Arts Literary

Family dynamic

Allen Shawn’s autistic Twin central to his life

Twin (Viking, $32.50), the second memoir from Allen Shawn, explores the nature of Shawn's relationship to his autistic twin sister, Mary, who was removed from the family home at eight, and has since lived in various institutions designed to assist those with similar disabilities. Allen and Mary are now in their early 60s and visit regularly, yet it's clear that the familiarity and comfort they enjoy in each other's presence remains accompanied by profound, sometimes troubling mysteries of identity and perception seemingly inherent in their very coexistence. "It wasn't until I reached middle age," Shawn writes, "that I could even begin to acknowledge that being Mary's twin was a central fact, perhaps the central fact, of my life."

Shawn is the brother of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn and the son of long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn. He's a composer and teacher, yet reading Twin it becomes immediately apparent that however talented he may be in the discipline to which he's devoted his career, Shawn is, like his brother, an immensely gifted writer, displaying a knack for transitioning between personal storytelling and essaying on science and history, weaving these elements into a seamless whole by way of an articulate yet arrestingly frank voice. It's rare to encounter a book as emotionally involving from its first page as Twin—though it bears mentioning that that first page also features a joke about Mormon heaven that made me laugh out loud, and an amusing analogy between deep feelings of loss and the worry one might suffer over vanishing pants.

One chapter begins with a compelling argument for acknowledging the value of religious feeling, even if one isn't inclined to value religion. This speaks to Shawn's restless questioning, a fundamental aspect of his psychological makeup that no doubt feeds his continued desire to understand Mary's inner life while never presuming that such understanding could ever be complete or even accurate. Shawn interrogates the moments in his life where he believes he may have come closest to experiencing something akin to Mary's state of being, such as a fever-induced out-of-body experience he once endured as a child, or the feeling of being transported that comes with listening to or especially composing music. "Perhaps the closest I can come to understanding her inner life," Shawn writes, "is when I am sick, or exhausted, or anxious, or exhilarated, or have taken a drug that changes what I hear and see and feel. Such moments at least suggest that there are different ways of perceiving and being."

The Shawn family was unusually secretive, founded on a parental relationship at once brimming with kindness and even romance and defined in part by William Shawn's romantic partnership with another woman, which continued concurrent to his marriage and lasted 40 years, ending only with his death. Shawn doesn't take sides with either of his parents, but wonders how their complicated dynamic affected and was affected by Mary's condition. He also comes to terms with their varied methods of accepting Mary's separation, and his own lingering guilt. Shawn's writing conveys such bravery and insight that it can only serve to remind us just how painfully long it can take to begin peeling back the veils enveloping our families and inherited legacies. He relates how in his final years his father once stated: "They made a big mistake making life so short." Ain't that the truth. But would it ever be long enough to settle such questions once and for all? V

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