In Allen Shawn’s earliest memories he and his twin sister Mary kneel in adjoining cribs in their bedroom. They rock back and forth, gently and repeatedly banging their heads against the crib headboards in a nightly ritual. Shawn writes, “All childhoods are normal to a child.” His included an autistic twin sister and a father who had a secret second family. In 1956 the Shawn parents placed eight-year-old Mary in an institution. She never lived at home again and the Shawn family never talked about their loss.
Allen Shawn’s first memoir, titled Wish I Could be There, chronicled his struggles with agoraphobia, the fear of small spaces and the fear of wide-open spaces. He couldn’t ride a bus or a train, fly in an airplane or even walk across an open field. Trips outside of Vermont were difficult and a driving trip to Delaware, where Mary lived, was out of the question. In trying to understand the cause of his many phobias, Shawn realized that the loss of Mary, his “almost forgotten twin”, had left a huge emptiness in his life.
In this new memoir, titled Twin, Shawn researches the spectrum of behaviors we now call autism, trying to understand how his sister Mary perceives the world. He writes, “there is no sharp drop-off point between what we deem normal in people and what we do not.” As a ten-year-old he developed a passion for composing music, immersing himself in the process, focusing in a way that a “normal” child might not. Shawn writes, “Mary’s absence had been largely undiscussed and papered over in our family life. Something essential in me had been papered over too, and music was my one means of access to it.”
Shawn writes in an elegant yet comfortable style and his honesty about his own fears and triumphs makes the book easy to read. He and his older brother grew up in a privileged environment in New York City. Their father was the editor of the New Yorker magazine for over thirty years and a man hemmed in by phobias and secrets. Shawn’s mother had her own anxieties and had to share her husband with another woman, a fact she carefully kept hidden from her own children.
In the last chapter of Twin, Shawn drives to Delaware to see his sister Mary. He’s learned to navigate the route though, as he writes, “in all road trips, my soul flounders when I pass through bare countryside, open fields, or uninterrupted woods.” At the institution he spends the day with Mary while she moves through her routine of work and meals. Mary doesn’t speak much but he thinks she is happy to see him. Shawn writes, “Being unable to articulate feelings is hardly evidence that we lack them.”
Allen Shawn studies, composes and teaches music at Bennington College. He never expected to be a writer, yet his thoughtful paragraphs create the best kind of memoir, a universal story that expands beyond a single life.