An Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2013: Brave, raw, and ultimately uplifting, Christa Parravani’s debut memoir unbraids the memory of her life from her identical twin, Cara, who died of an overdose at age 28. Cara had been the larger, hungrier twin since birth, but they both emerged from a chaotic childhood to become magnetic and creatively precocious. Cara claimed writing as her territory, so Christa took pictures. They married young but remained more devoted to each other than their spouses. Then in 2001, Cara was viciously raped while walking her dog in a park. She survived, but she was deeply damaged, physically and psychologically. Christa tried for years to restore her, and after Cara’s death, she felt as if she became her sister. She heard Cara’s voice as her own, saw Cara staring back at her from mirrors-in warning, and also as an invitation to tear apart her life “just as she’d shredded her own.” Such hallucinations are a common delusion among the newly twinless: “they become a breathing memorial for their lost half,” and half of them die within the first two years. Told in part in the voice of her lost sister, Her is the story of how Christa clawed her way back from this gulf of grief and gave herself permission to live. --Mari Malcolm
Amazon Exclusive: Alexandra Fuller Interviews Christa Parravani
Alexandra Fuller: On one level, this memoir is about the shocking connectivity of being an identical twin and what happens when you tragically lose your twin. But on another level, it feels like a classic coming-of-age story with the most awful twist imaginable: you were unable to grow up and become a fully realized version of yourself until your sister died. Does this feel true?
Christa Parravani: It was nearly comfortable sharing an identity with Cara, almost fulfilling. It's difficult to imagine now how we tolerated bartering our individualities for closeness with each other. But it was simple at first: I liked chocolate ice cream, so Cara liked vanilla. I wore pink; Cara wore blue. Then adult desires complicated our agreement. Cara wanted to be a writer, and I did too. When we both married, room needed to be made for our husbands. Being adults meant moving away from each other, but twinship impaired our abilities to move up and out in the world. If my attention was diverted from Cara, I felt I was being unfaithful to her.
Now I see my life as divided in half: before and after Cara. The hardest years after Cara's death were full of unimaginable grief. I couldn't believe that I could live while she had died. Twins were supposed to have the same fate, the same experiences. I simply didn't know how to go on without her. I looked in the mirror and saw her staring back at me. I'd laugh and hear her. And those kinds of experiences began to define me as much as my life with her ever had, even more so. I look at what has become of me: I'm a happy wife to a loving and brilliant husband. I'm a mother to a sweet baby girl. I'm a survivor. It's probably hard to believe, but I would relive every painful moment again to have what I do now: my own separate life.
AF: Your story is wonderfully layered, and the layering is almost always expressed as either a kind of sublime twin scenario (a magically connecting experience) or as a duality (a horribly alienating experience). As the story progressed, I found myself seeing ways in which you and Cara often seem to be leading a dark double life beneath that already double life of your twinship. Do you think you felt less lonely in those dark places because you could act as companions and guides into your private underworld?
CP: There was nothing we didn't share, including the proclivity for dark behavior. It was programmed into us from our childhood, from what we'd seen in our home. Neither of us understood yet that we could control those impulses, and we'd act out blindly. There was a lot of shame because of that, and we'd bounce it back and forth. We embraced each other at the same time we pushed each other down. We truly were ransom holders with each other's secrets--scorekeepers, always threatening to leave the other or tell on them. But there was also safety in that, a place to return where we knew we'd be understood.
AF: In spite of the fact that your sister dies from her drug addiction, it seems almost a secondary theme in the book. I come back to the question of layering. What you seem to be saying is that Cara didn't die of a drug overdose, so much as from an aversion to the awful pain she was in. It's a refreshingly nuanced take on addiction. Was it important for you to steer clear of judgment? Was this something that came with writing?
CP: While Cara was alive, I was judgmental. I wanted to shake her until she agreed to stop taking pills and heroin. I knew they would kill her. It was difficult not to pass judgment as I watched her blot herself out. As a writer though, it wasn't my place to pass judgment. That never accomplishes much good in writing. Drugs were clearly my second rival. Cara's pain and trauma took her first. They were the primary things in the way, the cloak over her. If I was going to try and get to the root of my sister's troubles in Her, I needed to go deeper. That meant trying to parse out the reasons for her drug use instead of laying blame.
AF: Your relationship with Cara was so exclusive, so seemingly mysterious that even your mother is unable to insert herself between you. And after her death, Cara still comes to you, or is with you (in your imagination, in your dreams, and in psychic readings) as the primary force in your life. Did writing this book change your relationship with Cara?
CP: I often had the feeling while writing that Cara was with me. Writing Her was a way of being with Cara again. I found that the more time I spent writing, the less I grieved in my daily life. I needed her to haunt me, to still be there. So I mimicked her behavior to try and bring her closer to me. I created her ghost in my own flesh. After Cara died, we were even more enmeshed than when she was alive. But then something really surprising happened: The closer I came to Cara in writing, the farther away from her I was in my life. It was a magical experience, really. I felt like we were getting to know each other again, talking things over. By writing, I was able to have this fantastic relationship with my sister. In some ways, it was a healthier relationship than the one I had with her while she was alive.