates for us just one of the many complex ways that allergies have interfered with how she’s been able to interact with others over the course of her life.
Throughout this book, we see Beasley not only parse the influence of her allergies on her own experiences and development, but also address the “huge disconnects in the dialogue” about allergies in America:
Parents who have never met a food they couldn’t eat struggle to empathize with their child’s allergies. Those crusading for community accommodation misguidedly conflate allergies with intolerance and confuse discomfort with anaphylaxis. Advocacy groups focus on youth allergies and largely ignore the complexities faced by those who grow into adulthood, travel, marry, and must figure out how to raise children of their own. There are multiple dimensions of data out there, but no one has set the gyroscope spinning.
It seems like setting that gyroscope spinning is just what Beasley aims to do. In a sense, the narratives of Beasley’s experiences in Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl are secondary to the facts she’s gathered to share with us. The personal stories serve primarily as conduits into some of these larger issues and as illustrative anecdotes for the scientific and cultural facts she brings to light. It seems like Beasley is more interested in exploring what it means to have food allergies in America today than she is in retelling her experiences in the ways of a conventional memoir. But the narratives persist because one of the best ways to enact that exploration is to provide us with a series of vivid anecdotes that really illustrate the many ways that allergies affect her life. What lies at the core of these personal stories isn’t solipsism or a bid for sympathy. Beasley is most interested in promoting awareness and creating a community of support—to demystify food allergies in a country where incidence of them is on the rise.
Thus, much of the book is dedicated to talking about allergies in our culture—Beasley provides us with plenty of facts and figures, the result of considerable research. Beasley considers allergies in a number of different circumstances and from a variety of perspectives. Thus, we learn about school protocols and advertising (particularly in regard to the ethics of secret ingredients) and restaurant practices and airplane etiquette, all in respect to allergies. We learn not only about the prevalence of allergies and how they’re diagnosed, but also that a kiss can cause an allergic reaction: “According to a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the most foolproof way to avoid causing a reaction in a romantic partner—if you insist on eating something he or she is allergic to—is to wait four hours and chew on something ‘safe’ before kissing.”
She dispenses a variety of practical advice for sufferers of food allergies, including a set of general guidelines for traveling with allergies. Things get particularly tricky when traveling outside the country—health insurance often doesn’t cover international travel, and language barriers can make it difficult for those with allergies to communicate their dietary needs. Beasley suggests, “The simplest dictate is that you should not venture into an area where your allergen is pervasive in the cuisine.” When she does travel, Beasley says, “I arm myself with a slip of paper, worded in whatever the common language is of the land I am visiting, that outlines my allergy issues.” She recommends that allergy sufferers “bring a disposable, dispensable stack. They are business cards, in the sense that you are in the business of surviving this meal.” Here we can see one of Beasley’s many turns to humor—a strategy that keeps readers invested by keeping them entertained. In this instance, the humor also serves to help emphasize the importance of these cards and to make her suggestion more memorable.
Beasley employs a straightforward and clear voice, which makes the data-oriented parts of the book easy to understand. And her poet’s eye (Beasley has published two collections of poetry) creates vivid and self-contained scenes, with striking details and pleasing language. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl covers a lot of ground, managing to explore both an individual life and a larger cultural context in a thorough and entertaining way, which makes it a satisfying read.
Sandra Beasley is the author of one memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown Publishers, 2011). She is the author of two collections of poetry, I Was the Jukebox (W. W. Norton, 2010), which won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling (New Issues/Western Michigan University Press, 2008), which won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize.