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The Dark Mirror

Christa Parravani pays tribute to her late sister—and her own struggles—in an acclaimed memoir

by Rick Marshall on April 18, 2013 · 1 comment


Early in Her: A Memoir, author Christa Parravani shares a disconcerting fact that came to her attention shortly after her twin sister, Cara, died of an accidental drug overdose in 2006.

“I researched our situation and read somewhere that that 50 percent of twins follow their identical twin into death within two years,” she writes. “That statistic did not discriminate among cancer, suicide, or accident. The second twin goes by illness or the intolerable pain of loneliness.”

And therein lies the inspiration for Her, the former Capital Region resident’s debut memoir that explores the shared life she led with her twin sister, and the circumstances leading up to—and following—Cara’s death. As her story makes painfully clear, the anguish of losing a sibling can take an even greater toll when every look in the mirror is a reminder of what you’ve lost.

“It’s not only about honoring my sister, it’s about trying to articulate this deranging experience of losing your identical twin,” Parravani says of the book, which arrived on shelves last month. “I felt a responsibility to do that, and I felt a responsibility to tell the story of my sister’s rape and what happened to her.”

After Cara was savagely attacked in 2001 while living in Holyoke, Mass., she spent the five years that followed in a downward spiral that consumed both her and her twin, and eventually led to the overdose that ended her life.

An aspiring writer, Cara had been working on a memoir of her own for several years, and throughout Her, Christa juxtaposes passages of her sister’s unpublished memoir with her own recollection of the same events—from their earliest memories, through Cara’s rape and its aftermath, and the weeks leading up to her death at age 28.

The mash-up offers a fascinating look at the shared memory that exists between twins and the subtle differences in perspective that define them as individuals.

“I had lost a lot of my memory when my sister died,” says Christa. “It was as if the trauma of losing her trumped everything else. When I set out to write the childhood section of the book, I couldn’t do it. I only had these little bursts of memory. But I discovered that all I had to do was go into my sister’s computer and do a keyword search, and the whole event would pop up in her words. I could recover a whole part of my past that I lost because my sister had the inclination to write about the same events I did.”

“I wanted to honor her, and I wanted to publish that work for her,” she says. “So I wrote my version of our childhood, then took Cara’s version of our childhood, and cut them both into pieces and arranged them on our living room floor so that it was just one voice. I wanted people to understand just how close twins can be.”

And it’s because of that shared life experience that the attack on Cara resulted in such acute, collateral damage to the bond they shared. For sisters whose lives were inextricably blended, this one, horrifying event forever separated them—something Cara could never quite reconcile, Christa says.

Coming to terms with her sister’s absence after 28 years together proved almost as difficult to reconcile—and dangerous—for Christa, who said she soon understood why so many twins follow their sibling shortly after death.  Revisiting that time in their lives, and her own self-destructive period following Cara’s passing, was an exercise in moving past both emotion and ego.

“When somebody dies as tragically as my sister died, two things can happen,” she explains. “You can be so angry with that person that you can rage at that person for leaving you—and I was angry with her for making the decisions that ended her life and put me in that position I was in—or you can go the other route, and memorialize that person. You can make her a perfect angel. But she was neither of those things. The truth is that she was flawed and complicated and very troubled, but she was also boundlessly kind.”

photo by Nina Subin

“The one luxury I had in writing the book was that since my sister already had written so extensively, I already knew what she was comfortable talking about regarding herself—which was everything, really,” she says of the intensely personal events described in the book. “I rarely spared myself in the book, [but] there’s nothing I wrote about my sister that she hadn’t already written about and hoped to publish. And I didn’t worry about that as much as what it meant to be in charge of her legacy. I did want to make sure I was telling a story about my sister that in 25 years I’ll still be proud to have told.”

And while the book has already received quite a bit of attention in literary circles—it was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month in March, and has earned positive reviews in Vanity Fair and Publishers Weekly, among other accolades—the attention it has received in the Capital Region has been especially rewarding, says Parravani.

“The time we were living in the Albany area and going to high school there was probably the most stable time in our lives,” she says. “We came from a very loving family, but it wasn’t one that was necessarily going to push us toward college. Somehow we encountered these great teachers [in high school] who took us under their wings. That time was important for us because it really shaped what we would become later in our lives.”

“That’s been one of the greatest pleasures in publishing this book: to be in touch with so many teachers who had loved me so much in high school, and to give that back to them,” she adds. “They’re so proud. There was a whole high-school English class at my reading [last month] at the New York State Writers Institute, and one of the girls came up to the table afterward and said, ‘You’ve convinced me that you can do great things if you go to Guilderland High School.’ ”

Now married (to Jarhead author Anthony Swofford) and living in Brooklyn, Parravani, also a widely exhibited photographer, says the one thing missing from all of the success surrounding the book is the ability to turn to Cara and share this experience—and so many others—with her sister.

“There’s this beautiful irony in the gift my sister gave to me,” says Parravani. “As I was in flames and becoming her and reaching out for her, the thing that she had so wanted for herself was really the thing that saved my life. I do believe that writing this book saved my life. I don’t believe in memoir writing as therapy, but this one maybe it was.”

Christa Parravani will read from and sign Her: A Memoir on Sunday (April 21) at the Center for Photography at Woodstock (59 Tinker St., Woodstock). For more info, call (845) 679-9957.