Growing up a twin could have its perks. In one sense, you’re never alone. Slogging through the awkwardness of grade school? Your twin is there to keep you company. Mining your first relationship? Your twin is there to dish out advice. Getting married? Your twin is there to help you plan the whole raucous affair. But what if your twin dies prematurely? Then what? What must it feel like to go through the rest of your life without your other half --- literally?
In Christa Parravani’s moving memoir, HER, she recounts not only the joys of being an identical twin, but also the wretched emptiness that follows after her sister Cara “accidentally” overdoses on heroin at 28. In gritty, often graphic detail coupled with excerpts from Cara’s own diaries, Christa describes watching her sister waste away into the shell of her formal self --- erratic and petulant, her gracefully tattooed arms riddled with track marks. At times, her repetitive, stream-of-consciousness style can seem a bit overbearing. At others, it’s just the right balance of joyous, melancholic and bitter to demonstrate just how rewarding and how difficult their shared experience must’ve been.
Although their childhood was far from ideal or stable --- both their real father and their stepfather were abusive before their mother struck out on her own --- the girls seemed to thrive as twins. Sure, there was always fierce competition and constant comparison --- each felt the other was prettier, smarter, or more popular. But throughout all of the awkwardness of adolescence, they were each other’s confidante and closest friend. Their early marriages suited them at the beginning, and their talents in writing (Cara) and photography (Christa) signified a progression toward healthy, productive lives.
"[W]e don’t always pick up a memoir in hopes of enjoying a carefully crafted, expertly plotted read. Instead, we hope for a small glimpse into the inside of someone else’s reality in all its messy glory. With humility and an unbreakable love and respect for her other half, Christa Parravani allows us that in droves."
But then a tragedy occurred that would cause irreparable damage. While she was out walking her dog in the woods of Holyoke, Massachusetts, where she lived with her husband Kahlil while in graduate school, Cara was raped and beaten up by a stranger. From that point on, she was never the same. She refused to get out of bed or change her clothes. In her own words: “I fragmented into the loved and the pitied and the loathed; it took me five years. I became a deafening danger bomb, a tick you couldn’t find if you hadn’t buried it in yourself. I refer to myself as ‘her,’ ‘that girl.’ Nobody wants to look me directly in the eye. Sister still sees me.”
After the rape came the drugs, the suicide attempts, the stints in rehab centers and mental hospitals, the failed marriage and eventual divorce. All the while, Christa stood by her sister’s side, alternatively pushing her through recovery over the course of five years by taking hundreds of photos of Cara in a project she later called Kindred, and pushing her away. Despite both girls’ efforts, nothing seemed to work, and eventually the drugs won.
Like any loss of a close friend or family member, her sister’s sudden death sent a ripple through Christa’s life, and almost immediately, she spiraled downward into a near-fatal abyss. “One twin goes and the other must follow. The big temptation after my sister died was to overdose or shoot myself. I got ready to die. I starved. I wet my marital bed. I cut my arms with a knife. I checked myself into mental hospitals. I scared our mother. I turned myself into Cara.”
By the time her own marriage had collapsed, Christa had slept around with random men, splurged on too many pills, bailed on her teaching gig at Keene State University, and wasted away to 85 pounds. Her inescapable guilt for not being able to save Cara, an intense depression over being alone, and an intentional overdose on Zyprexa nearly killed her.
But as any marketable memoir must show, there’s an upside to all this rotten drama. Miraculously, Christa didn’t follow her twin’s path. Instead, she chose to get her life together. She kicked her drug habit, gained back the weight she’d lost, and entered into a healthy relationship to a man she eventually married. Plus, she started writing. While the chapters devoted to her recuperation seem skimpy compared to all that came before it, it’s a relief to know that rebirth is possible even at the bottom.
Truth be told, HER isn’t an easy book. It’s rambling and raw and full of holes. But we don’t always pick up a memoir in hopes of enjoying a carefully crafted, expertly plotted read. Instead, we hope for a small glimpse into the inside of someone else’s reality in all its messy glory. With humility and an unbreakable love and respect for her other half, Christa Parravani allows us that in droves.
(*Reviewer’s side note: Kindred, Christa’s photographs of Cara, can be seen on her website. Take a look. They’re stunning.)
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on March 3, 2014