I’ve been meaning to write some reviews of books I read in 2017 and this prompt made me think of the book Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon. It’s a memoir written by the parents of a girl who was born prematurely. The age of viability is considered to be 24 weeks. Juniper was born at 23 weeks, 6 days.
The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Juniper’s mother and father, Kelley and Thomas French. Although they have some different perspectives and experiences and the chapter titles indicated who was writing, their voices are similar enough that at times I mixed them up (Obviously that wasn’t an issue when they were describing experiences like being pregnant or jacking off,) Both of them are journalists and both of them are good writers. The thing about memoirs is that you can’t just have a good story, you also have to be a good writer for it to work. A few months ago I read a memoir by T-Boz, one of the women from that band TLC ( She has Sickle Cell Disease and my friend has a daughter who has Sickle Cell Disease so I was interested in learning more about it) and while her story was a compelling one, the book sucked because her talents lay in singing, not writing.
With Juniper we have two people with an interesting experience to share and a talent for writing, resulting in a good book that I enjoyed. Aside from the fact that I came close to being born prematurely, premature birth is not a subject I have any personal connection to but they wrote in a way that left me feeling emotionally affected and as though I was right there in the NICU with them.
Since Juniper was born right on the cusp of viability she would need intensive interventions to survive and even with intensive interventions there was a good chance she would die anyway. If she survived there was a good chance she would be seriously disabled. Not long ago doctors wouldn’t have even considered treating a baby born at Juniper’s gestational age and today many hospitals still refuse to do so. Juniper’s parents were offered the options of trying to save her through machines and tubes and surgeries or letting her die naturally. They chose to try to save her.
Juniper weighed one pound, four ounces at birth. She was described as being tiny, translucent and resembling an angry old man. All of her veins were visible and her heart could be seen beating beneath her chest. She ended up spending seven months in the NICU. It was an emotional roller coaster of an experience for her parents.
Although having a micro-preemie was distressing and terrifying and it’s not something they ever would have chosen, they also acknowledged that it was a transcendent experience and found beauty in it. They saw the beginnings of human life in a way that not many people get to. Looking in on their daughter’s incubator was compared to being let in on a secret.
Through all the harrowing times where the threat of Juniper’s death was ever present, in addition to the fear and distress there was love and care and tenderness-from Juniper’s parents, from her doctors, her nurses, her relatives and friends of the family. Juniper couldn’t be held much in the early days because she was so fragile but her caretakers found other ways of connecting with her, of making her feel safe and loved. Bruce Springsteen music was played in to her incubator. Her father read Harry Potter to her. The first chapter of the first book is called “The Boy Who Lived.” Ultimately Juniper was the girl who lived.
Of course not all premature baby stories end as happily as Juniper’s did and when a premature baby is born there’s no way of knowing exactly how things will turn out so the treatment of micro-preemies raises ethical questions. These ethical questions are raised periodically throughout the book. A woman says to Kelley regarding the intensive interventions that are being employed to save Juniper’s life “Wouldn’t it be better to vaccinate 1,000 children in Africa?” Kelley replies “Better for who?” I applaud Kelley for that response. Personally I would have been tempted to respond by slapping that woman.
For a book that deals with such a serious issue, it contains some hilarious moments. I was cracking up when Tom described the awkwardness of being handed the Ass Masters series to masturbate to in the fertility clinic. Just like Juniper has an interesting birth story, she has an interesting conception story. Although Kelley gave birth to Juniper, she is not her biological mother. Juniper was conceived using the donor egg of a friend of the Frenches.
The book also gets in to the story of how Tom and Kelley became a couple. It’s a story that involves infidelity, selfishness and some questionable life decisions. It doesn’t put either of them in a very good light and while I don’t think writers should be afraid to reveal unflattering details about themselves when it adds to the story, I have to question the wisdom of revealing these particular details when I don’t think they added much to the story of Juniper. If they were looking for material to pad their book, I wish they’d covered the time period between when Juniper went home from the hospital and when she was four years old, which is where the book jumps to in the epilogue.
Today Juniper is thriving. In fact, on the website for the book among reviews calling it a tender, fierce, breathtaking miracle that expands our understanding of being human, there’s a review from Juniper that reads “My butt is on the cover. That is why this book is special to me.”