Occasionally I come across a book in which I struggle to find the right words to describe it in a review. There’s a variety of reasons I think for this. As a stay-at-home and work-at-home dad, sometimes it’s just plain fatigue. Other times I almost feel that anything I say won’t do the book the justice it deserves. George Estreich’s The Shape of the Eye is a perfect example of the latter reason.
When Laura Estreich is born, her appearance presents a puzzle: does the shape of her eyes indicate Down syndrome, or the fact that she has a Japanese grandmother? In this powerful memoir, George Estreich, a poet and stay-at-home dad, tells his daughter’s story, reflecting on her inheritance — from the literal legacy of her genes, to the family history that precedes her, to the Victorian physician John Langdon Down’s diagnostic error of “Mongolian idiocy.”
On it’s most simply expressed level, I can definitely vouch that the book is extraordinary. Written and researched over the course of a decade, Estreich gives readers a touching and poignant perspective of life with a child with special needs. But it’s more than that. It’s a parenting book I would not hesitate to recommend to any parent, whether they have children with special needs or not (although I’m of the school of thought that ALL children have special needs, but I digress).
The Shape of the Eye is also an account of the history of Down Syndrome. Personally, after almost a decade of work with children with developmental disabilities, I was a bit embarrassed that I didn’t know the correct term is indeed Down and not Down’s Syndrome. I also didn’t realize I would have quite a visceral response to just reading the term “mongoloid” as it almost made me sick to my stomach to think of the stigmatization associated with a word like that. Estreich provides readers with a look at how far society has come in dealing with individuals diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and while doing that inspired me to reflect on my own personal preconceptions, prejudices and attitudes about family, ethnicity and especially the “inheritances” I carry within me.
I think it’s important to note that my hope for readers is that they will appreciate The Shape of the Eye for another reason: because it comes from a dad. I think other dads, whether they have a child with a developmental disability or not (see my comment above), can especially appreciate Estreich’s search for answers and explanations as well as his sharing of the impact it’s had on his marriage and daughter Ellie. As readers, we’re done an incredibly service here and Estreich is to be commended for his courageous storytelling and for sharing his family with us.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway from the book was seeing how Estreich personalizes Down Syndrome for the reader. Because of this, the book is ultimately about hope and all readers can celebrate that as well as find comfort in the smiles, laughs and tears shed while reading it.