Allen Shawn's memoir "Twin"

Sunday, February 6, 2011

When Allen Shawn closes his eyes, he can still imagine peering through the bars of his crib to see the outline of his twin, Mary, the two of them rocking on their knees each night, gently knocking their heads on the headboards. "I can even hear the squeaking of the beds," he writes, and in "Twin" he tries to make sense of how the sounds, smells, presence and absence of his "contrapuntal" partner have shaped his entire life.

It was only in recent years, as he prepared his subtly powerful and personal study of phobia, "Wish I Could be There," that Shawn came to realize just how important Mary has been for him. Before that, all he felt "was a kind of blank place inside, where memories and feelings should have been." With "Twin" he tries to fill in that blank space, or at least to explore its contours.

This is no easy task because Mary was separated from him and the rest of the family at age 8 and has acquired labels like "retarded," "autistic" and "schizoid" ever since. In recollecting the development of his own agoraphobia, Shawn returned repeatedly to the loss of Mary as pivotal, an event that for years he kept at bay and that now he is attempting to re-weave into his life. He writes in order to regain some closeness to Mary, the person with whom he has always had a primordial intimacy, but when he thinks of her, he "might just as well have been wondering what a bird feels when it sings or when it flies from place to place and makes a decision to land here and not there."

As in "Wish I Could be There," in this new memoir Shawn intersperses discussions of medical and psychological literature with his personal reminiscences. He provides deft surveys of accessible work on autism in order to situate his quest for understanding Mary in a broader context. He also discusses how his development as a composer created more distance from his twin while opening up possibilities for self-exploration that are the basis for his current efforts to get closer to her. He knows that, through most of her life, others have failed to see what Mary finds meaningful, how she makes order in her world. Realizing that an autistic establishes "her own kind of meaning," he searches for some reconnection to the world of his twin.

Shawn writes beautifully, with an elegance, candor and tact that are remarkable. He is personal without ever being gossipy, and so this is not the book for those who want more dish concerning the decades-long secret relationship of his late father, New Yorker editor William Shawn, with staff writer Lillian Ross, or about the author's own 20-plus-year marriage to writer Jamaica Kincaid. His father's relationship is discussed because it now seems key to understanding the "religion of denial" in the Shawn household, but his own marriage and divorce are off-limits. Whether this is discretion or simply a continuation of the family tradition of avoidance is impossible to say.

That family tradition has been powerful, indeed. Shawn writes with energy but not hostility about how his parents created a culture of concealment while maintaining an atmosphere of creativity and sophisticated curiosity. His father hid his emotional life, while his mother seemed to operate according to the belief that "it is not a heart attack that kills you, but rather acknowledging that you have had a heart attack." That last observation is credited to the author's multi-talented and brainy older brother, Wallace Shawn, whose shadow falls repeatedly across this narrative.

But the famous Shawns aren't the subject of "Twin," Mary is: "the built-in distance between her reality and ours, the unfathomable inaccessibility of her way of experiencing things." It is this inaccessibility that interests Shawn the most, the sense of how hard it is to know what another person is thinking or feeling. After recognizing this opacity, one can be left with a terrifying aloneness, as if the inaccessibility of others also indicates how isolated we may really be. This is surely linked to Shawn's own experience of panic and phobia, when "it felt almost as if I were turning into my sister, as if the unchained spirit of her distress was no longer being held down and was erupting like a monster inside me." Mary's autism and Shawn's panic attacks are extreme manifestations of aloneness as disorder, and the author guides us through a variety of examples of how we cope with isolation, live with the secrets of those who seem closest to us, and manage to make meaningful connections with others while recognizing our radical remoteness.

"Twin" is an extraordinary book - quiet, patient, moving. While acknowledging our separation from one another, Allen Shawn has made a brotherly gift that recalls the possibilities of connection through memory and love that just might be shared.

Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of "The Ironist's Cage." His "Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past" will be published this year.


A Memoir

By Allen Shawn

Viking. 232 pp. $25.95

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