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Jennifer Gasner
My Unexpected Life: Finding Balance Beyond My Diagnosis
Jennifer Gasner is seventeen when her dreams are shattered overnight. Receiving a diagnosis of Friedreich’s Ataxia, a rare genetic neuromuscular disease, means she must prepare herself for a life of loss. When she starts college, she can still walk on her own, but as her disease progresses, she spirals further into sadness, denial, and alienation. She turns to alcohol and a toxic relationship to distract her from what she refuses to accept—that her body, her self-esteem, and her hope for her future are failing. When Jennifer develops a friendship with rock star Dave Matthews, her outlook changes. She begins to understand that using a wheelchair doesn’t mean her life is over. In fact, when she discovers disability culture, she realizes it’s not her body that needs to be fixed but her assumptions about being disabled. In her captivating memoir, My Unexpected Life: Finding Balance Beyond My Diagnosis, Jennifer invites you into her world, where she must learn to view her changing body with compassion and choose gratitude over anger as she finds strength and acceptance for a whole new way of moving through life.
Plot/Idea: 9 out of 10
Originality: 8 out of 10
Prose: 9 out of 10
Character/Execution: 9 out of 10
Overall: 8.75 out of 10


Plot/Idea: Jennifer Gasner's memoir details how her life changed when she developed a rare neuromuscular disease, ultimately leaving her wheelchair-bound. This is a powerful account of her journey living with an unexpected and life-altering diagnosis.

Prose: Gasner's writing is honest and raw; she candidly details both the physical challenges associated with her diagnosis (her description of her first spinal tap is enough to give the reader chills), and the emotional and psychological impacts. The integration of music throughout the book provides a highly personal and engaging touch. 

Originality: Memoirs that recount experiences of devastating health diagnoses are familiar. Here, Gasner offers a fresh and painfully honest perspective on a rare disease, while offering unique insights on finding supportive communities and learning a new way of viewing the world and one's place in it. 

Character/Execution: From a scared teenager dealing with the frustrating side effects of an aggressive illness to an adult proactively educating and helping others, there is a lot of growth in this book. The reader can't help but emphasize and root for Jennifer.  

Date Submitted: December 27, 2023

“My road to acceptance has been long and challenging. And I wouldn’t change a single thing” writes Gasner in this brutally honest debut centered on learning to live with Friedreich’s ataxia, a diagnosis she received at the age of 17. Gasner reveals the work it took to reach that diagnosis, detailing her escalating physical problems, and addresses the medical field’s lack of urgency as well as her family’s denial: “I was convinced something was wrong that needed to be resolved… the adults seemed to be in deeper denial than I was.” Eventually, Gasner and her family were faced with the truth—that this degenerative illness would forever alter her life.

Gasner’s writing is as inspiring as it is emotionally powerful, peppered with transparent anecdotes on how the disease impacted her motor skills, created fear about the future (medical information at the time of her diagnosis, in the 1990s, predicted a lifespan of just 25 years), and stymied her college plans. Threaded throughout is Gasner’s perseverance and refusal to sacrifice her aspirations. Even when she’s forced to table her dream college because its campus is too large for her to physically navigate, she holds onto hope that her future just needs a few minor adjustments—and she’s proven right in the end: Gasner is successful at a smaller college and later obtains a graduate degree from Western Illinois University.

Aside from detailing her debilitating symptoms and constant adapting, Gasner shares the fun times as well, covering her college parties, interesting new friends (including the singer Dave Matthews), and the typical young adult romance adventures. Though harrowing, her story is ultimately one of overcoming: "I’ve learned to accept my early ableist thoughts as a marker of youth and inexperience… While I have learned a lot, I know there is always more to absorb."

Takeaway: Rousing account of navigating life with Friedreich’s ataxia.

Comparable Titles: Eddie Ndopu’s Sipping Dom Pérignon Through a Straw, Rebekah Taussig’s Sitting Pretty.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: NA
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A