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Parallel Lives: Having A Twin With Mental Illness

Jan 3, 2011 (Fresh Air)

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When composer Allen Shawn was writing Wish I Could Be There, his 2007 memoir on living with phobias, his twin sister, Mary, kept appearing before him in unexpected ways.

"I realized that it was almost unbearable to write the passages about her in [Wish I Could Be There], and it was as if something was knocking at my door that I hadn't quite expected," Shawn tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Shawn says he realized that Mary, who was diagnosed with both mental retardation and autism as a little girl, has been one of the biggest influences on his life. He tells Gross that her institutionalization at the age of 8 left him feeling alone — and confused.

"I don't think I've ever felt like an individual the way a nontwin does," he says. "I literally feel like a bookend, as if there were a set of books next to me and at the other end of those books, there was another bookend. I have a sense of being part of a pair of things. Even in relation to Wally, my brother, I feel like he's an individual and that I'm a part of something."

Shawn's memoir about Mary is called Twin. The book also explores Shawn's relationship with other members of his family, including his late father, William Shawn. William, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987, carried on an affair with a New Yorker colleague, Lillian Ross, from 1950 until his death in 1992.

Shawn found out about the affair by accident when he was 30 years old. But seemingly everyone else around him — including his mother — knew about the relationship and didn't say anything to him or his older brother, Wally.

"What really disturbed me was that everybody else knew about this," he says. "It seemed like we grew up in a strange bubble of not knowing this very simple and basic fact about [our father's] life."

Shawn says his mother accepted the affair because she accepted his father.

"She deeply loved him, and their relationship was still alive," he says. "It certainly wasn't a matter of convenience that they stayed together. For his part, I think this duality was something in him. He was incapable of making a choice, and perhaps it was also necessary for their marriage. As I say, there's a lot you don't know about any marriage, because it was even more alive than it would have been otherwise. When I think back to the atmosphere at home, yes, there were mysteries — but there was also love and romance in the air."

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