Sympathetic resonance between twin siblings fascinates us. Reports of one twin’s experience being felt by the other, or of both twins responding to a stimulus in the exact same way, such as making identical choices on their own – these aspects of twinhood provide us with endless intrigue. We are charmed with matching human faces, caused by duplicated DNA that divides in utero. But we remain ignorant of the psycho-emotional effects of growing up indistinguishable from another.
In the wrenching memoir Her, Christa Parravani tells the story of the death of her twin sister Cara, recounting the agonizing details of her own forced extraction from the relationship. Parravani’s exquisite prose takes the reader on the downward spiral into which the sisters get sucked, like being funneled into a drain. Her escape from drowning there, her own recovery and the establishment – for the first time in her life – of a sense of a separate self, make for a riveting narrative.
She and her twin sister Cara share everything, throughout the early breakup of their parents and an ensuing relationship with a military-tight stepfather who commandeers them around in coldhearted Marine fashion. They thrive on very little when he leaves their mother to raise them on her own. Their codependency as teenagers and young adults is shot through with an intimate mix of love and competition, as they each reach for markers of individuality. The young women cling to each other, even during their brief marriages. They are each other’s beloved self – until one of them is brutally raped.
Cara, the more dominant twin, the one whose over-the-edge behavior often puts her at risk, is attacked when walking her dog one evening. The physical violation of her body not only damages her psychological boundaries, it also tears at the bond between the two women. Abruptly, she is no longer the same person she was before the assault. Cara’s rapid demise, exacerbated by drugs and alcohol addiction, pulls her away from her sister even while she claws tenuously, simultaneously, to hang on.
When Cara dies (by accident or suicide?), Christa’s compulsion to become her twin, to reabsorb the very person who divided off from her in the womb, throws the author into a pathological vortex. Parravani’s description of using pharmaceuticals to soothe and to lose herself amidst the duel disintegrations of her marriage and career is painful to read. The sheer force of the emotional maelstrom brought on by one violent incident – the rape – traumatizes the survivor almost as much as it does the victim.
Parravani, a professional photographer who used her twin as a model for a large collection of work, recently had a show at the Foley Gallery in Chelsea in New York City. The exhibit moves to Los Angeles next. Talking about their collaboration on this project, she says, “Cara wrote about all of the photographs and would occasionally title them. My sister’s interest in this sort of Gothic imagery…I wanted to make a body of work that she wanted to look at. I created the characters that she was interested in writing about.”
“I knew that I would write Her,” she says when asked if she will continue teaching photography at the college level. “I had a hard time taking photographs after Cara died. After I lost my sister, I went back to my camera to make another body of work. I felt her absence on the other side of the lens, instead of feeling inspiration. I was searching for a way to follow my subject, which has always been my sister. I knew that in order to spend time with Cara, I’d have to write memoir. I toyed around with some poems, but the short form didn’t work for me. I had more to say.”
Parravani’s memoir, stunning in so many ways, is a tribute to the resilience of human spirit. “My sister didn’t live to see that what had happened to her was survivable. She didn’t give herself that luxury, the time to heal. I wanted to write a book where people could see that it is possible to survive what you imagine to be the worst thing that could happen to you.”
She is now working on another memoir: a coming-of-age story. “I’m writing the book that I would have, had my sister not died – the one she would have written about our years together as teenagers. In Her, I left a lot out. Now I feel very fortunate to have gotten through the process of writing a first book, one that I think my sister would have loved to read. It was a spiritual journey. I don’t know what I believe in exactly, but I definitely felt my sister with me all of the time.”
Her illustrates the deep, poignant bond that develops between twins, and stands as a case for the nurturing of individuality in multiple-birth siblings as well. It graphically underlines the need for societal transformation in regard to chronic violence against women: the “rape culture” in which we live. Perhaps most importantly, it exemplifies the power of story to foster the healing process, both at the personal level and in society. Telling this tale candidly and passionately, Parravani empowers herself to recover from tragic loss and reclaim life. She inspires us to do so also.
Christa Parravani will be at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival on Sunday, April 21 to participate on the Memoir-à-Go-Go panel with authors Andre Dubus III and James Lasdun, moderated by Martha Frankel. The panel discussion at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts will run from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Immediately following, a reception for and reading by Parravani will take place at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. For more information, see https://woodstockwritersfestival.com/schedule13.html#sthash.xcwNb4Sf.dpbs.
Christa Parravani, Woodstock Writers’ Festival, Sunday, April 21, 4 p.m., Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, Woodstock; https://woodstockwritersfestival.com.