Albany native shares love, loss as identical twin in new memoir
Parravani to be visiting author at UAlbany
That’s what Christa Parravani’s identical twin sister, Cara, used to call her.
The two shared almost everything: looks, fears, interests, hopes.
And when Cara died of a heroin overdose in 2006, at the age of 28, Christa’s world was ripped apart.
Grief-stricken, she spiraled into a self-destructive depression. Like Cara, she abused drugs and attempted suicide. Unlike Cara, she survived.
Parravani tells her harrowing story in her new memoir, “Her,” which goes on sale Tuesday and was named Amazon’s “Featured Debut” for March.
The book casts an unflinching eye on the twins’ troubles, but also contains humor and beauty, particularly in its descriptions of the sisters’ love for each other and their special bond. And it ends happily, with Parravani slowly healing, falling in love, marrying and having a daughter of her own.
“I had an experience where my identical twin died, and it was uniquely deranging,” said Parravani, 35, who graduated from Guilderland High School in 1995. “I wanted to tell the story of our lives together, and of my life without her.”
She said she wrote “Her” for two reasons: because she felt that if she could tell her story, she should do it, and because few people understand what it’s like to be a twin, and to experience the loss of a twin.
For a time, it was unclear whether Parravani would be able to live without her twin.
In “Her,” she writes that Cara’s death “meant there was a strong chance I would soon join her. I researched our situation and read somewhere that 50 percent of twins follow their identical twin into death within two years. That statistic did not discriminate among cancer, suicide, or accident. The second twin goes by illness or the intolerable pain of loneliness. Flip a coin: those were my chances of survival.”
Parravani will visit the University at Albany on Thursday, as part of the New York State Writers Institute’s visiting writers series. She will lead a 4:15 p.m. seminar at the Science Library, and give a reading at 8 p.m. at the New York State Museum.
Today, Parravani lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Anthony Swofford, a writer and former Marine best known for “Jarhead,” a memoir about his experiences during the first Gulf War, and their 17-month-old daughter, Josephine.
But her roots are local.
She was born in Albany, and her mother still lives in the area. The twins’ childhood was not an easy one. Their parents’ marriage was abusive, and the couple eventually divorced. A few years later, their mother remarried and the family moved to Camp Lejeuene, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. But that marriage also fell apart, and the twins and their mother returned to the Capital Region to live with their grandmother, Josephine.
In “Her,” Parravani credits Guilderland High School and the guidance of caring teachers with helping her and Cara succeed and cultivating their interest in the arts. The twins attended Bard College, a small, selective liberal arts school in Dutchess County, on academic scholarships, becoming the first members of their family to go to college. The sisters both loved to write, but Parravani pursued photography, mainly because Cara was determined to study creative writing and become a writer.
“Twins are very competitive,” Parravani said.
After graduating from Bard, Parravani moved to New York City to work for photographer Mary Ellen Mark and a boutique photographic printing studio; in 2000, she began graduate studies in visual arts at Columbia University. A year later, Cara moved to Holyoke, Mass., to begin graduate studies in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts.
At that point, the twins appeared to be on the path to success and happiness.
But when Cara was brutally raped in 2001 while walking her dog in the woods near her apartment, things began falling apart. She became depressed and withdrawn, and began abusing drugs — pills and heroin — and alcohol. She attempted suicide several times.
In 2003, she sought help at The Meadows, an Arizona-based addiction psychological trauma treatment center, but relapsed after she and her husband separated.
Parravani was married and working on her master’s degree in New York City at the time, but spent all her free time in Massachusetts with her sister.
“One of the consequences of the rape was that she was afraid to be alone,” Parravani writes. “She needed me with her all the time. She asked if I would stay with her in Massachusetts, though she knew I had photography classes to attend in New York City. In my graduate studies my only assignment was to photograph, which made it relatively simple to accommodate Cara. I selected her as my subject.”
For the next five years, Parravani took photographs of herself and Cara. She called the portfolio, which features the twins in a variety of settings, poses and clothing, “Kindred.” One of the photographs from this portfolio is featured on the cover of “Her.” In the picture, the twins are clad in black cloaks flecked with snow. Parravani gazes solemnly at the camera, while Cara’s face is tilted downward.
In the book Parravani recounts how, after Cara died, she often saw her twin’s reflection instead of her own.
“I was hallucinating Cara — this isn’t a metaphor,” she writes. “I learned through reading articles on twin loss that this delusion — that one is looking upon their dead twin when really they are looking at themselves — is a common experience among identical twinless twins. It is impossible for surviving twins to differentiate their living body from their twin’s; they become a breathing memorial for their lost half. ... Cara’s reflection became a warning. I would become her on the other side of our looking glass if I wasn’t careful. It wasn’t only her likeness I craved. For me, her self-destruction was contagious. I mimicked it to try to bring her back. To be nearer to her, I tore apart my life just as she’d shredded her own.”
The process of saving herself involved rediscovering herself.
“We shared everything until there was nothing of our single selves left,” Parravani writes in “Her.” “It was my task in grieving her to unravel the tight, prickly braid of memory rope we’d woven — to unwind and unwind and unwind until I was able to take my strand and lay it out beside the length that was hers.”
After Cara died, Parravani said she felt an urge to write.
“It occurred to me on the day of my sister’s funeral that I could write now,” she said.
But she was also struggling with big gaps in her memory.
“There was this huge hole of grief,” she said. “I couldn’t watch a movie and remember that I had seen it before. I didn’t feel I had access to my history.”
What helped her, she said, was reading the writing Cara had left behind, some of which is excerpted in “Her.” The twins often wrote about the same things, and at one point Parravani cut up her version of events and Cara’s version of events into pieces, put them on the floor, and mixed their words together.
“I got so much out of the process,” Parravani said. “I felt like I was discovering more of myself by doing the thing my sister most loved.”
After Cara died, “Writing gave me this miraculous structure that allowed me to get better.”
She said that she doesn’t consider writing an act of therapy. Rather, “there was a moment when I realized I could gain control of the story, and that ‘Her’ was a safe place to spend time.”
“Her” is an extremely personal story, and at times is almost painfully revealing.
“In order to write this book, I had to pretend that I would never publish it and nobody would ever read it,” Parravani said.
“Her” is Parravani’s first book, and the jacket features praise from a number of writers, including Dorothy Allison, author of “Bastard Out of Carolina,” and Jayne Anne Phillips, who wrote “Lark and Termite.”
Donald Faulkner, director of the New York State Writers Institute, said that “Her” “cuts very close to the bone. ... It’s an edgy story.” He said he was excited about Parravani’s visit, and that he expected that younger readers, in particular, would find her story compelling.
Parravani is working on her next project, which she described as a coming-of-age memoir in which she’ll focus on her experiences growing up.
“It’s not going to be about a twin, or losing my sister,” she said.
Asked whether Cara would mind having her story told through her twin’s eyes, Parravani said she wouldn’t.
“She would be fully on board,” she said. “She wanted nothing more in the world than to be a famous writer.”
Parravani is a talented photographer who has had her photographs exhibited nationally and has taught photography at Dartmouth College, Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts. But she has shifted her focus from photography to writing. The only pictures she takes now are “pictures of Josephine on a point-and-shoot camera.”
“I can be a restless spirit,” she said. “I abandoned my camera. I was always the kind of artist who was more concerned with subject than genre.”
“Her” often focuses on Cara’s struggles and troubles, as well as her talents and interests. Parravani said she remembers her twin as a generous and caring person.
“She was very kind,” Parravani said. “She was naively kind, in a very beautiful way. She didn’t pass judgment on people. She liked to make fried chicken and bake cakes. She was a good girl.”