A heartbreaking yet deeply hopeful memoir about life as a twin in the face of autism
When Allen Shawn and his twin sister, Mary, were two years old, Mary began exhibiting signs of what would be diagnosed years later as autism. Understanding Mary and making her life a happy one appeared to be impossible for the Shawns. With almost no warning, her parents sent Mary to a residential treatment center when she was eight years old. She never lived at home again.
Fifty years later, as he probed the sources of his anxieties in Wish I Could Be There, Allen realized that his fate was inextricably linked to his sister’s and that their natures were far from being different.
Twin highlights the difficulties American families coping with autism faced in the 1950s. Allen also examines the secrets and family dramas as his father, William, became editor of the New Yorker. Twin reconstructs a parallel narrative for the two siblings, who experienced such divergent fates yet shared talents and proclivities. Wrenching, honest, understated, and poetic, Twin is at heart about the mystery of being inextricably bonded to someone who can never be truly understood.
ALLEN SHAWN grew up in New York. He currently lives in Vermont and teaches at Bennington College. As a composer, he has produced a large catalog of orchestral, chamber, and piano works, as well as scores for ballet, theater, and film. He performs frequently as a pianist, and he has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications.
The composer Alan Shawn’s nuclear family consisted of his father, William Shawn, the famous New Yorker editor; his mother, a former journalist herself; his older brother Alan, an actor and playwright; and his twin sister Mary. He and Mary were close as young children despite her ‘otherness’ the behavioral and developmental traits later identified as autistic. But the twin’s closeness was physically ruptured when they were eight and Mary was sent to an institution, never to live at home again.
In Twin: A Memoir, Shawn explores his identity as Mary’s twin and, as much as he can, Mary’s own reality. In narrator William Hughes, the author comes across as a youthful student eagerly sharing his learning, citing experts and an archive of Mary’s medical documents on the neurological and psychological aspects of autism. But this knowledge never shakes Shawn’s inborn sense of Mary as an integral person and with her own interests like music, Shawn’s own passion. He begins to see how his own psychic challenges, the insecurities and phobias that affect everything from his career, marriages, and relationships with his children to driving and riding in an elevator (his subject in Wish I Could Be There, Notes from a Phobic Life, 2007) have been shaped by his separation from Mary as well as by the secrets and secrecy he locates at the heart of his family.
Mary was the obvious secret. Though the family always visited her on the siblings’ birthday, she was rarely mentioned at home, even less outside of it. But perhaps even more striking was the secret of the second family his father maintained for decades until his death, which was not only known but accommodated by his mother. Accidentally revealed to an already adult Shawn, he examines how it mirrored the decision to send Mary away and shared with it the conflicting emotions of guilt and justifications Shawn would unknowingly internalize.
Hughes gently renders Shawn’s empathy and sympathy for his clan without histrionics, bringing listeners along on the author’s life-long journey back to Mary. In joining him, we are able to experience meaning in his loss and in his love for her, perhaps best expressed when he notes that he is “more relaxed in her company even now than with anyone else”. Elly Schull Meeks
Praise for Wish I Could Be There: “Remarkable. A brave, eccentric, and utterly compelling book that’s as revelatory and candid as anything ever written by Joan Didion.” (New York Times)
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Should have been longer
- Pamela Harvey
Interesting but wish it were more about autism
There were things I liked and disliked about Twin. I got off to a rough start with Twin. Part of that results from misguided expectations of the book on my part. I had never heard of Allen Shawn and only chose this book as it was a memoir about someone and their institutionalized autistic twin. As an autism mom, it was the twin herself who interested me and I was expecting a portrait of that person's life which intrigued me since I knew she was in her 60's so autism was handled much differently back then. The very word institution brings certain types of things to mind, none of which you will find in this book. The book is basically upbeat and positive about both autism and institutionalization I had trouble getting into that and the narrator's happy go lucky style. We don't actually learn a whole lot about Mary Shawn, and to be fair, Allen doesn't claim in the book to know a whole lot about her either. And it is good that her early institutionalization was apparently a pleasant home on the beach in Cape Cod. But the book was more about Allen Shawn. There are long passages where he talks about music (since he is a composer). I however am not interested in music so those parts were a struggle for me. His stories about the rest of his family - like his famous father and the tensions in his parents marriage, did turn out to be interesting but again not really what I meant to read. Also since I read a lot of books wherein autism plays some role, I have to say I was taken aback to find one in which the author speaks out positively about Bruno Bettleheim, (the "Refrigerator Mother" guy). So I am not saying it was a bad book, just perhaps not the one for me.
- Karen K