Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw
Published in 2014
Genre: Nonfiction, humor
“The forest of pube-y leg hair sprouting from my brother’s calf bristles the tip of my nose as he stands over me on the floor of our rented minibus, yanking my shorts off.”
If ever there was a first line that encapsulates the voice of a writer in 33 words, this is it. Shane Burcaw, at the age of 21, released Laughing at My Nightmare in 2014, which is a glimpse into the life of someone living with a terminal disease (though isn’t life technically terminal anyway?). The memoir follows Shane from his diagnosis, through the difficult years of trying to be normal in elementary and middle school, and ends in the wake of the founding of his non-profit of the same name.
Shane Burcaw was diagnosed at the age of two with SMA – spinal muscular atrophy – which causes him to rely almost completely upon the help of others to perform even the most menial tasks. As such, one wouldn’t suspect that he enjoyed a “normal” childhood, but (aside from having others help him go to the bathroom), his story is one that is easy to identify with. Awkward middle school interactions, playing with friends in the summer, and the anxiety of going off to college are all present in Shane’s life as well as millions of others. This memoir was written after years of Shane posting his funny stories and antics on a blog where he explored not only the joys of playing pranks and spending time with friends, but his fears and intimate details about his disease.
Shane’s voice is extremely sarcastic and never falters throughout the memoir. He tells stories of riding on the short bus and laughing at the antics of his handicapped comrades rather than being upset that he can’t be with his friends. Shane’s want to be accepted by his fellow classmates and others is something we all feel deep down, only his struggle was sprinkled with the added difficulties of others assuming he was also mentally-handicapped because of his disability. It is this that caused his humor and personality to thrive in order for him to enjoy himself and time with others.
The book contains photographs of Shane, his friends, and his family throughout the years that coincide with the topic of each chapter; these chapters are kept at an easily digestible length that gives the reader a snapshot into the various topics that include his fears (being stuck alone in his bed which is now added to my long list of fears, so thanks Shane), positivity, and his difficulty with respiratory infections. In addition to these visual aids, my copy contained an afterword written a couple of years after the book’s original publication, and a Q&A where Shane answers are both serious and dripping with sarcasm.
I came upon Laughing at My Nightmare when it was still just the blog after it was shared by one of my favorite bands, Circa Survive. Upon perusing the posts and immediately identifying with Shane’s sense of humor, I found myself compelled to reach out to him. I still have the email I sent (and his reply), and while it is a bit cringe-worthy to read my writing as an 18-year-old, I cannot help but smile and squeeze out a few tears from the brief exchange. Shane’s voice is consistent in his writing, be it the memoir or the email response I received, and it is his personality that sets him apart not only as an author, but as a singular human being.
It is easy to become discouraged, especially within a field that is so competitive and subjective as to what is “good”. Everyone looks for something different when it comes to writers and style, rejection is an almost constant in the life of a writer, but it is the ability to push forward that enables us to do what we love and reach those we never even considered. I won’t post the entirety of Shane’s response to my email, but there is one line that stuck with me all these years later:
“Whatever you choose to do with life, make sure it involves writing.”
Laughing at My Nightmare is a singular book that addresses the difficulties in one man’s life; that man happens to be in a wheelchair, but it is his insight and growth that shows how amazing he is. He is not defined by his limitations, though there are times that it seems everything is coming crushing down. I remain inspired by his work ethic, his ability to laugh at the absurd in life and take advantage of the opportunities presented to him rather than wallow in the disabling factors. We all share a common humanity, and that is at the core of Laughing at My Nightmare.
Verdict: 4 hilarious anecdotes out of 5
Recommended for: Those looking for insight into what living with SMA is like, those who enjoy nonfiction, people looking to be emboldened, fans of memoirs, those familiar with the blog Laughing at My Nightmare, those not familiar with Laughing at My Nightmare, and you!
Not recommended for: Young children (a bit of cursing occurs), those incapable of empathy, people who are quick to judge, those who are uncomfortable with the reality of bodily functions, friggin’ Tim, or those who are uncomfortable laughing with (not at) a disabled person despite that being the entire point.