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.

A large part of the process of discovery for Shawn is learning about autism, particularly autism as it was known in the middle of the last century, when Mary was diagnosed and his parents were grappling with what that diagnosis might mean. The literature is confusing. Much of what he reads, which focuses on the autistic’s inability or unwillingness to engage with others, seems not to correspond to what he remembers of his sister. Despite her inconsolable rages, friendlessness, and strange ways of talking, Mary often looked people in the eye, recalled their names, delighted in music and movies, and happily rode her tricycle through the park with her twin. Could the doctors have been wrong? “Is she truly ‘autistic,’ I ask? (Inwardly I bridle at putting Mary in a category. To me, she is simply herself.)”

Shawn mentions a persistent feeling, apparently shared by others with autistic family members, that there is a wise, observant, articulate person behind the mask of pathology, if only that mask could be removed. But then he comes across some of the initial case studies of autistic children, written in 1943 by Leo Kanner, one of the earliest autism researchers,4 and sees Mary in those pages in an indisputable way:

Naturally, Mary does not resemble each person described here in every detail…. But there is a pattern, and it has something to do with social isolation, with an inability to communicate with and understand others. Mary’s behavior, which was so highly unusual in the context of 1150 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, here finds a general context in which she is part of a kind of norm.

Is this comforting? Maybe. Whatever “survivor’s guilt” Shawn feels and has felt his entire life for being spared Mary’s fate always had been compounded by the greater worry that he may have inadvertently caused her “brain damage” through some sort of birth trauma. Finding that his twin’s autism has an organic basis relieves him of this, though nothing can erase the ruminative loop of “what ifs”: What if Mary’s education hadn’t ended when she was placed at Briarcliff, what if her own musical talents had had more nurturing, what if some of the interventions available today had been available then, what if she had been born into a more robust family?

That, of course, was precisely what could not have happened. Shawn makes it clear, as do some of the psychologists’ reports from the time, that both of his parents were extremely nervous, high-strung people who, however well-meaning and loving, were ill-equipped to handle a difficult child. “Father is a rather short, very anxious man, who is editor of the New Yorker Magazine,” begins a psychological evaluation written when Mary was first admitted to Briarcliff. “Mother is also a very anxious woman. Both parents seemed quite reluctant to convey any information about the nature of their anxiety or its cause…. I have the sense of some sort of mutually protective alliance underway. I could not discern the basis for this, or be sure who was protecting whom.”

If only he knew. When the truth of William Shawn’s enduring relationship with Ross was inadvertently revealed to his sons, they were in their thirties and had experienced a lifetime of parental dissembling. (Once their father told their mother about the affair in 1954, she made him promise never to let on to the children.) Of the affair itself, Allen Shawn is circumspect and considerably more generous than Ross was in her own memoir: maybe, he suggests, by partially turning away from the family not long after Mary was born, his father was “keeping a window open in his spirit.”

Allen Shawn observes that when his sister plays the piano, she looks exactly like his father editing a manuscript. He points out that he himself exhibited certain autistic traits as a youngster, including, he says, his obsessive devotion to musical composition. He notes that no one, observing his family, would consider it normal:

Mary’s indecipherable rituals could also be seen as parallel to those of my parents and brother, in all three of whom strange private agendas often determined outwardly sensible routines. There is no sharp drop-off point between what we deem normal in people and what we do not; the differences can be put on a sloping grade, even if at certain points the slope becomes steep.

Just as autism is now seen on a continuum, from higher functioning to lower functioning, normalcy is also arrayed on a spectrum. If nothing else, portraying Mary’s idiosyncracies as “more” to her family’s “less,” and theirs as “less” to her “more,” is a way for her twin to put her back, securely, into the family fold.

Remarkably, she gets there on her own, too. Near the end of their mother’s life, when she was ninety-nine years old, mute, wheelchair-bound, and spending most of her days asleep, Shawn risked having Mary come to the family apartment, something that had been avoided since 1957 when doctors told the Shawns that it would be too confusing and traumatic for her ever to return home. The occasion was her (and Allen’s) annual birthday lunch, a meal whose menu had always been the same because Mary, like many autistics, thrived on routine and was upset by deviations from the typical order of things. While Allen made sure that all the usual items were there, the young couple who had been staying in the apartment with Mrs. Shawn added all kinds of delicacies to the table, and rather than upsetting Mary, they delighted her. She tucked in, unrattled, pausing to exclaim more than once that she was having “a wonderful party.” “And all this occurred in the presence of a miracle,” Shawn writes.

From the moment our mother was brought into the room and saw Mary to the moment Mary left two hours later, our mother’s eyes remained open in unmistakable amazement, wonder, and joy, as she looked from one of us to the other in astonishment and gratitude, galvanized, awakened, transfixed, radiantly fulfilled by the sight of her daughter. The occasion roused her and brought her back from a kind of sleep that had lasted for years.

Autism, which derives from the Greek (autos), means “selfism.” It was meant to describe a person lost inside of him- or herself. Until Allen Shawn deviated from his own routine “mistrust of words” and wrote a book about his phobias, this could have described his situation as well. That book, in which his absent twin became, much to his surprise, a central character, begot this one, which is so open and honest that it is everything “selfism” is not. It is safe to say that Mary Shawn has woken up her brother, too.

This Issue

April 28, 2011