Interview: March 7, 2013
HER is writer and photographer Christa Parravani’s powerfully moving memoir in which she recounts the tragic death of her identical twin sister, Cara, and her subsequent struggle to survive in the wake of this unthinkable loss. In this interview, conducted by contributor Alexis Burling, Parravani discusses the central role that writing this book played in her healing process and why she feels closer to Cara now than she ever did when her sister was alive. She also talks about the origin of the book’s cover image, her close relationship with her mentor, novelist Jayne Anne Phillips, and how Cara might have reacted to HER if she was still living.
Alexis Burling: Losing a close family member, let alone your twin, is one of the most stressful life events to get through. Toward the end of HER, you mention that writing this book helped kick-start your healing process by forcing you to get more sleep, to eat healthier, to stop taking pills, and that writing about Cara helped you separate from her. Can you talk about that a bit more for those who haven’t read the book yet?
Christa Parravani: Writing HER was my rescue, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I was spinning out of control with grief, trying my best to get a hold of the crisis of losing Cara. In a time when I felt out of control of everything, and so far lost in longing for my twin, my manuscript pages were a safe place to spend time. I was in control there. HER was a place where I could reflect and tell my secrets. I couldn’t of course think of publishing then --- that would have ruined everything. I had to pretend that no one would ever read what I wrote. But I’d been heavily medicated for three years when I began to write in earnest, in the perpetual gauzy haze of benzodiazepines and sleeping pills: in one way they helped numb me. In another, they distanced me from the world, trapping me. Writing HER became an obsession. I stayed up all night writing, canceled plans, thought of nothing else. Pills were going to have to go if I wanted to push myself to another level in constructing the book. That sounds impossible, kicking pills like that. But that’s truly how devoted I was to writing, how much I wanted to be present for it.
Writing HER was a cure for missing Cara, because writing about Cara was a way of being together. I wasn’t going to allow pills to stop me from reaching my twin. So I stopped. I quit like she never could. And that surprised me. In her death we were so enmeshed. And the closer I came to her 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 one another again, talking things over. By way of 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.
AB: Some of the most moving episodes in the book are quoted directly from Cara’s writing. Reading her most personal thoughts adds another important layer to your collective story. What criteria did you use for choosing which excerpts to include or exclude?
CP: There wasn’t a specific criterion for choosing the writing, a system per se. I started off by writing the story of our childhood, my version. Then I cut the episodes into pieces and scattered them on the living room floor. I did the same with Cara’s writings about those same times. 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. I had a difficult time remembering our childhood at first too; the trauma of losing Cara caused my memory to fail, leaving me with the sense that I was without a history. HER restored that because I was able to recollect with Cara. When I felt I couldn’t go on with HER, Cara offered the answers with her text, and that propelled me to keep going. When she died, she left behind so much beautiful writing.
At first I tried to write Cara’s rape myself. I’d try and fail, and then try again only to find myself in tears. It was impossible to put myself in her position, too much. And then unbelievably, during that time, I went to visit my mother and went into Cara’s old room. I wanted to be with her things. I sat on the floor next to her bed and there it was: a Tupperware container with journals of hers I’d never seen. Inside one of them was the scene that is now in HER where Cara tells that story herself.
AB: In one of Cara’s writings, she describes, “If you are a twin, you watch yourself live two lives --- yours and hers. It’s constant comparison. I am never as good as the bad I wanted her to be. I was the only soldier I needed.... I refer to myself as ‘her,’ ‘that girl.’ Nobody wants to look me directly in the eye. Sister still sees me.” What did you make of that when you read it?
CP: I used to think of Cara’s words as her way of haunting me. I wondered how in the world she’d written these things, these ideas that were so close to my experience of losing her. Now I feel very differently. I understand something about Cara that I didn’t then. She was writing about grieving herself. She was so confused about who she saw herself becoming after her rape. And then there was the complication of seeing the old her in me. For Cara, that was like seeing her own ghost.
AB: Much of your memoir is written in a stream-of-consciousness style. Did you ever toy with writing the book in a different way, say, as a novel or a story from your sister’s perspective, or was it always a memoir in your mind?
CP: I actually started off writing poetry about losing Cara. I spent a good year writing poems until I abandoned those and moved to prose. The short form didn’t give me enough space for what I needed to say. But fiction never occurred to me as a route to pursue with this story. First, I wanted to give my sister a voice, a life. I think she never really felt she had that while she was here. But for me, I needed to put my hands on our lives together in a way that felt real. HER had to be a memoir.
AB: You’re an accomplished photographer and spent many years teaching photography to undergrads. How did you find the experience of writing a memoir to be the same and/or different creatively from taking photographs? Do you prefer one to the other?
CP: That’s like asking which is your favorite child! But I’ll just spill it: writing wins hands down.
I used to take very personal photographs, mostly self-portraits. The connection is obvious in that way. But there is more too. I always worked with images I imagined or dreamed. I had an idea of what a picture would be long before I set out to take it. I’d carry it around with me for a while, so to speak. Writing is exactly the same way for me. I have to think an idea through over and over again before I put it to paper. And those ideas come to me like someone whispering in my ear.
AB: The photograph on the cover of the book is one of many taken for a project you were working on about Cara called “Kindred.” How did you choose which photo would be the right one for the cover?
CP: That image is called “Blizzard,” and was taken in Cara’s front yard in one. There was absolutely no driving in that kind of weather, but we wanted to go out and take a picture in it; the fresh snow was just too striking to resist. I almost always wanted some kind of landscape, but that wouldn’t be possible either; our background was a tool shed, a raised ranch, and a naked flagpole. So I moved the camera to arm’s length. The resulting image is the only picture in the “Kindred” series that is a true portrait. And that makes it special, so intimate and telling. It was the obvious choice.
AB: In HER, there are a few scenes where strangers and “random acts of kindness” literally save your life --- the woman who sat next to you on the plane coming back from Rome, your students at Keene State the year after Cara died. Did you realize the power of these events at the time, or did the perspective shift come to you while writing?
CP: I did realize that they were oddly saving, so much so that I often couldn’t believe they were happening. Even though those years were so difficult, those kinds of experiences gave me a sense that I was being looked after. I don’t know if I believe in a God; I’m just not certain. But I did feel in a very deep spiritual way that I was in divine hands. There was a goodness that surrounded my life in some of the bleakest times, and maybe this gave me the hope I needed to keep going and go beyond surviving and decide to live.
AB: Your mom (and lack of a father figure) seemed to play a big role in your life and your sister’s, both in your formative years and later on. What was her role in this memoir-writing process? Did she have any say over what was and what wasn’t included in the story?
CP: If my mother thought writing HER was a crazy endeavor, she never let that show. She has always been that way. She has supported me no matter what, since I was a small girl. Mom told us anything was possible and then pushed us to do it. My mother is not an artist, but she knows better than to let her fears of being exposed in a memoir get in the way of the work that needs to be done for a great book. I admire her for that, and for so many other reasons.
AB: You mentioned that you interviewed a lot of Cara’s boyfriends and other family members while preparing to write the book. Did you ask any people who weren’t friends or family to read/edit the book before sending it to a publisher?
CP: I had a very close relationship with my mentor Jayne Anne Philips, who turned out to be a kind of literary mother to me. Jayne Anne had read Cara’s writing long before I began to write. She was astonished after she’d read those pages. Jayne Anne told me that she thought she should have been Cara’s teacher. So when I decided to write HER, I knew there was no other woman to bring it to. Jayne Anne was with me from start to finish.
AB: Toward the end of HER, you write, “Writing a memoir is like getting clanged on the head with a frying pan.” I can imagine that writing this book must’ve been incredibly painful. Were there passages that were more difficult than others to write? Did you have any “healthy procrastination” tactics for when writing got to be too thorny?
CP: When I didn’t know what to write or felt stuck, I’d go to the refrigerator and make myself a snack. I’d come back fed and give it another try. And since I was underweight, that tactic was absolutely for the best. The hardest moments emotionally in the book weren’t the hardest to write, much to my surprise. I’d memorized those long before I sat down to work. It was the moments of joy that I struggled with. I like to think they took me longer to write because I enjoyed being in those happy moments, so much that I just wanted to stay in them longer.
AB: Tough question you may or may not want to answer: If your sister was alive today, how do you think she would react to the book?
CP: That’s impossible to answer because there would be no book had she survived. We like to believe that if there is a spirit realm, that the transition from life to death offers enlightenment. All who pass through these gates would suddenly be without judgment or envy, they’d be clean of faults. I like to imagine that had Cara been able to see what has come of her death that she would put aside her jealousy and envy --- which she certainly would have had --- and see that HER is a demonstration of my love. There was nothing as meaningful to my sister as words. And nothing she wanted more than to feel seen and adored. At the end of all of this, I believe that HER was my way of demonstrating to Cara that the love I possess for her is undying. I gave her what she believed most beautiful and valuable. I’m sure she would feel whole and proud in the glow of that.
AB: What’s next for you?
CP: I’m writing another memoir, a coming-of-age story. I’m really excited about it because it feels more mine than anything in my life ever has.