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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 the page that it occurred to him that

my singular experience was really a contrapuntal one, and that only when I confronted the sense of loss and the duality at the heart of my life would I begin to achieve some semblance of wholeness.

Twin is that confrontation—of self to self and of self to other, an “other” who is, paradoxically, at once unreachable and innate in his life.

Shawn writes temperately, without a hint of recrimination. Mary’s condition, he suggests, was his parents’ tragedy, not his, or his brother’s, or even Mary’s. He does not blame them for removing her from their family life (and therefore from him), nor does he question the wisdom of the experts who counseled his parents to do so.3 “Mary was a big child and could be fierce when she was unhappy…. At the age of six or seven, she sometimes smeared the walls with her feces. She bit her arm and tore the skin around her fingernails.” Entrusted more and more to the maid, who “was probably less overwhelmed…and certainly less disturbed by the issues Mary’s condition potentially raised,” Mary was then sent to a special camp for children “like her,” on Cape Cod. When, at the end of that summer, the camp was turned into a school, Mary stayed on for the next ten years. Later, when that school closed, she was moved to a large institutional care facility (as opposed to a school) in Delaware, where she still lives. She and Allen were eighteen and the difference in their trajectories could not have been more extreme: as she entered “Briarcliff,” where residents earned spending money from “sheltered workshop” activities like putting labels on umbrellas, he matriculated at Harvard.

On its face, the decision to send Mary away appeared to be the right one. At the school on the Cape where she lived in a cottage overlooking the ocean with a small group of students and a devoted and loving teaching staff, she learned to read on a third- or fourth-grade level, mastered computation and other math skills, and learned to knit, to write legibly, and to read music, becoming a good-enough pianist to accompany the hymns at church. (Though the Shawn family is Jewish, Mary Shawn’s medical records list her as Protestant.) Indeed, after one of their annual trips to visit Mary, William Shawn observed, “She’s happier than we are,” a sentiment shared by at least one of the professionals who observed them.

Mary’s departure appeared to be good for the rest of the family as well as for her. At the very least, once she was gone, her strange way of speaking, her fixations, and her tantrums no longer had to be explained to outsiders. When it was convenient, too, she could be left out of the family narrative altogether. “It seemed impossible to simultaneously convey both the information that I had a twin sister—which always provoked excitement—along with the news that she was ‘mentally retarded,’ which caused awkward looks of shock and sympathy,” Shawn writes. “Sometimes I lied by omission, cheerfully saying only that I had an older brother.”

How do “neurotypical” children rebel or separate or become their true selves in situations where the stakes are so high? While for his brother it was by publishing the very sort of edgy, combustible, unconventional writing that their father eschewed in the pages of his magazine, for Allen Shawn it was through music, even though music was the one solid, happy, and uncontested point of contact shared by the entire family. Shawn recalls with delight and pleasure how his father would come home from the office, shed his work clothes and work demeanor, and sit down at the piano and play jazz tunes while the children danced nearby. (It is one of the few scenes in the book in which the whole family assembles; more typically they seem to circle around each other, the parents, especially, a spectral presence.)

Not long after Mary left home, Allen Shawn began to pick out melodies on the piano and try to work out chord progressions (he still had not had lessons), and he then started to compose small tunes with dramatic names like “The Dying Accordion Player.” Soon he was playing these pieces for others and winning acclaim and feeling a sense of himself different from anything before. Recalling a fourth-grade assembly where he performed for two hundred students, he writes:

I remember so well this first time experiencing the thrill of being applauded not just politely but with excitement; the sudden rush of feeling special; this breakthrough of unencumbered, wholehearted expression—escape from myself, from my family, from my chronological age, from my anxieties—into the freedom of sounds.

He was on his way. Harmony, dissonance, timbre offered him a language more powerful than words, one in which he could declare his feelings without having to explicitly acknowledge them. And it wasn’t only through writing his own music, which started appearing in his head “the way a steak appears in a thought bubble over the head of a comic-strip dog,” that Shawn was learning to communicate in an authentic way, but by listening to the work of composers like Berg and Bartók, which seemed to cut through pretense, not for its own sake, but for the sake of telling the truth.

Shawn recalls hearing a performance by the Juilliard String Quartet of Bartók’s final string quartet when he was a youngster that

for me represented a kind of stealth attack on the self-restraint demanded by civilized life. It seemed to speak unguardedly of death and anguish, but in a public language and with a sense of decorum that could be tolerated.

This, he was beginning to realize, was what music could do for him.

Even so, while using music to “finally break out of my circumscribed role as the ‘easy’ child,” Shawn’s early success had the unintended consequence of raising his and, more crucially, his parents’ expectations. He was not simply a talented boy, he was a boy who, in his father’s words, played the piano “like Richter” and conducted his own work “like Bernstein.” He began to hear his name and the word “genius” uttered in the same sentence. “For my parents, who had suffered from the curse cast over their daughter…how tempting it must have been to think that, as if in compensation, a lucky spell had been cast on me.”

Similarly, it must be tempting for Shawn himself, looking back, to connect the bits of experience that make up any life into a coherent and felicitous picture. In a household where words were paramount—the stuff of his father’s work, of his brother’s own genius, and of his mother’s former profession (she’d been a journalist and had parlayed an invitation to write for The New Yorker into one for her struggling writer husband, too)—a household where words were used for artifice as well as art, as his parents attempted to create a world that seemed normal and bright in order to “paper over” tensions and fissures, Allen Shawn’s own turn to music, and his rejection of words, he suggests, derive from his early relationship with his sister. It was she who knew music before him—the percussive music of rhythmically hitting her head against the bars of their crib—and, as she came late to language, communicated with him nonverbally, making words extraneous. To the extent that he could know her experience, he says, music was the way in, for it was where he could best feel like he imagined she might feel.

But did Shawn, as a young boy, truly come to music in order to connect with his missing sister? It seems a stretch, except in an unconscious, almost cellular, way. Well into middle age, he says, he “had almost succeeded in forgetting that I was a twin.” For most of his life, Mary was an annual obligation, put out of mind as soon as the visit was over. Still, tapping into his unconscious is, in large part, the point of this exercise, and what makes the book endearing and, in its way, chaste. Rather than trading on salacious details, Shawn’s intimacies are psychic: we get to watch him, a member of a family that “had managed to make a near religion of denial,” trying to construct an autobiography out of less than whole cloth. “For me, composing had never been about deliberately expressing particular emotions, but about discovering them,” he writes, and his book works much the same way.

  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. 

  3. 3

    Coincidentially, William Shawn was, at the time, just beginning to publish the essays of the psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, the champion of the largely discredited theory that autism arises in response to maternal coldness and emotional insufficiency. Shawn does not know if his father consulted Bettelheim, but he recalls wishing as a teenager that his sister could be sent to Bettelheim’s famed—and now also criticized—Orthogenic School and be cured, a fantasy his father later admitted to sharing. 

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