Tuesday, January 4th, 2011
“It takes an enormous amount of effort to try to fashion a clean and legible narrative out of the sheer chaos that is personal experience.”
Allen Shawn feels more acutely than most that writing a memoir takes certain tact. As the son of former editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, and the younger brother of actor Wallace Shawn, Allen Shawn was all too aware that a memoir about his family could be received as the stuff of gossip. So it was with great care and reserve that Shawn approached the subject of his twin sister, Mary.
Twin, Shawn’s latest memoir, is the story of the loss of Mary who, from the age of eight onwards, disappeared from Shawn’s daily life when she was suddenly sent away to a residential treatment center. It is with knowledge that he will never truly grasp Mary’s view of the world or even communicate directly with her about his feelings of loss that Shawn studies his sister from different angles in an attempt to understand, remember, and thereby reclaim his once strong and instinctive bond with his twin. Part study of autism and the bond between twins, part family history and an attempt to piece together the trajectory of Mary’s life, Shawn’s personal meditations on the theme of loss will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has suddenly lost someone dear to them.
Shawn spoke to SMITH from his home in Bennington, Vermont about the tricky art of writing about his famously private family, the process of piecing together memories of his twin sister, and his refusal to use the word “inconceivable.”
In your first memoir, Wish I Could Be There, you touch upon your relationship with Mary as your explore the subject of phobias. Was that the launching-off point for your memoir, Twin?
I once had a dream that I would write a book about Mary. When I finished Wish I Could Be There, I thought I had written that book. It wasn’t until several months had passed that I began to think that I had something more to say about her and this strange chronicle of the dual paths our lives took.
Twin covers quite a bit of ground—from autism studies to your father’s affair with his colleague Lillian Ross to your struggle to find your voice as a composer—and yet you tie all these subjects back to Mary. Did you intend to structure your memoir that way from the beginning?
Writing this book was a little like teaching a course at Bennington. I find that the course needs a hub, and if I really know what the central subject is, I can digress quite a bit. In teaching about a composer, I can, for example, bring in films or paintings, but if I lose sight of what the purpose of the course is, it starts to fall apart. The same thing was true about this book.
As I was writing, certain things surprised me. I always knew that music would come into the story, but until I began writing about music, I didn’t see it as my own autistic world. I discovered a lot of parallels between Mary and myself and the rest of the family, too. For example, my going to college and Mary’s going from school to the institution where she ended up living.
I always thought that my father’s romantic life would come into it, but I was kind of surprised at the way it did, because the more I thought about that, the more I saw that the timing was, at the very least, very interesting. His life divided around the time that Mary’s condition was first becoming apparent.
At times I tried to forget that it was my own life that I was writing about and to keep it focused on certain themes that would hold the book together. Loss is one of them.
Yes, you often do go back to the theme of loss.
This book was terribly painful to write. There were times when I just had to stop because I was remembering very painful things and really trying to imagine and put myself back into certain places. However, the process was meaningful on a personal level. It has helped me feel a bit more whole and feel much more connected to Mary. I felt I have even done something for her. I have brought her life to the surface and back to the forefront of our family’s history.
The temptation to make the book less sad was often there, and to have it end with an epiphany was also a temptation. I felt good about the fact that, for better or worse, I didn’t go farther than what I know. I stuck to what I understood. For example, my father and mother’s romantic story comes into it at the moment I began to understand it better, which was later in life. It would have been false to refer to it throughout my childhood.
You consider yourself first and foremost a composer. What is it like to find yourself writing memoirs?
I still think of myself as a writer with a small ‘w.’ You have to realize that I didn’t write much of anything until I was fifty years old. I spent my whole life in music and my first book was about a musical subject, Schoenberg. The idea of writing a book about my own difficulties and my childhood was of course something I undertook to do, but it surprised me that I was doing it. Being a writer already surprised me and being a memoirist surprised me even more.
I had some pretty awe-inspiring writers in my world and even among my own peer group. Let’s be honest, I was surrounded by geniuses. My father was an incredible writer. He would write things on envelopes that were like Cicero’s scrap paper. His sentences were just perfect, beautiful things. My brother Wally is an incredible writer, too, and I was married to a brilliant writer [Jamaica Kincaid].
Siblings often take on certain roles in an extreme way. Wally was the verbal one and I was the nonverbal one; that’s the way we divvied things up. He’s in fact very musical. Nobody thought he’d be an actor by the way. He backed into it the way I backed into writing.
I have to ask, given Wally’s role in The Princess Bride as Vizzini, do people ever come up to you and exclaim, “Inconceivable!”?
I live in Vermont, so there’s not a lot of coming up on the street and saying anything. But that’s a word I’ve learned not to use in my classes. It’s tempting when talking about Beethoven to say it’s inconceivable the way he designed this movement.
Was it difficult to write memoirs with the knowledge that some people would read them simply because they were about the Shawn family?
My dad and my brother are well enough known that any book that dealt with my childhood could easily just be considered gossip or, in the case of my father, become about The New Yorker, and I didn’t want to do that at all.
I’ve written two books about subjects that I hope should be of interest to someone who has never heard about my family. In order to do that I had a few strategies: One of my strategies in Wish I Could Be There is that I don’t use names except for Mary, and I only use my own name once where I imagined her addressing me. It was a literary approach to emphasize the subject of phobias, and so that it wouldn’t be about my particular family. I had a vision of a pharmacist in India who had absolutely no idea what The New Yorker was reading the book.
In Twin, I also don’t use names much, but I also don’t have photographs in the book. Some people complained about that. I am pleased I don’t have photographs in the book because as a result, Mary becomes so central. As extraordinary as my brother, father, and mother are, the focus stays on her and her impact on everybody else.
And yet, you write about family secrets with great frankness.
My father was famously protective of his own privacy and other people’s; my brother Wally and I are private people as well. I tried not to write a book that I’d be ashamed of, and I tried to be honest and not exploitative. I can’t really pretend I’m from another family. I grew up with the people I grew up with and they were wonderful people. They were all flawed or they may have made mistakes, but I hope I haven’t disgraced them.
Would it have been at all possible to write this book when your parents were alive?
No, I don’t think so. There were a lot of family tendencies and family secrets. Obviously reacting against that is part of the impulse behind both books, a desire to shed some of that constraint.
Were your parents alive to read Twin, how do you think they would have reacted to it?
I think on the deepest level they would have been moved. They evolved in their old age past some of the old constraints and reticence. They were artistic people, both of them–my mother as much as my father–and they wanted Wally and me to have interesting lives. They didn’t want us to be hamstrung by anyone’s ideas of who we shouldn’t or should be, including theirs. On some level I feel they would be excited that neither of our lives has followed a totally predictable path.
Did you write this memoir for yourself in order to process certain thoughts or feelings? Or did you always write with an intended audience in mind?
I couldn’t have written this book just for myself. It would have been different. It takes an enormous amount of effort to try to fashion a clean and legible narrative out of the sheer chaos that is personal experience. But I’m used to that in a way because I write difficult music that I hope will somehow reflect the way life hits me and will reach a listener. I’m used to the process of taking something very personal and trying to make it coherent to an audience, in a way objectifying it so it’s useful and moving to people.
There’s a kind of burning desire to communicate with other people and to reach other people with this difficult, private stuff that otherwise you just go through alone. There is something very positive and exhilarating about taking this horrible stuff and expressing it. To put it on the page and share it and say, this is a part of human life and we can look at it together, was a very positive thing.
It was hard to remember being with Mary and losing Mary. But we all have our traumas. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone thinking there’s something so special about me. I’m hoping that the book invokes universal experiences.
How do you reconcile the confessional aspects of your writing with your private personality?
I’m not one of these people who walks into a room and says exactly what is on their mind. But in print and in music I am less encumbered. I’m quite a shy person and yet my music has a confessional side to it. It’s very personal. When I was writing about my own life, I was amazed to see how personal I could be and fairly revealing of my own memories and the truth as I see it. And yes, I was experiencing some of the same feelings of expressing private thoughts in public places that I do when I am writing music. There is a very private, guarded quality to the writing itself. But if people have read my writing, I feel like they know things about me already that I don’t have to hide. I have a leg up on being an authentic person instead of a phony.
You refer quite often to autism studies. Was your writing preceded by a period of extensive research on the topic of autism?
I read a lot about autism first, and I was extremely baffled by how hard it was to connect Mary with all of these studies and generalizations. I realized that you can’t generalize about the so-called abnormal any better than you can about the normal. Each person is this eccentric individual. If you had a book generalizing about what a normal person is, you’d have a lot of very confusing stuff as well. The normal man is at least six inches taller than I am, doesn’t listen to Schoenberg for fun, and likes sports.
Your relationship and understanding of Mary has gone through so many transformations since youth—from an instinctive connection to embarrassment to feelings of obligation and loss. How would you describe your relationship with Mary now? And has the writing of this book changed your understanding of your relationship?
I feel closer to Mary than I have for a very long time, and yet I know that I’m not going to get a lot of evidence from her that she feels the same way or that she’s necessarily glad that I see more of her than I used to.
There is a photograph of her with my brother and me taken two years ago and she looks almost euphoric, as if she knows that we love her and we’re following her progress through life more closely. I feel that she’s a part of my current life in a way that she wasn’t before. I carry her around with me much more consciously.
Throughout the book, you grapple with what you describe as “blankness”—gaps in memory or things you will never really know about Mary.
Do you recall the line from The Tempest? “What see’st thou else in the dark backward and abysm of time?” It was like I was squinting and trying to see a person walking out of a fog. A lot of the times I would not be able to remember. It was frustrating and very deeply strange.
You’ll notice that part of the book is very fragmentary. I wanted to write more than I did but I would have had to make it up. I gave the reader what I found in my memory. I tried to reconstruct our experiences, though I was unable to get inside Mary’s perceptions of life and did not know many crucial facts about her life. I had to scramble to really reconstruct many of the events. There were very few records. I couldn’t elucidate much of Mary’s behavior and I couldn’t reconstruct many of my own memories of being with her at home as a child.
Do you have any new writing projects on the horizon?
I’m working on a book about Bernstein, but it will be a couple of years at least before it’s out.
Finally, Allen Shawn, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Can’t say it in six words.
BUY Allen Shawn’s Twin.
READ an excerpt from Twin.
CHECK OUT other works by Allen Shawn.