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Alexandra Fuller Talks with Christa Parravani on Writing "Her," Our Debut Spotlight Pick for March

Her-CoverAlong with our top 10 Best Books of the Month picks, we also feature our favorite new book by a debut author--our way of welcoming and amplifying exciting new voices. This month, we're spotlighting Christa Parravani’s brave, raw, and ultimately uplifting debut memoir, which unbraids the memory of her own life from her identical twin, Cara, who died of an overdose at age 28.

Cara had been the larger, hungrier twin since birth, but they both emerged from a chaotic childhood as magnetic and creatively precocious young women. Cara claimed writing as her territory, so Christa took pictures. They both married young but remained more devoted to each other than their spouses.

In 2001, Cara was viciously raped while walking her dog in a park. She survived, but she was deeply damaged. Christa tried for years to hold her together, and after Cara’s death, she felt as if she became her sister, even seeing Cara staring back at her from mirrors--in warning, and as an invitation to tear apart her life “just as she’d shredded her own.” Such hallucinations are a common delusion among the newly twinless: “they become a breathing memorial for their lost half,” and half of them die within the first two years. Told in part in the voice of her lost sister, Her is the story of how Christa clawed her way back from this gulf of grief and gave herself permission to live.

Here, Alexandra Fuller--author of extraordinary memoirs Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (among others)--talks with Christa Parravani about the "private underworld" she shared with Cara, and how she found her own voice once her sister was gone. --Mari Malcolm

Alexandra Fuller: On one level, this memoir is about the shocking connectivity of being an identical twin and what happens when you tragically lose your twin. But on another level, it feels like a classic coming-of-age story with the most awful twist imaginable: you were unable to grow up and become a fully realized version of yourself until your sister died. Does this feel true?

Christa Parravani: It was nearly comfortable sharing an identity with Cara, almost fulfilling. It’s difficult to imagine now how we tolerated bartering our individualities for closeness with each other. But it was simple at first: I liked chocolate ice cream, so Cara liked vanilla. I wore pink; Cara wore blue. Then adult desires complicated our agreement. Cara wanted to be a writer, and I did too. When we both married, room needed to be made for our husbands. Being adults meant moving away from each other, but twinship impaired our abilities to move up and out in the world. If my attention was diverted from Cara, I felt I was being unfaithful to her.

Now I see my life as divided in half: before and after Cara. The hardest years after Cara's death were full of unimaginable grief. I couldn’t believe that I could live while she had died. Twins were supposed to have the same fate, the same experiences. I simply didn’t know how to go on without her. I looked in the mirror and saw her staring back at me. I’d laugh and hear her. And those kinds of experiences began to define me as much as my life with her ever had, even more so. I look at what has become of me: I’m a happy wife to a loving and brilliant husband. I’m a mother to a sweet baby girl. I’m a survivor. It’s probably hard to believe, but I would relive every painful moment again to have what I do now: my own separate life.

AF: Your story is wonderfully layered, and the layering is almost always expressed as either a kind of sublime twin scenario (a magically connecting experience) or as a duality (a horribly alienating experience). As the story progressed, I found myself seeing ways in which you and Cara often seem to be leading a dark double life beneath that already double life of your twinship. Do you think you felt less lonely in those dark places because you could act as companions and guides into your private underworld?

CP: There was nothing we didn’t share, including the proclivity for dark behavior. It was programmed into us from our childhood, from what we’d seen in our home. Neither of us understood yet that we could control those impulses, and we’d act out blindly. There was a lot of shame because of that, and we’d bounce it back and forth. We embraced each other at the same time we pushed each other down. We truly were ransom holders with each other’s secrets--scorekeepers, always threatening to leave the other or tell on them. But there was also safety in that, a place to return where we knew we’d be understood.

AF: Given the sometimes harrowing subject matter, your writing style is often shockingly matter-of-fact, in a way that gets you through some downright drowning emotional events with admirable clarity and even grace. Were there books, movies, or art that inspired you to write in this way? Did being a photographer help form your voice?

CP: I would have been lost without John Cheever’s stories and Joan Didion’s essays. When I needed guidance, I’d pick them up to be reminded that sometimes we need to be spare in order to earn lush moments. Both writers reminded me that when being spare, you leave the reader hungry for the perfect lyrical sentence. Photographing well is a difficult venture. When I was at my best, I hoped to be removed enough from my subjects to see them, but close enough to allow for a part of me to be transferred into the image. I approached writing Her in nearly the same way. I made room for Cara to come through, but was always mindful that it was my story, and that I wasn’t just a scribe inking her memorial.

Diane Airbus’s photographs of twins, and other “freaks,” as she lovingly called them, have an articulate and unapologetic matter-of-factness that I have always found compelling. There’s something about the claustrophobia of twinship that Arbus just “gets,” how it’s both comfortably isolating and unnaturally limiting. Her subjects are stuck on the print in all of their glorious sameness, owning it, holding on to one another with prideful affection. I carried a monograph of Arbus photographs around with me in the trunk of my car for the longest time. The cover pictures a set of identical twin girls in smock-like dresses, looking so permanently joined. My car was badly cared for, and the trunk flooded, ruining the book. That happened while I was staying in a mental hospital after a suicide attempt. When I was released from care, I opened the trunk to stow away my suitcase: The book was water damaged. The twins on the cover of my copy of Arbus’s book had been ripped in half. I took that as a good sign, a signal that maybe I was ready to stand on my own two feet without Cara.

AF: In spite of the fact that your sister dies from her drug addiction, it seems almost a secondary theme in the book. I come back to the question of layering. What you seem to be saying is that Cara didn't die of a drug overdose, so much as from an aversion to the awful pain she was in. It's a refreshingly nuanced take on addiction. Was it important for you to steer clear of judgment? Was this something that came with writing?

CP: While Cara was alive, I was judgmental. I wanted to shake her until she agreed to stop taking pills and heroin. I knew they would kill her. It was difficult not to pass judgment as I watched her blot herself out. As a writer though, it wasn’t my place to pass judgment. That never accomplishes much good in writing. Drugs were clearly my second rival. Cara’s pain and trauma took her first. They were the primary things in the way, the cloak over her. If I was going to try and get to the root of my sister’s troubles in Her, I needed to go deeper. That meant trying to parse out the reasons for her drug use instead of laying blame.

AF: Your relationship with Cara was so exclusive, so seemingly mysterious that even your mother is unable to insert herself between you. And after her death, Cara still comes to you, or is with you (in your imagination, in your dreams, and in psychic readings) as the primary force in your life. Did writing this book change your relationship with Cara?

CP: I often had the feeling while writing that Cara was with me. Writing Her was a way of being with Cara again. I found that the more time I spent writing, the less I grieved in my daily life. I needed her to haunt me, to still be there. So I mimicked her behavior to try and bring her closer to me. I created her ghost in my own flesh. After Cara died, we were even more enmeshed than when she was alive. But then something really surprising happened: The closer I came to Cara in writing, the farther away from her I was in my life. It was a magical experience, really. I felt like we were getting to know each other again, talking things over. By writing, I was able to have this fantastic relationship with my sister. In some ways, it was a healthier relationship than the one I had with her while she was alive.

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