Beautiful Eyes: A Father Transformed

By Paul Austin

(Norton, $25.95, 288)

Who is this author?

I’m always amazed and impressed when doctors have the time and talent to step outside their demanding medical careers and become published authors as well.  That is the case with Paul Austin, who is an emergency-room doctor in North Carolina. His previous memoir, Something for the Pain: Compassion and Burnout in the ER, was well-received, and he has published essays in such literary journals as Creative Nonfiction, the Southeast Review and the Gettysburg Review.

What is this book about?

In the moments just before a child is born, parents are awash in hopes and fears. For Paul Austin and his wife – he a medical student and she a delivery room nurse – the moment in 1987 was one of joy but also of the stark revelation that their daughter, Sarah, had the physical signs of Down Syndrome. And even for a doctor who understands the limitations that accompany Down Syndrome as well as the strides that can be made, that is the beginning of a harsh reality. The good news is that love and acceptance prevail, and Austin, over time, learns plenty about being a good parent and a better doctor from the wisdom – and I use that word deliberately — that Sarah possesses and shares. He learns we all have limitations, even doctors, and that they can be addressed, tackled and often, overcome.

Why you’ll like it:

Memoirs can be inspirational without being saccharine, and Beautiful Eyes is one such book. Austin tells his family’s story honestly and deftly, and it is just as much his own coming of age story as it is Sarah’s. He blends his family’s personal experiences with her condition from birth through age 22 with the science of the syndrome and the history of the medical world’s often cruelly low and downright ignorant expectations for Down kids. This is an enlightening book in every sense of the word.

What others are saying:

People Magazine says: “Raising a child with Down syndrome, the author had plenty of fears and preconceptions. But from babyhood to adult-hood, Sarah challenged him to accept her not as a dire diagnosis but as a beloved, inspiring daughter. This isn’t a book only for those dealing with disability; it’s a ferocious, illuminating look at the stunning surprise of human connection.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An emergency room doctor and essayist tells the moving story of how he came to terms with being the father of a child with Down syndrome. When doctors first told Austin and his wife, Sally, that their newborn daughter Sarah had trisomy 21, the couple went into shock. Neither could fully acknowledge that they had created a life that was anything less than perfect. Bonding with the child proved difficult at first, not because Sarah was a difficult baby but because the couple could not see themselves—or traits from their families—in her. They only saw the “simian crease” on Sarah’s palms that marked her as “abnormal.” The author and his wife also found they had to deal with the prejudices of others—e.g., the senior resident at the hospital where Austin trained who suggested that a Down syndrome child would be functional enough to “make a good pet.” Seeking to understand Sarah’s otherness, Austin explored the history of Down syndrome, the philosophical writings of Locke and Montaigne, and the art of the 15th-century Flemish masters. He discovered that the negative feelings he and others had toward his daughter were as much historical as they were a product of a society that scorned difference. As Sarah grew up, so did Austin. He began to see his child as a self-aware being who struggled with her limitations rather than a set of chromosomes gone awry. Sarah made the most of her abilities in events like the Special Olympics and gracefully accepted her fate to live as a member of a group home. This tender, bright and flawed child showed how being different enhanced her humanity rather than detracted from it. A poignant and candid father’s memoir.”

Novelist Ann Hood says: “In this beautiful, unflinching memoir, Paul Austin uses science, history, and a father’s love and fear to trace his emotional journey with his daughter Sarah. Eventually, she becomes less his daughter with Down syndrome and simply his daughter. And every step of the way you will root for Austin, for Sarah, for everyone who has had to learn how to accept the path they are on. I simply love this book!”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Austin follows up Something for the Pain, his memoir of becoming an ER doctor, with an eloquent account of his experiences raising a child with Down syndrome. It begins in 1987 when he, a third-year resident, and his wife, Sally, a labor and delivery room nurse, receive the news that their newborn daughter, Sarah, has the congenital condition. As Austin watches his wife breast-feed Sarah, and later slips a flower behind his daughter’s ear as she sleeps in his arms, his love for her is unmistakable. He segues seamlessly between scenes of family life and disquisitions on the history and science of Down syndrome, arguing that we are defined by more than our genes. Though Austin doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges he faced, he also shows Sarah as an engaging, sociable child who loved movies, dancing, and drawing. While following her development from birth to age 22, readers also witness Austin’s transformation from a father who once had to “pretend” to be proud, to a man in genuine awe of Sarah’s many gifts. Parents of special-needs kids will find this story particularly inspiring, and its universal message of love and acceptance should speak to a much wider audience.”

When is it available?

You can find this important book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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