She Woke Them Up

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Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey

Now that the memoir has become, in large measure, the literary equiva- lent of reality TV with publishers trotting out an endless parade of writers eager to reveal their abusive, alcohol-soaked, neglected, mutilated, starved, duped, prostituted, dental-surgery-without-anesthesia (oops—that was “fiction”) lives, it is bracing—almost shocking—to read Allen Shawn’s scrupulous Twin. Certainly as the youngest son of the storied New Yorker editor William Shawn and the younger brother of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, he would have had plenty of material with which to work had he chosen to follow that drumbeat. (For example, his father’s forty-year affair with the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross, which was tantamount to a second, parallel, marriage.) Instead Shawn, who makes his living as a composer and professor of music at Bennington College, has written a kind of toccata and fugue that raises questions of identity and personal history—raises them, and seeks answers, and raises them again, all the while demonstrating, by the sincerity of his quest and the depth of his self-interrogation, what a memoir can be.

A central fact of Allen Shawn’s life is that he is a twin, born five minutes after his sister Mary in August 1948. When the Shawn twins were six, Mary was diagnosed as being mentally retarded, autistic, and an infantile schizophrenic,1 and two years later she was sent to a therapeutic boarding school hundreds of miles from the family’s Manhattan apartment. She would not again see home for nearly half a century, while the family itself would reassemble as a five-person unit only once or twice a year, and then for just a few hours. In less than ten years, the youngest Shawn went from sharing a womb, a crib, a room with his sister to having her nearly erased from his life.

After she left, the fact that I was her twin became close to unmentionable,” Shawn writes. Her room filled up with the detritus of other people’s lives, and before long, with his brother also away at school—first at Putney, then at Harvard, where he would eventually follow—Shawn became a de facto only child, well-behaved, sociable, intentionally “easy” so far as others were concerned. It was only when he was in his fifties and working on his first book, Wish I Could Be There,2 about the agoraphobia and other psychological encumbrances commandeering his life, that Shawn connected them to Mary—not only to her own idiosyncratic behaviors, but to her departure from his life because of them. “That it was so hard for me to openly disclose my own problems was partially due to my fear of the mental illness that Mary had exhibited,” Shawn writes, “and which had led, or so it had seemed to me as a child, to her being ‘ostracized’ from the family.” Yet it was while working his way out of his mental prison of dread and panic on …

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  1. 1

    In the mid-1950s, when this diagnosis was made, autism was considered a precursor to schizophrenia. The zoologist, professor, and writer Temple Grandin, who is possibly the world’s best-known autistic, was given the same “infantile schizophrenic” diagnosis around the same time. 

  2. 2

    Viking, 2007; see the review in these pages by Janet Malcolm, February 15, 2007.