Beacon Press: Spelling Love with an X
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Spelling Love with an X

A Mother, A Son, and the Gene that Binds Them

Author: Clare Dunsford

A medical memoir and poetic meditation on raising a child with a genetic disorder

Now in his twenties, Clare Dunsford’s adult son, J.P., was diagnosed with fragile X syndrome at age seven. The most common inherited form of mental retardation, fragile X affects the lives of more than a million people in the United States, including those with the full mutation, their families, and treatment professionals. Unlike autism or Down syndrome, fragile X does not strike like a bolt of lightning, leaving its mark on just one person; it spreads throughout a family like a tidal wave. When a child is diagnosed with fragile X, a mother faces the devastating fact that she carries the premutation and has unwittingly passed on the condition. When Dunsford first shared the news about J.P., three of her siblings soon found that they carried the premutation as well, and some had already had children-so three of J.P.’s cousins also live with the cognitive and social challenges of fragile X. Such a family must, Dunsford writes in her poignant, gripping account, “reexamine its past and reassess its future.”

Spelling Love with an X is the first personal memoir about living with fragile X and a reflection on the fragility of human identity in the age of the gene. Recalling the psychic wound of learning that she is genetically “flawed,” Dunsford wonders: What do you do when you discover that you are not who you thought you were? How do you tell your parents and siblings that they, too, might be implicated in your disaster? How do you make sense of a life interrupted, cast in a different light? How do you hold the sorrow and joy of a special motherhood in balance? Must we rewrite the old lines with a new (genetic) alphabet?

A scholar by nature and training, Dunsford draws on poetry and science to reflect on her life with J.P. and to illuminate his metaphoric way of communicating. Funny and touching stories show J.P.’s impressive verbal dexterity, not uncommon in those with fragile X, and his lovable cheeky streak. Eloquent and intimate, Spelling Love with an X reveals the disarming insights of a compassionate scholar on literature, genetic inheritance, and motherhood, and tells the story of a boy who is proud to be “just who I am.“
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“Part poetry, part scientific inquiry, this wonderful memoir is, above all, the story of being complexly human in a world filled with fragility and strength, shadow and light. Clare Dunsford navigates the X that has mapped her own and her son’s paths with humor, honesty, and clear-sighted intelligence—and in prose that sings.” —Elizabeth Graver, author of The Honey Thief and Awake

“Clare Dunsford does much more than inform us concerning a disorder we know too little about. Through a prose both lucid and beautiful, she is able to communicate the strangeness, even the poetry, of fragile X.” —Clara Claiborne Park, author of The Siege: A Family’s Journey into the World of an Autistic Child and Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter’s Life with Autism

Spelling Love with an X is a beautifully written journey of a woman toward understanding herself, her son, and the twists of fate and DNA that bind them and all of us. Clare Dunsford’s powerful and moving memoir is rich with humor, poetry and, most of all, love.” —Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Choosing Naia: A Family’s Journey


Review by: Sharon Terry, Nature Genetics - July 1, 2008
"She plunges the reader into a phenomenal mélange of genetics, relationships, poetry, faith and humor in Spelling Love with an X. . . . Science and poetry, shame and pride, and sense and prattle are all coaxed into relationship, allowing readers from any vantage point to grasp the whole. Scientists are called in this book to see the human face of their work, and those who live with disease are called to 'inflect the drumbeat of DNA that courses through us so that it yields a rhythm we can dance to.' I believe Clare Dunsford when she says 'And dance we will.'"

Review: Library Journal - September 15, 2007
“touching and poignant literary memoir . . . Through vivid descriptions of her relationship with J.P., readers can glimpse the parental highs and lows of life with a child who has developmental delays.”
Read a story about this book in Boston College Magazine's fall issue.
For more information on Spelling Love with an X and Fragile X syndrome, visit

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Spelling Love with an X

ISBN: 978-080707279-0
Publication Date: 10/1/2007
Pages: 240
Size:5.5 x 8.5 Inches (US)
Price:  $24.95
Format: Cloth
Availability: Not currently available.
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