Jim Fleming: When an identical twin dies there is a 50% chance that the surviving twin will also die, within two years. Fortunately that didn't happen to Christa Parravani after she lost her sister Cara. Christa's written a memoir about the special bond she shares with her identical twin sister, it’s called “Her”.
Christa Parravani: We’d really been sort of separated by an event that happened in my sister’s life. She was raped by a stranger while she was walking her dog in the woods during her first year of graduate school. And at that moment we felt that we’d been untwined and mortality was a real question at that point. My sister really felt that she hadn't survived that attack and in a way I think part of her felt as if she had left who she was on the forest floor that day.
Fleming: That rape was something that you both had to deal with, there’s no getting around it, the two of you were so, so very close. There’s a hint at it earlier in the book, you talk about how people used to say to you that they always wanted to be a twin.
Fleming: And your response to that was, was what?
Parravani: cut yourself in half and see how it feels and actually my sister wrote that part of the book. That’s quoted directly from her manuscript. Yeah, that was really the answer to that question. We felt, we felt lucky to have one another, but we felt very worried that one day we wouldn't have one another, but we really didn't start talking about that until we were younger adults in our 20’s and it seemed like a real possibility that we might be separated by death. That was always on our minds.
Fleming: It wasn't until the rape then that you began to look at it?
Parravani: It really wasn't until the rape, no. My sister suffered very deeply from depression after the rape and she went on really a kind of suicidal mission with drugs. She couldn't rescue herself from the pain and the trauma of her rape and she began self medicating, first with benzodiazepines and then heroin. And it was very obvious to both of us that the path was not going to end in a good place for her if she didn't stop taking those drugs and she refused.
Fleming: One of the difficulties that you faced and that’s clear in the way that you have written this book is that its hard for you to be both here after she’s gone and still feeling so much of the life the two of you had together before she died. Its heart breaking to hear you so clearly in your writing talk about still being a twin even though you used the phrase “untwinned” as part of the rape.
Parravani: That was something about losing my sister that was very unexpected to me. It was, it was as if I didn't know who I was after she died, as if I had sort of been cut in half, if you will, and I went to the mirror after she died and I looked at myself and I saw her. And during our lives together we were always trying to differentiate from one another. Identical twins will find the smallest things that are different and kind of go with those. But as I was looking at myself in the mirror she was really staring right back at me. And I was faced then at that moment with realizing that I was a twin, but I wasn't a twin, and I wasn't sure how I was going to navigate that as I went along in my life because my sister really did feel like the most important part of me. It was sort of like what people describe when they've lost a limb, the phantom limb syndrome, where you have this appendage and you can’t see it but you can feel it, and for me losing my sister was sort of like having a phantom twin, where I couldn't see her but I could feel her very acutely next to me and I couldn't put my hands on her and it really was sort of the biggest loss that I could have endured at that moment in my life.
Fleming: It had to have worried you, because when she was raped, I know it’s hard, but it wasn't an easy rape if such a thing is even possible to imagine, it was a vicious, brutal beating that she took, it must of felt because she was so much a part of you, like it happened to you to some extent.
Parravani: it really did, and you know if I’m honest with myself it still feels that way. I think a lot about what happened to my sister that day and it’s not a memory that I have because she told me about it and that resonated with me. It’s a memory that I have because I created it for myself, in a way that I created a lot of the memories that we shared and I would never dare say that her rape happened to me, because it certainly didn't, but it lives on in me and in my memory in a way that is so deeply embedded that I can’t really live without that. I bring it into my home.
Fleming: Did she talk to you about it? Was she able to talk to you about it?
Parravani: She was able to talk to me about it and something really magical happened to me while I was writing this book actually. I had tried to write the story of my sister’s rape for about six weeks, and I couldn't do it, it was very close to fiction for me and it felt uncomfortable as I was writing I wanted to write a memoir. And really I felt at that moment that I was going to have to give up writing the book, and I went to visit my mother one weekend and I went up to my sisters bedroom and I had wanted to spend some time with her things. I sat on the floor and I looked under the bed and there was this giant Tupperware container filled with journals that I had never seen and I opened one up and inside of it was my sisters account of the rape and she’d written it for the police I think, there was a little legal document inside of the front flap, and she’d never told me the story like that. She tells the reader exactly what happened to her in the book, because it’s exactly the account of her rape that I was able to use here and maybe I didn't know in life but I definitely know now what happened that day.
Fleming: Is it better actually to know? Or was your imaging even worse than the reality?
Parravani: It was much better to know. It was better for me, at the end, looking at the end of the process of writing this book to be able to know my sister in the way that she had so needed me to know her. I felt when I’d lost her that I would never be able to reconcile all of our differences and really the wedge that was put between us with drugs and with the attack that she suffered. And I really did find that at the end of writing this book that I was closer to her in a way that I had never been while she was alive and I also found that the nearer I came to Cara in writing this book the farther away she was from me in my regular life. So I did take on some of her more destructive qualities when she died, it wasn't just her, her image I saw in the mirror, I was also replicating some of her drug use and the infidelity that she had acted out in her marriage, I replicated that in the one that I had and this book really saved me from that kind of life, because I was able to find my sister in writing and in a way that I could never find her outside of the book.
Fleming: One of the things that we haven’t talked at all about, or I guess we have hinted at it, is a statistic that must have grabbed you and worried you almost to death, you write that 50 percent of twins follow their identical twin in dying within two years. And that almost happened to you?
Parravani: It nearly happened to me. I nearly overdosed on drugs several times. I attempted suicide several times. I actually was in a terrible car accident, I was hit by a dump truck, and that had nearly killed me. I was determined to follow my sister into death. I didn't know where else to go, I really didn't. You know it took me probably about four years and not two to realize that I was going to survive. And I had had a moment with my sister actually, while she was alive, where we were driving, we were on our way to take a photograph and she looked at me and she said, “If you die, I will kill myself” , and I looked at her and I said, “if you die, I will survive you”, and I kind of kept that montra in my mind as I went along knowing that I wasn't going to go in the same place no matter how hard I pushed myself in that direction, I knew that there must be something on the other side that I could find meaning in and a new life.
Jim Fleming: Christa Parravani, she’s the author of "Her." She is now happily remarried and has a daughter named Josephine.