Deeply personal memoir that also examines the mystery of autism.
Composer and pianist Shawn (Music/Bennington Coll.; Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, 2007, etc.) explores the impact on his life of having a twin sister, Mary, who was sent away the summer they turned nine and who has been institutionalized ever since. While his previous memoir focused on his phobias, this one reexamines his agoraphobia, speculates on his own autistic proclivities and lays bare family secrets. (The author’s father was the famously phobic editor of the New Yorker, William Shawn, and his brother is the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn.) As Shawn examines the literature on autism and reports on his findings, the narrative also serves as a capsule history of the scientific understanding of autism. When Mary was a child, Bruno Bettelheim’s “refrigerator mother” theory of autism was still respected; today, scientists recognize the complexity and range of the autistic spectrum. The most fascinating sections of the book, however, are the personal passages about Shawn’s parents’ lives, his teen years and his discovery of music. “Mary’s absence had been left largely undiscussed and papered over in our family life,” he writes. “Something essential in me had been papered over too, and music was my one means of access to it” In a striking image, the author compares himself and Mary to binary stars, “orbiting individually but subject to each other’s gravitational pull.” Although he frequently describes Mary’s appearance, actions and speech, it is not until the penultimate chapter—in which he details a day-long visit with her at the institution in Delaware where she has spent her adult years—that Mary comes to life for the reader. However, understanding how her mind works, what she perceives about her world and what she is feeling are tasks that even her twin brother cannot accomplish.
In sometimes moving prose, Shawn reveals the psychological damage of having and losing a twin.