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Double Exposure

March 3, 2011 By:
Rachel Vigoda, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Allen Shawn

Allen Shawn just came out with Twin: A Memoir, his second deeply personal book about his life and family. But neither manuscript was supposed to be a memoir.

The first, Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life, chronicled Shawn's struggle with agoraphobia, among other fears.

"I don't like heights," he wrote. "I don't like being on the water. I am upset by walking across parking lots or open parks or fields where there are no buildings ... but do equally badly when I am closed in, as I am severely claustrophobic."

And that's just a snippet.

Shawn -- composer and professor, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, and brother of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn -- says the first book was conceived as a study of phobias.

"I had no idea while I was writing the first book that I would write another that's so personal. But later, I kept feeling there was more to say about Mary."

Mary, Shawn's twin sister, is at the core of Twin. The siblings, now in their 60s, were 8 when Mary was sent to a residential institution for what was later diagnosed as autism. She never lived at home again.

Like his first book, Twin weaves together scientific study -- of autism, including the evolution of its diagnosis -- and first-person account. Shawn reconstructs his sister's life, holding his childhood memories up against years of psychologists' clinical analyses, and attempts to view the world though Mary's eyes, knowing he can't.

Along the way, he uncovers parallels in his and Mary's personalities, and examines how they relate to his own evolution as a musician.

Shawn's guilt at being "spared" and sense of loss at his twin's absence reverberate throughout the book, even as passages reveal his fear that "it was only a matter of time before the magic glue that held my own brain together would lose its adhesive properties, and I would join the lines of shuffling institutional dependents at Briarcliff," where Mary lives.

The book opens with a young Shawn in bed with a violent flu over winter vacation. Attempts to stand evoke a feeling of being "on an ocean-liner in bad weather."

With a fogged head, he contemplates a glass of orange juice next to the bed: "The idea of 'juice' would occupy a kind of billboard in front of my forehead, which I contemplated for an immeasurably long time ... If my parents came to the door of my room to check in on me, the timbres of their voices would linger in the room for hours afterward, and their spoken consonants and vowels would continue murmuring in the moldings and corners of the ceiling ... the normal order of my perceptions was disrupted."

The goal of the scene, says present-day Shawn, is to offer a new perspective on perspective: to demonstrate that concepts of "abnormal" and "normal" aren't set in stone, and that it is as difficult to describe abnormal -- or autistic or retarded or schizoid, as Mary was alternately diagnosed -- as it is to quantify what makes someone normal.

"The mind is not a solid piece of machinery that functions or doesn't function. All of us have moments where we perceive the world in as strange a way as Mary perceives it," explains the author.

Growing up in a famous -- and famously secretive -- family like the Shawns could give anyone an unusual sense of normal. As he noted in his first book: "There was never any denial of being Jewish, but there were no relaxed assertions of it, either."

Shawn's father, who also suffered from debilitating phobias, had a 40-year affair with a coworker at The New Yorker, a union that included an adopted child.

His mother knew of, but never mentioned, her husband's second family; Shawn and his brother learned of it as adults.

But in Twin, Shawn is careful not to put his family at the forefront, rarely referring to anyone by name and calling The New Yorker "the magazine."

As for whether the process of reflecting on his parents and siblings and his relationships with them while writing Twin lent him a sense of "closure," Shawn says the opposite is closer to the truth: "If there's a noun to describe an opening, rather than a closing, I'd use that -- maybe 'opensure'?" he laughs.

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