Author Interviews
3:01 pm
Sun March 10, 2013

A Twin Carries On Alone In 'Her: A Memoir'

Christa and Cara Parravani were identical twins. When they were 28, Cara died of a drug overdose, and Christa spiraled into depression.

In her new book, Her: A Memoir, Christa explores their bond of sisterhood, which went beyond blood into the elliptical world of twinhood.

Both were artists, one a writer and the other a photographer. Both married young. Both lived through a hardscrabble childhood with a troubled mother. But Cara's path diverged after she was attacked and raped at age 24.

As Christa tells NPR's Jacki Lyden, Her is the story of what happened before and after the death of a twin both beloved and impossible to save.


Interview Highlights

On the unusual closeness of their relationship, including when Cara invited herself to Christa's honeymoon

"I wasn't angry. Even though maybe, you know, my former husband had wished I'd been a little bit more angry about it. ... She needed [him] to know that she felt as if marrying a twin meant marrying both of us."

On how the attack changed Cara

"One afternoon, she went out and walked her dog in a park near her home, and she met a man in the woods and he raped her. And it was a many-hours attack. She emerged a changed woman. I think that she was surprised that she survived that attack, and in a way she felt that she hadn't survived, that she'd left part of herself on the forest floor that day."

On Cara's resulting heroin addiction and the pain of watching her spiral downward

"I felt like she was eating me alive. I felt like there was no room for me to grow and to become the adult that I wanted to be. And I had always felt that to a certain extent in our twinship, because to be linked as twins, leaving the bond is something that feels like an act of infidelity. And I felt incredibly guilty."

On Christa's own decline following her sister's death

"I gave up in a lot of ways. ... There's so much narcissism in addiction. And in twinship, you're seeing yourself in that person and they're seeing themselves in you the whole time. It's this vicious circle of a built-in narcissism in twinship anyway. So when the addiction came in, there was absolutely no room left for me. And sometimes I thought, maybe it will be easier for me when she dies. But, of course, I learned very quickly after she died that that was not true. And I wasn't prepared for looking in the mirror, for example, and seeing my sister staring back at me."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Christa Parravani and her sister, Cara, were identical twins. And then, when they were 28, they were no longer together. Cara died of a drug overdose, Christa spiraled into depression. As Christa Parravani explores in her new memoir, "Her," what the two women shared was a bond of sisterhood that went beyond blood into the elliptical world of twinhood, inhabiting one shared soul.

Both were artists, one a writer, the other a photographer. Both married early. Both lived through a hardscrabble childhood with a troubled mother. "Her" is the story of what happened to Christa Parravani before and after the death of a twin, both beloved and impossible.

CHRISTA PARRAVANI: Everyone that knew my sister always said the same thing about her. And they said she was a good girl. By the way, they never said that about me.

(LAUGHTER)

PARRAVANI: They always said that about Cara. She was a complicated and also impossible woman, as you had mentioned, yeah.

LYDEN: Twenty-eight when she died.

PARRAVANI: She was 28 when she overdosed, yes.

LYDEN: The undertaking of this book, the two of you are together on the page here, but you really had been so together in this sort of isolated childhood. Tell me about this doubling. Is it impossible to remember how long ago you felt like that? Was it from the beginning that you did?

PARRAVANI: It was from the beginning. There's a way in which people just respond to you as one person. You're the girls.

LYDEN: Identical twins, of course. Yeah.

PARRAVANI: Identical twins. As a result, we actually remembered things that happened to our twin, that happened to us - or wait, does that make sense?

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Yes, I think it does.

PARRAVANI: Yeah.

LYDEN: It isn't happening just to one person (unintelligible).

PARRAVANI: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I can - I am very sure that I kissed Chad Taylor, for example, but I know for sure that Cara kissed Chad Taylor, so...

LYDEN: This is the first kiss. You're 13 or something, yeah.

PARRAVANI: Yes, this was Cara's first kiss when she was 13 years old, and she told me with such gusto that I can tell you that I did it myself.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: When you open this book, Christa Parravani, this great diversion in your life take place after all those years of twinning - and maybe you could talk about that - and that is this terrible attack on your sister. She's about 24.

PARRAVANI: She's - she had just moved to a small town in Massachusetts to begin her graduate studies in creative writing. And one afternoon, she went out and walked her dog at a park near her home, and she met a man in the woods, and he raped her. And it was a many-hours attack.

She emerged a changed woman. And I think that she was surprised that she survived that attack, and in a way, she felt that she hadn't survived, that she'd left part of herself on the forest floor that day.

LYDEN: And it leaves her psychologically really damaged, deafened in one ear, as you say, never quite the same person.

PARRAVANI: Honestly, writing the scene - I tried to write that rape for six weeks in this book. I tried my hardest to inhabit that space for my sister, and this miraculous thing happened. I went to visit my mom's house, and I decided that I was going to go upstairs and spend some time with my sister's things. And I sat down, and I looked under her bed, and there was this Tupperware.

And I pulled it out, and inside of it was this notebook that my sister had left behind with the complete account of her rape. And I was really grateful to have it and to be able to publish it in the book that way. And because I had felt at that moment, too, that we had been so separated and that I couldn't understand what she had been through, it was a magical experience, really, to be able to have her to deliver that to me.

LYDEN: There's this really redeeming moment, if you will, when after this terrible day - she's gone to the hospital, she's been released - you actually are giving her a bath. It's like a new baptism, almost.

PARRAVANI: Yeah. My sister insisted that I wash her clean after the attack. We had this very intimate moment together in the bathtub. I was fully clothed, and I took a washcloth, and I gently cleaned the marks on her back that her assailant had left with his teeth. And I'll actually never forget that moment.

And I also think it was a really - it was a gift that my sister gave me, to allow me into the room with her that way. It was truly the only moment I felt during that entire week where I knew that I was being helpful and loving in a way that she needed.

LYDEN: I'm speaking with Christa Parravani. Her new book is a memoir. It's called "Her," and it's out this week. She's really spiraling...

PARRAVANI: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: ...into the drug addiction that eventually steals her life. After she defended her MFA, she's in your bathroom, getting high, shooting up, right?

PARRAVANI: She was.

LYDEN: And that's where you say: I don't want to see you till you're in rehab.

PARRAVANI: Yeah. I thought that would do it. I thought maybe, finally, if I put my foot down and said you need to get help that she would go get it, because her worst fear was that I was no longer going to be with her. To be linked as twins, leaving the bond is something that feels like an act of infidelity. And I felt incredibly guilty.

LYDEN: After her death, you - what happens to you? You stumble yourself, I mean, badly, never as dark as your sister, but your life begins to really spin out of control.

PARRAVANI: It did. I gave up in a lot of ways. I think that people who are facing the prospect of losing their loved ones to an addiction are always preparing themselves for the death of that person, rehearsing, if you will, their feelings before it happens. But when I learned that my...

LYDEN: Because - well, I'm just saying because there's so much narcissism in an addiction.

PARRAVANI: There is.

LYDEN: You just can't get through.

PARRAVANI: Yeah. I mean, there's so much narcissism in addiction. And in twinship, you're seeing yourself in that person, and they're seeing themselves in you the whole time. And it's this vicious circle of a built-in narcissism in twinship, anyway, so when the addiction came in, there was absolutely no room left for me. And sometimes, I thought, maybe it will be easier for me when she dies.

But, of course, I learned very quickly after she died that that was not true. And I wasn't prepared for looking in the mirror, for example, and seeing my sister staring back at me. Our whole lives being twins, I had wanted to differentiate myself from her. But once she died, there was no way for me to see myself without seeing her.

And it wasn't always that dark. For example, when I laughed, I could hear her. And that was a nice way of having her visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You also read at her funeral a prayer that had been at her wedding, and it's a Sufi prayer. It says: I offer you peace. I offer you joy. I offer you friendship. And it ends: I honor that Source in you. And I would say you have honored it in yourself, as well.

PARRAVANI: Thank you.

LYDEN: Christa Parravani's new memoir is called "Her." She joined us here in our studio in New York. Christa, it's been a great pleasure and honor.

PARRAVANI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.