Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl

Throughout her elementary school years, when a student celebrated a birthday by bringing in cupcakes for the class, Sandra Beasley would be allotted precisely 12 hazelnuts counted out by her teacher from a bag her mother had brought in on the first day of school. Every Halloween, after trick-or-treating, young Sandra was forced to give away almost everything but the raisins. Dont Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life, presents these poignant details not with self-pity but with insight and humor as Beasley describes her struggle to fit in–and survive–while managing severe allergies to dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, melon, mustard, and more.

The book combines memoir with a roundup of the science on allergies (medical understanding is still “maddeningly incomplete,” says Beasley, who racked up 782 “I got my shot today” stickers as a child). She also explores cultural attitudes towards allergies, which, she laments, often include skepticism and outright hostility. Many of the personal stories follow the same narrative arc, beginning with the interrogation of a waiter or chef and ending with a visit to an emergency room after the inadvertent ingestion of an allergen. Yet each remains compelling as we root for her and then wait to discover what it was that brought her down. (She thought it would be safe to toast her friend’s engagement with a lemon drop cocktail, but it turns out there was a milk derivative in the sour mix!)

The book is also, in a sense, a coming-of-age story, as Beasley, author of the poetry collection I Was the Jukebox, must eventually leave her heroically protective parents and figure out how to navigate a dangerous world on her own. Despite some inevitable difficulties–she writes with wit about feeling “less like a lover and more like a mom” as she quizzes boyfriends about what they’ve eaten and whether they’ve washed up before touching her–she seems to have managed the transition with aplomb. Mastering what she calls “the balancing act,” she writes, “My job is to center on staying safe in this world, but my job is also never to assume the world should revolve around keeping me safe.”