The Indecipherable Sister: Allen Shawn’s Memoir of His Austistic Twin

While the only child has parents, and friends, and may someday have a spouse and children, one kind of human relationship will always be foreign to her. Lacking siblings, the only child is well acquainted with solitude, and less likely to equate being alone with being lonely, or at least accepts a certain degree of lonesomeness as the natural way of things. More than most people, only children feel their selves to be the result of time spent by themselves. Twins, on the other hand, would seem to be the people who most define themselves in terms of others. A twin’s “I” is shaped by her experience of being part of a “we,” by her immediate and lifelong connection to someone she knows to be like herself. What happens, then, when a twin has difficulty forming attachments and communicating with people, when she suffers from what some call “mind blindness,” or the inability to comprehend the existence of consciousnesses other than her own—when, in other words, she has autism?

This is the question the composer Allen Shawn answers in Twin, his lucid and intelligent portrait of his twin sister, Mary, who at age 2 began to exhibit signs of autism. He begins by trying to reconcile psychologists’ and caretakers’ descriptions of Mary with his memories of their Manhattan youth, counterbalancing clinical profiles and scientific accounts of autism with personal anecdote. While Mr. Shawn succeeded at Dalton, his sister struggled with language, enjoying odd, repetitive rituals and resisting physical contact. Sometimes she flew into fits of rage. But the twins had happy moments, too: playing in Central Park; dancing while their father, William Shawn, editor in chief of The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987,played the piano; opening presents with their older brother, the writer and actor Wallace Shawn.

In the 1950s, when Mary was first evaluated, autism was thought by some to be the result of parental rejection, and Mr. Shawn ponders the guilt this may have caused his parents. He also acknowledges that while the domestic atmosphere, tense with charged silences, did not induce Mary’s disorder, it may have influenced its course. William Shawn’s decades-long involvement with New Yorker staff writer Lillian Ross—known to the children’s mother, but of which Allen Shawn learned only as an adult—began around the time Mary’s symptoms emerged. His parents wished only the best for his sister, but, Mr. Shawn concludes, his mother may also have hoped that if her daughter left, her husband would return—that if his home were less chaotic, his relationship with Ms. Ross would lose its appeal. This was not to be. When she was 8, Mary was sent-suddenly, as Mr. Shawn experienced it-to Sandpiper, a school in Massachusetts. Her father continued to see Ms. Ross. “It turned out,” he later said, “that I needed two wives.”

At Sandpiper, at least, Mary seemed to thrive under the supervision of Miss Anderson, the school’s “intrepid” founder, whose “heroic patience” Mr. Shawn warmly praises, and whom he credits with Mary’s academic and musical development. Mary always liked to sing, and at Sandpiper she learned to read music and gave piano recitals at the school. When Sandpiper closed, she was moved to a larger facility called Briarcliff. While Mr. Shawn went to college and traveled and married and made a successful career for himself, Mary stayed at the institution. She remains there today.

The word “twin,” of course, could refer to Mr. Shawn as well as Mary, and Twin is as much Mr. Shawn’s self-portrait as it is his sketch of his sister. In his first memoir, Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life, he set his struggles with agoraphobia in the context of his family life. In Twin, he pursues his investigation into the origins of his behavior. Autism is now believed to have a strong genetic basis and to manifest itself along a spectrum. On the same slope as “Mary’s indecipherable rituals” one might also locate her brother’s approach to music, and his phobias, as well as his father’s, and indeed the “private agendas” of everyone in his family. But for Mr. Shawn, his physical separation from Mary and the silence that surrounded it exert as powerful a force as their physical connection. Mary was a subject the family avoided discussing candidly. To the Shawns, sadness was like a vampire: It had to be invited in. If you refused to acknowledge its presence, to speak the self-destructive words aloud, it could not enter your home.

Eventually, the adult Mr. Shawn found he could “excavate his inner world”—lay bare the emotions he and his family bricked over—by composing music. And, it seems, by writing: Twin can feel repetitious, and those who have read his first memoir will find Twin‘s subject matter and structure especially and even irritatingly familiar. But Mr. Shawn is a gifted interpreter, and patient readers will be rewarded with astonishing feats of analysis. Certain passages are exhilarating in the way of the final pages of a detective story, their conclusions at once astonishing and inevitable. He attributes, for instance, the anxiety he feels on road trips, which is most keen when he passes seemingly abandoned buildings, to his feeling that although Mary is alive she is “absent from the human conversation.”

He elaborates: “In the presence of houses that may or may not contain human beings–life that is animate but mute and incomprehensible–I feel the presence of my fears about what lies behind Mary’s penetrating gaze, about who she is, as if she herself embodies the age-old questions about what part of us is matter, what part soul; the terror that we are only matter and are only imagining that we have souls.” In general, he attributes his phobias about movement and separation to the suddenness of Mary’s disappearance from his life, to his failure to confront that loss. And, beneath it all, to the original distance between them: each twin’s organic inability to fully apprehend the reality of the other.

Mr. Shawn is often surprised to remember he is a twin. “My forgetting,” he writes, “is perhaps an expression of the severity of the loss I experienced when Mary left home.” There is also the issue of what Mary lost, then and later. As humane and comfortable a place as Briarcliff may be, it merely encourages Mary to be useful and socially adept-and not, as Miss Anderson did, to develop her intellectual abilities, which afforded her some unquantifiable private satisfaction. “What if,” Mr. Shawn wonders, “she had somehow been able to stay forever at Sandpiper?” Had continued to take piano lessons, to read, to draw? Would she have developed more, or differently?

It is the universal puzzle. Who would I be if I had gone to that school, moved to that city? Had we only chosen differently, we suspect, we would have turned out smarter or richer or kinder. All that prevents us from being our best selves is one poor decision, the irretrievable instant when we stood on the precipice between success and failure, or more happiness and less, and took a single, careless step. Our questions, like Mr. Shawn’s, are lamentations in disguise. When we wonder “what if?” we mean “if only!”


The Indecipherable Sister: Allen Shawn’s Memoir of His Austistic Twin