Former Valley resident Christa Parravani pens memoir about her complicated ties with late identical twin sister Cara

Last modified: Wednesday, April 03, 2013

For much of her life, Christa Parravani shared all manner of things with her identical twin sister, Cara Parravani: clothes, a love of the arts, college dorm rooms and a special kind of intimacy born of having survived a difficult childhood together.

So close was their connection that when Cara died in 2006 from an accidental overdose of heroin, after a downward spiral over several years, the author began following in her sister’s footsteps — fighting crippling depression, abusing drugs and contemplating suicide.

Eventually, though, Christa Parravani, a former Northampton resident and area college teacher, forged a new connection to her late twin by writing their shared story. The memoir “Her” — the name that Cara used for her sister — is about not just the bond the twins had but the means Parravani found to shake off the disabling part of that relationship and find her own identity.

“Her,” published by Henry Holt and Company, has received strong initial reviews, and Parravani has been interviewed by National Public Radio and other media. She’ll be back in the Valley on April 3, when she does a reading of her memoir — her first book — at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.

Parravani, a photographer as well as a writer, lived in Northampton from 2003 to 2008 and taught photography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Greenfield Community College, Westfield State University and Keene State University in Keene, N.H. She and her first husband had come to the area so that she could help Cara, who was struggling with personal demons following a horrific rape and beating in Holyoke two years earlier.

“She had been completely traumatized,” Parravani, 35, said in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I felt like the rapist was trying to destroy me, too. But at the same time, Cara felt I couldn’t really understand what had happened to her, and she was angry about that — and I felt so helpless to do anything for her.”

The story begins earlier, as Parravani offers snapshots of their life together growing up, initially in Albany, N.Y. Their father was a violent man who beat their mother; she left him when the twins were 3, then married a U.S. Marine, and the family went to live on a Marine Corps base in North Carolina for several years. But that marriage failed, too, and the sisters moved back to Albany with their mother in 1990, when they were 13.

During that time, and continuing through high school, the twins relied on each another more and more for emotional support and companionship as their single mother struggled to feed the family.

“We did have some of our own friends, and our unspoken rule was not to mingle with the other’s group,” Parravani said. “But the real friendship, the most important one, was between us.”

The sisters attended Bard College in Red Hook, N.Y., on academic scholarships, rooming together their first semester and both initially majoring in creative writing. Parravani later switched to photography because “Cara was the better writer, and I didn’t want to compete with her.” Even when they no longer roomed together, they remained close, Parravani said: “We’d talk on the phone three times a day.”

After graduating from Bard in 1999, the twins lived completely apart, as Cara stayed in Red Hook and Parravani moved to New York City, where she entered a graduate program in visual arts at Columbia University. But their emotional and psychological ties were still there. Cara married her college sweetheart in 2000, and just over a year later, Parravani married, too.

At her wedding, Parravani writes, Cara cornered her new husband, Jedediah, and told him “he’d better understand that marrying me meant marrying her, too. He was also to know that I would never love him as much as I loved her. These were the rules for marrying a twin, and she thought he should know.”

Going downhill

The sisters’ bond began to unravel in fall 2001, after Cara enrolled in a graduate program in creative writing at UMass and she and her husband moved to Holyoke. On Oct. 18, Cara was walking her dog in a wooded area in Holyoke when she was beaten and repeatedly raped; her assailant, Edgardo Hernandez, would later be sentenced to 139 years in state prison for the brutal assault.

In the months that followed, even as she slowly recovered physically from the attack, Cara went downhill psychologically, and she began abusing drugs such as her pain medication and then heroin, sometimes not leaving her apartment for days and days at a time. Before moving to Northampton, Parravani repeatedly drove up from New York to try to help her sister; she took a series of photos of them together in various Valley locales to try and convince Cara she was still beautiful.

Cara and her husband moved to Northampton as well, but their marriage dissolved in 2003, and Parravani’s marriage also became strained because of her sister’s woes; she gravitated between guilt and self-recrimination at her inability to help Cara and anger at her sister’s descent into drugs and co-dependency.

“Nobody wants to be alone in misery,” Parravani writes. “Cara experienced no shame in admitting that need. Not only did she not want to suffer alone, she demanded co-suffering from all who dared love her.”

Cara eventually finished her UMass degree, but despite efforts to get clean, and despite some good moments she still had with Christa, she relapsed into drug use. Back at her mother’s house in Albany in June 2006, she died of an accidental heroin overdose, a month shy of her 29th birthday.

Out of control

Though she had long feared her sister might commit suicide or self-destruct in some other way, Parravani said she was still “completely unprepared for what I would feel when she did die. I had the premonition I would die, too, that I was slated to because I was her twin. ... I would look in the mirror and see my sister’s face staring back at me.”

Over the next two years, Parravani’s life began to spiral out of control. She had some brief affairs, and her marriage broke up in 2007. She began abusing drugs; she cut herself and attempted suicide; she dropped to 85 pounds, becoming so emaciated that she didn’t recognize herself in a picture one of her students had taken of her.

Writing her memoir, she says, is what ultimately saved her. She entered the UMass graduate creative writing program herself in 2008, thinking she wanted to study poetry, but then switched to an MFA program at Rutgers-Newark in New Jersey in 2009; that program is headed by novelist Jayne Anne Phillips, whom Parravani had met a few years earlier at an artists’ retreat in New Hampshire.

“She’s my literary mom,” Parravani said of Phillips. “She’s been a real mentor.”

Parravani also drew on some of her sister’s writings — those passages are included in the book — as she stitched their entwined stories and her own recollections into a narrative. And writing that history, she said, “gave my sister back to me. It was my way of being in touch with her, of talking to her again.”

Aside from writing “Her,” Parravani has rebuilt her life in other ways. She’s remarried, this time to Anthony Swofford, author of “Jarhead,” an acclaimed 2003 memoir about his experience as a young Marine sniper in the 1990 Gulf War. The couple has an 18-month-old daughter, Josephine; Swofford also has a new memoir out, “Hotels, Hospitals and Jails,” in part about his relationship with his father.

Writing her book also enabled her — for the first time in her life — to feel she was completely independent of her sister, Parravani said.

“I miss her every day. I would never choose not to have her with me. But this gave me a way to have a separate life.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

Christa Parravani will read from and sign copies of “Her” Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. The cost is $5 or purchase of the book.


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