Sandra Beasley on Embracing Life with Allergies

In my early 20s, I began writing poems about the life-threatening allergies I have had since birth, which include foods many of us take for granted – such as milk, eggs, beef, shrimp, soy, cashews, and so on.

One draft opened with the technical definition of an allergy attack, as given to me by a doctor when I was in the third grade: “Each food was a shape eyed by the antibody, looking for an immunoglobulin hole to match,” he’d explained. “A good fit would make for a bad reaction.”

Then came the child’s translation, the metaphor I made of my illness: “My bloodstream was a Fisher-Price workbench, full of exact and waiting geometries. I was a lot of good fits waiting to happen.”

In the gulf between what my allergist termed “immunoglobulin” cells and what I internalized as “immune goblin holes,” I knew there was a story that needed to be told. But the story didn’t fit in verse. So I turned to prose.

Get recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.

With the rising prevalence of food allergies in children there has been plenty of discussion about prevention, treatments, and peanut-free zones. Concerned parents and scientists drive that conversation, sometimes without much direct input from those with the allergies. This can result in significant blind spots.

A mom may be prepared to talk to her 12-year-old son about avoiding tree nuts when he goes to a baseball game. But will she be ready to level with him on his 21st birthday when – no matter how drunk his buddies get him – he needs to steer clear of nut-liqueur laced shots?

In my new memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, I delve into the nitty-gritty of how food allergies affect us, all the way from childhood into our teenage and adult years. I don’t just mean how allergies impact our physical selves (though that can be comically mortifying) but how they shape our social selves, our romantic selves, our role in a family, and our sense of mortality.

Your worldview changes when something as simple as a bite of cake or a first-date kiss can send you to the hospital.

Though my experience is at the heart of this book, researching allergies took me far beyond the realm of hives and EpiPens. America’s big eight allergens – dairy, egg, soy, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, and wheat – are central ingredients to the last 100 years of food science, community rituals, and culinary culture. I wanted to tell some of those stories as well.

Taking side-trips through history is one of my great joys as a writer, whether I’m led to Henry Ford in his all-soy suit or an anchovy-spiked martini in New Orleans. In a poem, I once compared having a reaction to being in an airplane as it crashed.

In Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, I learn to embrace life’s ride.

sandra-beasleySANDRA BEASLEY is the author of the poetry collections I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, which won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Her honors include a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in Washington, D.C., where her prose has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine.

Download Sandra Beasley’s tips on hosting an allergy-friendly KIDS’ party.

Download Sandra Beasley’s tips on hosting an allergy-friendly ADULT party.

Download the reader’s guide for Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl.

Sandra is available to meet with your book group by phone or skype. Please email her to schedule at

Visit Sandra online at and on Facebook and Twitter @SandraBeasley.

RIFers! Do you live with allergies, have kids with allergies, or know someone who does? Share your stories with us!

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

  • C

    I am so excited about reading this book. I have one easily avoidable food allergy, but my daughter has a handful of allergies that are much harder to avoid. I can’t wait to read the stories of a woman living in my daughter’s world.

  • Sheri

    looks like a great read. . .

  • sue jockers

    sounds interesting

  • Rachel

    Looks awesome!

  • Erin

    I have a 2 year old that is allergic to eggs and peanuts.So Im always interested how others handle food allergies.I would love to read this book.

  • Dana Gagner

    I recently tested as allergic to dairy,soy,wheat and eggs. I am overwhelmed with where to even begin to eliminate what is over 50% of my diet. I can’t wait to read this and get on the road to feeling better.

  • jen

    would love to read this book!!

  • MelissaS

    My son has dairy and egg allergies. He is 7 years old and it is becoming harder for him as he goes off on his own to friends’ houses and such. We don’t eat out because it is so difficult to trust what is really happening in the kitchens! Just yesterday, I thought I would treat him to dairy free, water-based sorbet at an ice cream shop and he only took 2 bites before complaining of an itchy throat. It is scary!! I am looking forward to reading this book to see how the author deals with her allergies as an adult.

  • Blaire

    For somebody that has no allergies, I can’t say I’ve ever thought about the lifetime effects food allergies can have on a persons life. Good to learn new perspectives.

  • eva woodring

    Like to read the bool.

  • Kim Legendre

    having a 3 year old daughter that was newly diagnosed with celiac disease….I am extremely anxious to read your book!! Thanks for the opportunity!

  • Sara

    I’m totally intrigued by this book. My Mom sufferred severe allergies for many years. Every holiday she would take ill. We finally figured out that the Christmas tree was the problem. We went with fake and from then on she was ok at the holidays. It was life changing.

  • Jasmine

    It sucks that there are so many people affected by this and there arent a lot of alternatives. It’s great that she can talk about it. What a great story.

  • Liz P.

    I have allergies also and have had them all my life and will probably always have them. Pollen and melons bother me the most, so I know what Ms. Beasley is going through. I would love to read her book, and I wish her all the best with her allergies-she is not alone out there!!!!

  • Megan Harrison

    My husband has an allergy to wheat. He was told as a teenager that he tested just under severe outbreak level (or something similar – those were his words). Since his diagnosis, my husband has struggled with having to avoid something that is in pretty much every food you find on supermarket shelves. He goes in spurts – one month he avoids wheat completely and feels great after the initial withdrawal period. The next month he is frustrated with lack of selection and eating whatever he wants. His weight fluctuates depending on what he is choosing to eat. Eating wheat causes him to balloon which further frustrates him. It is very hard to watch someone you love struggle so much with something you will never truly understand. I try to be as supportive as I can and I hope he will finally learn to be at peace with his allergy someday.

  • Georgia George

    Many of us have allergies, and it will be interesting
    to see where Beasley goes with this idea.

  • rebecca ford

    I would love to win this book! Kinda funny is that today is my birthday!

  • Wendy

    My 9 year old has allergies. Peanut and seasonal. She is always stuffy, poor thing. It’s hard to be a kid with the peanut allergy, Always watching and having to skip things some of the kids eat. We have known about it since she was 1.

  • takiyah

    i would love to win this book.

  • Tammie Chute

    Our grandson’s first Kindergarten class prize was a pizza party for the entire class! However, his allergies prevented him from the ordinary pizza. My daughter had previously spoken with school administration and the teacher and all seemed well. With the prize day soon to come and the excitement gearing up, my daughter approached the teacher, reminding her of our grandson’s allergies. She was told to keep him home that day! Wow, how unfair. She found out the pizza was coming from the same pizza store that handmakes his ‘specialty allergy free pizza’ and it was requested that a small one be ordered for our grandson. The teacher reminded our daughter, to keep the child home that day or the teacher would have to approach the school board with a problem parent. Don’t worry, the problem grandma sat for 13 hours, 2 days worth of waiting to meet with the superintendent of schools to have our chat. Our grandson was already transfered before I spoke with the superintendent. How sad for everyone. There were no reprocussions to the teacher or the school district! That was in 2005.

  • mandy

    i’m definately going to have to read this book. I grew up with no allergies, started having allergic reactions lately and presently, the list of items I’m allergic to, just keeps growing longer.

  • Tammie Chute

    Thank you for an insider’s view and first hand experience of ‘sick living’ in society can be like. It is something no one sees, therefore nothing exist…in thought.

  • Emily

    I’m excited to read a book by someone who lived to tell the tale of a lifetime with severe allergies. This looks like light – but still educational – reading for some young adults in my family.

  • Priscilla

    I hope i get to win, cause i love to read new books! (:

  • jessica

    Sounds like an interesting book. I have cousin who can’t eat gluten and my sister is realizing she can’t eat certain strains of gluten, either. I think people definitely need to be more aware of others with allergies, and perhaps why we’re seeing such a rise in people with allergies as well.

  • Michael Greenberg

    I’ve had allergies my entire life. It will be interesting to read from another person’s perspective. Also, still have not won a book yet. Waiting patiently.

  • Rose Walas

    I would love to get this book for my grandaughter for her birthday.

  • Wendy

    As a mom and teacher, I know how hard it is to have a child with a food allergy. I was surprised at the foods I had to stay clear of when dealing with a peanut allergy (gummy bears??) and was equally surprised how many children thought the allergy sufferer was making up the allergy just to seek attention.

  • Laurie Blum

    Sounds like an interesting read!

  • linda

    would love to get this book!!

  • Michelle H

    I have multiple allergies to things and I would love to see a book that takes those fairly serious things and puts them into a bit of humor. Sounds like an amazing book!

  • Jody Stevely

    I love Read It Forward and I hope I win :):)

  • Jody Stevely


  • Jordyn Kinney

    I have recently been diagnosed with allergies to common things as well (chicken, milk, chocolate, cinnamon, and wheat as well as environmental things). I have been struggling with the symptoms my entire life (I’m 19) and it took this long, and many different tests, to finally diagnose my problem. I am very excited to read this book and possibly learn some things that can help me, and lighten up the situation!

  • Melissa

    Wow! This looks like such a great read. I teach Kindergarten and deal with food allergies frequently these days – some sever and some not. Being part of a community of teachers my colleagues and I frequently talk about what IS happening that is causes the number of allergies to increase. I am looking forward to sharing this book with others!! Thanks for posting!

  • Celeste Olson

    Sorry if this duplicates. I too have a food allergy to wheat bran/germ/whole wheat. It stems from being a nurse and years of dispensing metamucil to my patients. Pot lucks and buffets are a nightmare. I have become quite a proficient label reader though. Thankfully, allergies are becoming more recognized by restaurants. I was actually given a series of cards with every menu item and it’s allergens recently. My heart goes out to this writer. I can’t imagine the misery of that many allergies.

  • Joann Acantilado

    So wonderful!

  • Theresa Flores

    sounds interesting

  • Julie

    Although I do not have food allergies myself, I have several good friends that do and have to be very careful when inviting them over to my home for a meal and where we go out to dinner. This book sounds very interesting!

  • Sue Martin

    My granddaughter is allergic to so many different foods. I would like a copy of this book so maybe I could learn some things to help her out. Thank you so much.

  • Tony WOng

    hope and will love to read your book this summer xoxoxo

  • Nicole Hughes

    Reading….what else is there!

  • Jan A

    I have a daughter that has food sensitivities that I hope don’t turn into allergies later in her life. I am very interested in reading this book.

  • Paola Mayorga

    Very interesting!

  • Jen

    My son has multiple food allergies and I’m so excited to see a book about the subject! I cannot wait to read this!

  • Ariel Byrd

    Love to read it.

  • Pamela Brint

    I would love to win this

  • Elizabeth Price

    I love love love books and have encountered several students that have allergies.

  • Cindy

    Did not get a chance to enter. Did not get the email until tonight:(



  • Gretchen Snyder

    Relevant story to my life!

  • Jennifer

    I deal with lots of allergies and I think a lot of times changing our diet makes us healthier anyway.

  • pam munro

    When I was first diagnosed w/environmental allergies, I was just put on OTC meds that made me high as a kite , sitting in my H.S. classes. No one took them seriously – I was just having the “vapors.” Eventually there were better meds & blood tests that confirmed my “malaise,” but still the stigma of being just unwell persisted. My allergies aren’t as dramatic, but a problem nevertheless, which I hope I have learned to cope with more or less. I welcome public discussion of this condition & increased sensitivity.

  • Robin Blankenship

    I would love to read this one. We live in a very allergy riddled house. We have celiac. WE also have a handful of other allergies. Food and environmental.


  • Lucy

    Aw. I’ve read the reviews of this book on goodreads and I definitely want to have my own copy!

  • Ellen H

    I really like this book. It is interesting to see all that she went though with her allergies.

[email_signup id="4" download="" success="Success! Click below to get your bookmarks."]
[email_signup id="4"]