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The Other One

Alumna Christa Parravani, the author of Her, relives the life she shared with her identical twin, Cara, before, and after, her untimely death, one that threatened to take Christa along with her. 

By David W. Major

“Blizzard,” photograph by Christa Parravani (right), the author of the memoir Her, with her sister, the late Cara Parravani.
“Blizzard,” photograph by Christa Parravani (right), the author of the memoir Her, with her sister, the late Cara Parravani.

Being an identical twin, Christa Parravani always had mixed views about the telepathic and intuitive powers conferred on twins—the feeling and knowing of the location and pain of a double. But on June 13, 2006, while she was driving along Canal Street in New York City, her cell phone rang, and Christa knew it was trouble. She asked her husband to take the call, which was from her distraught mother, saying that Cara, Christa’s identical twin, was dead from an accidental overdose of heroin, found slumped between the toilet and sink in the bathroom of her mother’s Albany, New York, home. Maybe the anticipation of the call was Christa’s heightened telepathy at work. Perhaps it was simply her knowing that the other shoe was bound to drop, and it had.

Even though Cara’s death was hardly a surprise, following years of self-destruction, Christa was left defenseless. They had been one soul, indivisible, and now Christa had been cleaved in half, a walking-and-talking memorial to her sister, the living ghost of Cara. “I gazed at myself in the mirror after she died and there she was,” Christa GSN’11 writes in Her (Henry Holt, 2013), her beautifully rendered memoir, due out in March, about the special relationship of the Parravani sisters. “Her rusty brown eyes, frightened and curious as a doe’s. In the mirror, I’d smile at myself and see her grinning back … My reflection was her and it wasn’t her. I was myself but I was my sister. I was hallucinating Cara.”

They were Cara and Christa, so invested in each other as one that forging separate identities never occurred to them growing up. Raised by a mother with a proclivity for men who made for lousy fathers, they had built a private world around themselves: Cara and Christa laughed at the same things, perceived the same things, jumped in fright at the same things, and, yes, finished each other’s sentences. Their mutual empathy was such that if you were mean to Christa, you were hurting Cara. If Cara was kissing her boyfriend, Christa felt his lips on her own. They were somewhat of a carnival act for classmates’ amusement, objects of a running game to try to tell Cara from Christa, Christa from Cara. But, they enjoyed it, too—once even duping their boyfriends into mistaking one for the other.

 “Preston Hall,” photograph by Christa Parravani
“Preston Hall,” photograph by Christa Parravani
“Christa is learning to crawl in the snow without me. There is a picture here. People drive by, look, shake their heads, and move on to their own lives, to their own standing buildings … I worry Sister sacrifices safety for photographs. I’ve battled her past no trespassing signs, have told her ledges were too high and she was going to plummet to her bloody death. I’ve told her that all the apples in the orchard are dead because it’s November. She always finds the red one … I want to congratulate my sister on finding the last red apple, but I can’t. I hate her because of the sheer fact that someday one of us will be lost. Nothing in this world is permanent. I think I chastise her for trying to make it so with her camera.”
— from the journals of Cara Parravani

The phonetics of their names—a crackle of consonant yielding to the lilting, concluding vowel—spoke volumes. Feisty yet vulnerable, Cara and Christa presented a stiff upper lip to the world that concealed the roiling emotions that informed their artistic sensitivity. Cara, older by a minute, was slightly bigger, more outgoing. Christa, the introvert, was the scaredy cat. At night, after the lights went out for bed, Christa would whisper to Cara, asking if she could sleep with her, just this once. Cara would consent, but only for one night. But every evening during their childhood, Christa crept into Cara’s bed, the two girls sleeping back to back: two halves of a whole. At poignant moments to underscore their mutual love, one would declare to the other that if she died, she would have no choice but to die, too. And then each girl would describe how she, with theatrical flourish, would take her own life.

Cara’s own death had been precipitated years earlier by the nightmare of nightmares. An aspiring writer in her early 20s, she had been out for a late-afternoon walk with her dog on a fall day in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where she lived. In a nearby park, a man came up to her. The next thing Cara realized, he was dragging her into the woods, her shoe amiss, where he beat her up and raped her. Cara was never the same. In the months that followed, she refused to go outside and was terrified of being alone. She didn’t dress, she didn’t eat, she watched helplessly as her young marriage dissolved. Christa, living in New York City with her husband and pursuing a fine arts degree in photography, agreed to come to New England and take care of her sister.

As a form of therapy, a diversion they might both enjoy, Christa drove them into the countryside to make pictures, using her Crown Graphic 4x5 press camera to create beautiful, surreal portraits of the twins dressed in long jackets that, they laughed, made them look like old-fashioned harlots. The photographs evoked a Gothic desolation while conveying the tentative ties of their relationship at the time. The exercise was healing to some extent, especially on the good days when Christa could bring out the natural performer in Cara, the show-off. But the damage had been done. Cara had been taking drugs that had led to a heroin addiction, a sinister catalyst in her decline, one that had also taken its toll on Christa, exhausted by her sister’s behavior. Five years after Cara was raped, and not long after the two had had a falling out, the mother’s call had come.

Christa responded to calamity much the way her sister had. The self-control that had always grounded her was uprooted by the twister raking across her psychic landscape. “Cara’s reflection became a warning. I would become her on the other side of the looking glass if I wasn’t careful,” writes Christa, a graduate of the master of fine arts (M.F.A.) program in creative writing at Rutgers–Newark. “It wasn’t only her likeness I craved. For me, her self-destruction was contagious. I mimicked it to try to bring her back. To be nearer to her, I tore apart my life just as she had shredded her own.” Christa fell prey to pills, impulse, ill-advised liaisons, and, ultimately, the need for inpatient counseling. Shortly after Cara’s death, she had heard that, following the death of an identical twin, the surviving twin had a 50 percent chance of dying within two years. Christa began wondering not when, but how, she would meet her own end.

“The Beachcombers,” photograph by Christa Parravani
“The Beachcombers,” by Christa Parravani
 “Sister says she knows the truth. Christa takes pictures. She makes her shutter blink and freezes me, just like I am. I am always the same when she sees me, a little more beautiful than the way I see myself. I think that is how love and hope are. Her photos of me are lies I let her have because they are half true. Everything in our world is half. We were born together. Once we were the same blood with the same language. We used to have one body before we split in the womb. It’s hard to see yourself from two different bodies that look exactly alike.” — from the journals of Cara Parravani

After Cara’s death, and the discovery of her journals and other prose, Christa was pursuing the idea of publishing a book of her sister’s writing to accompany her own photography of the two of them. But she jettisoned the idea at the last moment and decided to pick up the pen herself, despite her fragile state of mind. Writing had always been the jealously guarded province of Cara—Christa, after all, had her photography—but Christa found she had a knack for not only photography but words, too. Mentored by author Jayne Anne Phillips, the director of the M.F.A. writing program whom she had met at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in New Hampshire, Christa emerged from the experience of writing her memoir a healed woman.

“Writing the book was an obsession,” says Christa, speaking in her Brooklyn apartment, where she lives with her husband, Anthony Swofford, best known for the novel Jarhead (Scribner, 2005), and their baby daughter, Josephine. “I had to tell this story. It was a magical process, in many ways, to write the book because I kept on coming into contact with my sister. That was terrifying, but also comforting. I felt, ‘I must be on the right track; I must be doing the right thing.’”

Her was the catharsis that Christa needed, a three-year odyssey of self-discovery that revealed what had happened to her, much of it not pretty. “I didn’t want to spare myself embarrassment,” she says. “But I didn’t want the book to be confessional, either. Rather, I wanted justice to be done in the story. My curiosity about me propelled me to write a more honest book.”

In reliving her life with Cara, Christa also discovered that she was weaning herself from her dependence on and longing for her sister, from their collective identity, which had been such a fount of love—but had become such an abyss of pain. “By way of writing, I was able to have this fantastic relationship with my sister,” Christa says. “In some ways, it was a healthier relationship than the one I had with her when she was alive.” •