The Unbearable Likeness of Being

Christa Parravani, Charlie, 2004.
Christa Parravani, Charlie, 2004.

I felt super proud of myself when I made it all the way to page 3, technically page 1, of Christa Parravani’s memoir her before I Googled “christa parravani.” Parravani, as she immediately reveals in the book, is a photographer whose identical twin sister is dead. But I wanted to know: Was the creepily captivating cover photo—of two women identically dressed as goth-chic Snow Whites—actually the author and her sister, Cara, before her death? Was the photo taken by the author herself? I found Parravani’s website and compared her publicity photos with the women on the cover. Yes, this was Parravani and her sister (a fact that, had I been less impatient, was revealed by the author on page 7). Yes, Parravani took the photograph.

her instantly became my reading obsession, and whether or not Parravani was aware of the deftness with which she discloses and withholds, thereby sending me off to hungrily consult online sources, I was rapt enough to want to know everything about her. Parravani’s memoir of losing her identical twin is a doppelgänger haunting made real, but as a reader, clearly, I too felt archetypally haunted. Theirs is a fairy tale for a Grimm brother or a Victorian gothic novel in the mode of Jane Eyre (or, to cite a personal favorite from my dark-twin pantheon, Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan). Briefly their story is this. Until Cara died, she and Christa functioned as a single entity split between two bodies. As children, the twins vowed that if one perished the other would commit suicide. “The unharmed twin would take her life by whatever means she possessed: Drano, phone cord, knife, swan dive from a cliff.” (Parravani cites the following statistic: 50 percent of “identicals” die within two years of the death of their twin.) After a bleakly peripatetic childhood marred by abusive or neglectful father figures, during which the twins came to depend exclusively on one another (while also negotiating sibling rivalry and competitiveness), the sisters attended Bard College. Both wanted to be writers, but “there wasn’t enough room in the universe for two Parravani writers,” so Christa became a photographer instead. The twins began distinguishing themselves in other ways. Cara matured into a drug abuser and the less stable of the two; Christa, by comparison, was driven and even-keeled. Then, at the age of twenty-four, Cara was raped and nearly killed while walking her dog in the woods. What had been transpiring gradually—the twins’ healthy separation into two adult women—was violently hastened. “The moment my sister fell under her rapist’s hand, he untwinned us: the bodies were the same but Cara became lost in hers. My body became a vessel of guilt, reminded us both of the past . . . joyful giving of sex, ripe exposed youth, and the naïve belly that still tickles at touch.” The trauma precipitated a drug-addiction tailspin from which Cara never recovered. The twins’ relationship became untenable. “She hates you for reminding her of what she was,” the author writes. “You fear her for showing you what you could become.” Christa, after trying repeatedly to help Cara get clean, adopted the tough-love approach. Cara’s final angry words to her gauntlet-throwing sister were, more or less, if I die now it will be on you.

And then, as Charlotte Brontë might have it, Cara died. (As Charlotte Brontë would not have it, she died of a heroin overdose, in a bathroom.) But contrary to sisterly suicide pacts and the rules of metaphysics, both sisters, in a sense, lived on. “While she was alive I was vibrant, responsible, steady, and holding her up,” writes Parravani. “I was her opposite. In the wake of Cara’s death, I became her.”

her is Parravani’s account of the mental breakdown she suffered following a starker-than-usual identity crisis: She could not look in the mirror without seeing the face of her sister’s corpse. (Because Parravani has a fantastically perverse sense of humor, she calls this face “Dead Face.” “When I wanted Jedediah [her first husband] to come and comfort me, I’d call to him through the house, ‘Hey! Could you come here? . . . I need a hug. I have Dead Face.’”) Her weight dropped to eighty-five pounds (Cara was always heavier than Christa; Christa’s self-starvation could be read as a form of exorcism). A manic period of love affairs and substance abuse and suicide attempts landed her in a mental hospital. Parravani’s grief is compounded by the fact that she must do alone what the twins had been struggling, while alive, to do together—“fighting for the privilege of having an individual voice and of living a life apart from the other.” Ironically, this struggle became more difficult when Parravani had no one to oppose her. The battle was, in both literal and figurative ways, with herself. In order to survive, she is forced to perform some selective self-killing.

Parravani tackles her potentially melodramatic material with forthrightness and a flair for the darkly comic, while also remaining witchily true to the romantic uncanniness of twinhood. The tone she strikes is brashly ghoulish and heart twanging, the route through her past artfully circuitous. her invites obsessional reader behavior because Parravani has the ability to make life, even at its worst, feel magic-tinged and vital and lived all the way down to the bone. She spins out of her dire experiences an enthralling story laced with weird luck and coincidences. She’s the person who, when she checks into a mental hospital, is singled out to be treated by an elite and mysterious doctor. She’s the person whose therapist calls to confess to a bizarre professional misdemeanor: The only reason she agreed to treat Parravani is because she, too, is an identical twin, and her twin is dying, and she wanted to learn from Parravani what it’s like to be the survivor. Parravani’s life feels both cursed and blessed by synchronicity and portent. It’s as though, as a twin, she possesses archetypal narrative powers; life responds to her dramatic pull.

her is also partially authored by Cara; Parravani intersperses her memoir with excerpts from Cara’s journals and quasi-autobiographical short fiction. This collaboration allows the reader to do to the twins what was done to them incessantly throughout their lives—compare them with each other. It’s unfair to assess work that Cara had no idea would be published, but alongside Parravani’s questing, urgent voice, hers can read as flowery and emotionally oversaturated. Parravani has a photographer’s eye for the stark visual detail that speaks psychological volumes. After her divorce, Cara arrives at her sister’s house with a falling-apart car and a grimy suitcase, which she tosses onto the clean bed. “Dirt from the suitcase’s wheel made a straight, greasy line on top of the down comforter,” she recalls. Sometimes Parravani’s eye fails her tellingly. While she’s teaching at a college, one of her students brings a photo into class for a critique. “The woman in the frame was fucked up,” Parravani writes of the photo’s subject. “It was obvious from her body cues . . . [she was so] strung out on pain that she’d been unaware that her image was being taken.” As Parravani presents her interpretation to the class, her students shift awkwardly. “I turned back to the picture of the frail woman and studied it. The woman in the photograph was me.” Parravani is so disassociated that, even when scrutinizing her own image, she cannot recognize herself.

Not long after Parravani shakily regains her psychological equilibrium, she meets the writer Anthony Swofford (author of Jarhead). Within three months they’ve married and she’s become pregnant. The book ends on an ecstatic fairy-tale high—Parravani has recovered her sanity and her true writer self. She has survived the burial; she has mourned. And she’s found a new partner, one with whom she is healthily conjoined. In the book’s last pages, she gives birth to a daughter named Josephine (the sisters fought over who would get to use their grandmother’s name on a future daughter—Christa wins by default). The heroine we’ve been rooting for has conquered death and darkness. The final sentence, honest to god, made me cry.

Still, when I shut the book, my skeptical reader self raised a mildly worried brow. We are primed to fear such storybook perfection: Lurking behind Jane Eyre’s happy ending is a madwoman in the attic. And while Parravani’s fairy tale concludes on a happily-ever-after note, I suspect that wolves will always be howling at her palace doors. But there are reasons to think Parravani, now that she’s written this urgently tragic story, will move on to an urgently happy one. her is so brutal that it genuinely feels like a separation, one that before the writing of this book could not have taken place. And as the years pass, Parravani will resemble her forever-young sister less and less. The person she sees in the mirror will no longer be a dead girl, but a living woman.

Heidi Julavits’s most recent novel is The Vanishers (Doubleday, 2012).