The Interview: Clare Dunsford

Published: December 2007


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Total time: 22:05

In 1985, Clare Dunsford, who is now an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, gave birth to her son John Patrick (“J.P.”). He appeared to be healthy, but as time progressed he was slow to stand, walk, and talk; he became hypersensitive to light and sound, and easily agitated. Physicians offered a variety of diagnoses, but it wasn’t until J.P. was seven, and in the care of doctor number five, that he was tested and diagnosed definitively with the most common form of inherited mental retardation, fragile X syndrome.

In Spelling Love with an X: A Mother, a Son, and the Gene That Binds Them (Beacon Press, 2007), Dunsford describes learning about J.P.’s condition, sharing the news of his congenital birth defect with her family (several of whom were also found to be carriers of the mutation), and raising J.P., who is now 22. A former adjunct lecturer in English at Harvard and at Boston College, Dunsford quotes the poetry of William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane in telling her story. “I’ve always looked to literature to understand my life,” she explains.

In a November 9 interview with @BC, Dunsford recalls incidents from J.P.’s childhood and the pain she and her family felt upon learning of the genetic defect they carried. She describes overcoming her reluctance to share personal thoughts and feelings in her book and the evolution of its focus as she worked on it over six years: “It sounds crazy, but I actually thought I was writing about J.P., apart from me, as my child. It ended up being much more of a meditation on who I had been as a child, who I am now, and on who I’ve become by knowing J.P.” The conversation took place one week after the release of Spelling Love with an X, which Boston University journalism professor and award-winning author Mitchell Zuckoff has called “a beautifully written journey of a woman toward understanding—of herself, her son, and the twists of fate and DNA that bind them and all of us.”

This feature was posted on Tuesday, December 18, 2007 and is filed under Audio.
Writer: Daniel Soyer, Producer: Paul Dagnello