BY GINA MYERS
Statistics show that fifty percent of twins die within two years of each other. Christa Parravani had to face this fact in 2006 at the age of 28 after her identical twin sister Cara died of a heroin overdose. Christa’s harrowing debut Her: A Memoir, which will be published in March, charts her and Cara’s relationship from childhood through Cara’s rape, depression, self-destruction, and death to Christa’s own struggles with anorexia, infidelity, and drug abuse. In the wake of her twin’s death, she explains: “I felt like I had been cut; I was alive, but only by half.”
Fittingly, Cara’s voice is present throughout the memoir, not only through Christa’s thorough recollections, but also through her own writing, collected posthumously from journals and her computer. One of the most wrenching sections of the book is where Cara recounts her rape in vivid detail. Though the subject matter can be challenging at times due to its darkness, the story is captivating and hooks the reader as it takes its place among other great recent memoirs of mourning like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
Her takes its title from a nickname Cara had for Christa. The first section of the book is devoted to the girls’ difficult childhood and details their relationship as they grow up, attend college, and have young marriages. Their lives appear to be traveling on parallel paths as each attend separate graduate schools, Cara in Massachusetts for writing and Christa in New York City for photography. However, things abruptly change when, at the age of twenty-four, Cara is brutally raped when out walking her dog in the woods near her house.
After Cara’s rape, the sisters, who were always close to the point of not always remembering whose experiences belonged to whom, begin to separate. Christa explains: “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: the free, easy, joyful giving of sex, ripe exposed youth, and the naive belly that still tickles at touch.” Cara withdraws into herself, refuses to get dressed or leave the house, begins abusing prescription drugs, and eventually starts using heroin. Christa does what she can to try to help her sister, including leaving her husband behind in NYC while she stays with Cara. Since she still has to work on her thesis, she involves Cara in a photo project, “Kindred,” to get her out of the house and to try to get her to start writing again. Cara expresses the bitterness she sometimes feels toward her sister: “If you are a twin, you watch yourself live two lives—yours and hers. It’s constant comparison. I’m never as good as the bad I wanted her to be.” Cara does eventually finish grad school, but she never recovers from what happened to her. She continues to self-destruct, ending her marriage and dating a string of men until her accidental overdose.
The second section of the book recounts Christa’s new halved existence. After Cara’s death, it is Christa’s world that is in upheaval. She writes: “While she was alive I was vibrant, responsible, steady, and holding her up. I was her opposite. In the wake of Cara’s death I became her. The events of our lives unfolded before me. There was no stopping them.” She starves herself from 115 pounds down to 80 pounds, struggles keeping her teaching job, begins having affairs, ends her marriage, and begins abusing prescription drugs:
The big temptation after my sister died was to overdose or shoot myself. I got ready to die. I starved. I lied, and I swallowed pills. I wet my marital bed. I cut my arms with a knife. I divorced. I refused to sleep out of fear of dreaming of Cara. I allowed any man who wanted me to fuck my body of bones so I wouldn’t have to be by myself. I lived alone in a house filled with my sister’s furniture. I crashed cars, and I quit my job. I checked myself into mental hospitals. I scared our mother. I turned myself into Cara. I wanted to chase my sister into the afterlife. I saved myself at the brink of our two worlds. I cheated my own death. What one twin gets, the other must have. I declined my piece of our whole. I became a woman who owns half a story: I lived.
While the grieving process is never easy when one loses a loved one, it takes on new dimensions when you can still see the person when you look at yourself in the mirror each day. Christa would look into the mirror and see Cara staring back, a common delusion identical twins experience: “It is impossible for surviving twins to differentiate their living body from their twin’s; they become a breathing memorial for their lost half.” She says: “I felt her alive in myself, with all of her troubles.” And later: “All of our stories and hurts were now mine alone. I’d grown used to stories being shared that without Cara it was as if neither of our lives had ever happened. With her death, my history has been erased.”
Christa renders her grief and her near self-destruction as she eventually learns to live her own singular life and discovers her own singular voice through writing. Though she had originally studied poetry in college, she switches to photography, where she doesn’t have to compete with her sister and finds a new space for herself. She explains, “When I write, I feel my sister come as close as I’ll allow.”
Her is a story of family, love, loss, suffering, self-destruction, and healing. Christa holds nothing back as she relays her story in all its highs and lows and establishes herself as a brave new author. Though the sisters will never have memoirs sitting side-by-side on a sales table at a bookstore, as a high school teacher of theirs had once wished, Her is perhaps a fitting replacement tribute. Just as Christa once felt it took both of them to make a whole life, it takes both of their voices to tell the story of Her.
Gina Myers is a staff writer who recently interviewed author Kaya Oakes and photographer Dan Farnum. Her second full-length collection of poetry, Hold It Down, will be published by Coconut Books in April. “Kindred,” Christa Parravani’s first solo photography exhibition opens at New York’s Foley Gallery on March 6 and runs through April 14.