Christa Parravani has written a powerful new memoir, Her, about the death of her twin. She speaks to her husband, Anthony Swofford, about two siblings trying to negotiate life with one personality.
Christa Parravani’s debut memoir Her tells the harrowing story of Christa’s life with her identical twin sister, Cara—their coming up from a hardscrabble childhood with a single mother who knew how to choose the wrong man in any room. As young 20-something artists, they both pursued graduate studies, Christa in photography at Columbia and Cara in writing at UMass. They both married young, but the sweet duality of their lives was shockingly obliterated when Cara was abducted and raped in the woods near her home in Holyoke in October 2001. After a severe struggle with post-rape PTSD and an associated addiction to prescribed opiates, which eventually devolved into heroin use, Cara died of a drug overdose in June 2006. The story of identity, loss, and rebirth is told in spare prose. As Christa’s second husband and the father of her daughter, I make an appearance near the end of the book.
I spoke with Christa at Café Dada in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and also at our home over a salmon curry I’d cooked.
How difficult was the transistion from taking photographs to writing prose in order to tell your twin’s story?
It was more natural than I’d imagined. I’ve always admired artists who aren’t bound to a specific craft but are instead guided by feeling or subject. My sister was my subject and a brutally unending fount of feeling. After she died, each time I went to my camera, I felt her absence. Photographing became too painful. But I was terrified to write; I wasn’t sure I knew how, and at first I didn’t. I failed a lot. But I was happy doing that, because an amazing thing happened. Writing the book allowed me to spend time with Cara again. And I relished that.
You possess the kind of autobiography that some writers would love to have to draw from in order to write fiction or poetry. You briefly wrote poetry, so why a memoir and not poetry or a novel?
I felt a responsibility to tell the story exactly as it had happened. Even though Cara’s rape was a cataclysmic event in our family, it was impossible to talk about. No one wanted to touch it, and this understandably upset Cara. We’d made her pain invisible. I wanted to correct that with Her. I had to write a memoir to honor my sister’s need for her voice to be heard. But it wasn’t only that. Losing an identical twin is a uniquely maddening experience, and one that I hadn’t read very much about. After surviving that loss, I had to tell the story.
The trauma of your sister’s rape is a central event in the book. She was a budding writer and had written about the attack. She had tried with fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes she would say she was writing a novel, and sometimes she’d call it a memoir. What was that about for her? Her inability to define which she was doing?
My sister feared that if she told her story as it had happened to her, as memoir, that it would be too much, too painful to read. She’d always feared being too much. But also she liked being too much. Tattoos, piercings, drugs, outrageous sexual behavior. Fictionalizing her rape gave her the cover of distance. Writing fiction protected her. But it was never totally satisfying as an artist. Because even though she was afraid of going too deep with the rape, she was consumed by it.
You just said that she feared being “too much” and she’s a big figure in Her. If in your twin dynamic she was too much, were you too little? You make it clear that there were obviously competing psychologies going on from birth. Tell me more about that.
We never allowed ourselves to be the same. Identical twins are like that, always trying to carve out individuality. It was as if the world wasn’t a big enough place for us to be similar, and that forced us into trying to be opposite. We were fiercely competitive. It was simple at first when we were children. Cara liked vanilla ice cream, so I liked chocolate. I liked pink, so she liked blue. It really was that severe. Cara loved to sing, so I couldn’t sing—
She had a good point. I’ve heard you in the shower.
Right. As we grew up that was impossible to uphold because we were that similar. We both liked to read and write and had the same circle of friends. This caused a huge amount of conflict, enough that I stopped writing because it made Cara uncomfortable.
It sounds as though you’re dealing with a multiple-personality disorder.
[Laughs] Yes! That’s exactly what it felt like.
But it’s two people.
It’s two people trying to negotiate life with one personality. But that’s the problem. We were separate people. Identical twins don’t know how to deal with the necessity of separateness.
We met four and a half years after Cara died. I never had the pleasure of knowing her. But it sounds as though Cara had big appetites, and she also set herself up for massive disappointments.
How do you render her appetites and disappointments? When I think of her as a writer, one of the big tragedies is that she had real, blazing talent that she was never able to fully utilize because of her rape, and then she ran out of time. With this book you’ve saved not only her memory, but also her craft.
I couldn’t think about the book as a tribute. I wanted it to be more than that. As I was writing, I didn’t allow Cara into the room with me, as a person who needed to be memorialized. I wanted the book to be about my experience without her, too, an exploration of being twinless. If I’d thought too much about saving my sister through writing this book, it would have lost the honesty and complexity. I wanted Her to be bigger than that, and more ugly, more truthful. But I did I give Cara’s writing a new life in Her, and that’s one of its pleasures for me. This book would have offered Cara the proof that I really loved and admired her. After her rape she could never really get a hold of that. Sometimes I think I wrote the book for that simple reason, as a love note.
When we first met in September 2010, you’d written about half of Her. You also had about 12 photographs inside the manuscript. I thought they were a necessary working structural foundation that you’d eventually write your way free of. How long did it take for this to happen? And by the way, did you ever tell me I was right?
[Laughs] You know I always do.
Can you say that again?
You were right [still laughing]. It wasn’t until July 2011, before our daughter was born, that I’d written enough of the story that the photographs seemed redundant. I was pleased that I didn’t need photographs to illustrate what I was now capable of telling with prose.
Memories are funny, slippery things. Did you often or even always imagine how Cara would have told the shared elements of your story?
I did. And maybe it’s not so odd, because we were twins, but I found we wrote about a lot of the same things. After I’d written most of the book about our childhood, I cut those episodes into pieces and scattered them on the living room floor. I did the same with Cara’s writings about those same moments. I mixed them up until I didn’t really know which piece belonged to whom and until the voices seemed one voice. I wanted the reader to have that moment with us, the understanding of what they were dealing with: souls who were that close.
She’s produced considerable writing about your childhood. That must have been a relief for you to read.
It was an excavating, a spiritual journey. When I felt I couldn’t go on writing because I couldn’t remember, or the memory was too painful, Cara had written just what I needed.
Are your voices ever in competition?
Cara was a very lyrical writer, and I had to be sparer to maintain balance. It was all about the right balance. But sometimes I wanted to be lyrical too, poetic. And sometimes I could be, and sometimes I couldn’t. Cara could be very dramatic and confrontational in her writing, as well as in life. And I found myself reacting against that as I went along, and maybe that gave me a perspective more outside of myself. But sometimes she’d written something so perfectly I wished that I’d written it.
That’s totally fascinating. When left to your own devices, sometimes your prose is like Cara’s. You’ve referred to yourself as a “scold,” a personality trait you took on while she was alive in response to her being out of control. Was writing a corrective to that, a way to right the ship?
Wow. Maybe it was. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Writing Her really did feel like taking my hair down. It was a relief to be easier on myself and on Cara. I used to tell her that she didn’t work hard enough. And I’m so sorry for that now. I’ve seen through the writing process that she did the best she could at the time. We both did.
OK. Final question. Who is doing the dishes?