Losing an Identical Twin: A Q&A with Christa Parravani, Author of “Her”

Her Q&A with Christa Swofford

Studies of twins over the last decade have found that when one dies, the odds of the other following suit within a couple of years are shockingly high. Following the death of her identical twin sister Cara, Christa Parravani came perilously close to becoming that statistic.

Raised in abusive unstable homes scattered around the country, the twins came to rely on one another on a subconscious level that defies normal description. They were closer than best friends, thicker than actual thieves, and had a deeper connection than typical sisters. One that, in many ways, found them sharing a single identity. The relationship was shattered when Cara was brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead at the age of 24. The vicious assault robbed Cara of her humanity, effectively ending her life, which became fait accompli when she died of an accidental heroin overdose at 28.

Following Cara's death, Christa followed her sister's self-destructive footsteps of booze, drugs, depression, infidelity, a broken marriage, and a failed suicide. She felt she had to become her twin to cope with the loss, and the specter of Cara's death nearly killed Christa as well. It wasn't until she sat down and began writing "Her," a haunting elegy to her beloved sister, that she was able to escape the pain. "Her" is a loving, soulful, heartbreaking work, with an amazing cover photo that will have readers interrupting the prose to gaze upon the twins' beauty.

These days Christa, 35, is happy and healthy in Brooklyn with her husband, "Jarhead" author Tony Swofford, and their seventeen-month-old daughter Josephine. She talked to Signature about the long struggle to deal with the loss of her twin sister, and how "Her" helped to make her whole once again.

How does being a writer compare to working as a photographer?

When I decided to start writing seriously, I was surprised to find that the processes of writing and taking pictures aren’t that different. I always approach taking a photograph knowing what I wanted to say beforehand. I’d think about the picture long before I would take it, I’d have a dream of the image I wanted to create. I’d drive by the same places over-and-over letting myself absorb them so that I could articulate it photographically. Writing “Her” was much the same. I didn’t go blindly to the page, I knew what I wanted to write when I sat down. In the shower that day, I’d think about what I need to say, what I wanted to convey emotionally in each chapter.

So then when you sat to write, did the words just come flowing out?

I couldn’t stop writing the book. I found it so addictive. Writing became a real comfort to me. Words poured out of me, but it wasn’t an easy process. They weren’t all great and there was a lot of editing and rewriting, but most of the time time I felt like I was getting somewhere. It was a little under three years from starting to the galley, which was time I got to spend time with my sister. I never wanted to leave my desk.

“Her” is technically chronological, but in the heart of the book, you don’t timestamp things. It has an ethereal quality, was that by design?

That was totally intentional. I wanted to create a space for the reader to understand that for me, from Cara's rape to when I was suicidal, time was collapsing in on itself. I felt like I was my sister, like I wasn’t in my own life. I wanted the book to reflect that state of mind.

The rape scene in “Her” is horrific, how were you able to bring it to the page?

I sat down and tried to write the story of my sister’s rape over and over again. It was very upsetting and a completely unmanageable way to spend my time. I’ve never been in that situation, so it felt like terrain that was akin to writing fiction. I wasn’t comfortable with it, but I felt the book had to have the rape in it. I spent six weeks trying to write about the attack, then decided to take a break and spend time at my mother’s house. I was sitting on the floor in Cara’s room and I saw a Tupperware container filled with notebooks underneath her bed. I’d never seen them before, so I pulled one out and there it was, my sister’s account of what happened during her rape. It was stunning to find. While I was writing “Her,” I felt she was guiding me. The passage is straight out of her notebook.

You guys had a rough childhood as well, do you think Cara had serious emotional problems prior to her attack?

I think my sister was a victim of our childhood and she acted out in ways common to people raised in unstable homes like we were. But when she wandered into the woods while walking her dog and was raped, everything changed. All of the prior issues no longer mattered. The only thing she could think about and try to deal with was the fact that she’d been brutalized. It was really confusing for all of us. We’d both had troubles before, and screwed up before, but after the attack, she would say to me over-and-over again “I’m a totally different person now and those other things mean nothing to me.”

After Cara’s rape, you say that right away, you knew she was lost for good. How, was it something you felt, or was she completely different?

She made that statement repeatedly. She wanted us to know that’s how she felt about herself. At a certain point, her behavior began to match her suicidal words. She was destroyed by the rape, so she made it possible to be somebody else. Cara was floating around trying to figure out a way to survive what is unsurvivable. It was my worst fear that she wouldn’t survive it, but once her actions became so dangerous and reckless, it became clear that death could become reality. Before she was raped, my sister had never tried heroin. Within six months, she was shooting enough into her veins to overdose at any time.

Do you think the awful details of her attack kept you, or others close to Cara, from confronting her self-destructive behavior in any way?

I don’t think we ever tolerated it, honestly. We made sure she went to rehab and were always disapproving of the drugs. Nobody looked the other way. At a certain point, there was no stopping her, and a decision had to be made as to whether we were going to be in her life as she went down this path. Unfortunately, for me, the moment I decided that I wouldn’t tolerate it anymore was when my sister needed my help the most. That’s when she overdosed and died.

It seems clear that Cara’s overdose was accidental, but then late in the book, you tell a psychic it’s “unclear.” Is there a question in your mind?

It was an accident. What I meant is that I knew she was so depressed, part of her didn’t want to live. Her behavior was suicidal behavior, but she didn’t really want to die either.