In 2013, I read the remarkably honest memoir Her, and I knew that I had to find a way to have a conversation with this writer. I wanted to talk about telling someone’s life who is no longer present, the same experience I was having in writing about my husband’s loss of identity. Soon after, I invited Christa to be on a panel about the subject for the Association of Writers and Writer’s Programs conference, held in Seattle last week. We had a full-house of appreciative writers, who learned much about writing what you’re desperate to know. In the process, I discovered how warm, generous and thoughtful this woman is. Here’s our interview.
What is the most significant identity change that you experienced in your life?
My identical twin sister Cara died nearly eight years ago. That event came at me with the power of a hundred earthquakes. She hadn’t been well, not ill, but addicted to drugs, and suffering immensely from an identity shattering rape. I hadn’t been prepared to lose her even though I had feared for some time that I might; the families and loved ones of addicts understand that dread all too well. The impact of losing my twin was immediate: I looked in the mirror and saw her staring back at me. I laughed and heard her. I was a reminder to everyone who knew us both that Cara was gone. I was a shadow of myself. I was in a full-blown identity crisis.
Identical twins are born with a friend at their sides; I certainly was. There was an easy joy in sharing my life with Cara, the kind of love that took the pressure off. But we were also fiercely competitive and harsh with one another. There was very little room inside of our relationship for me to explore who I wanted to be outside of it. The drama of losing a twin is severe and life changing, identity changing. I had to figure out who I was without my twin. We were that enmeshed. Though I have learned through my grief that people are constantly changing. Becoming a mother has certainly shown me that. Every day with a two year old is as rooted in routine as it is in change. I have observed myself trying to become the kind of mother she needs. That woman is vastly different than the one who writes, or certainly the one who grieved. I try to remain in the moment with my daughter and not get too lost in my head. It’s a kind of meditation I needed. Now, because of that, because of my daughter, I am certain that we are shaped as we live and not as we’ve lived.
Did you cause it, or did it happen to you?
There was a freedom in Cara’s death that was hard for me to admit for many years. And now, my ability to pull myself out of utter despair from her death, it has defined me more than anything else ever has in my life, more than being a twin ever did. That never ceases to surprise me.
What revelations happened in its wake?
We all live our lives with constant shifts, from moment to moment, somewhat blind to the events that will make us. We expect the deaths of those we love to change us but we can’t know how. Births. Friendships. Illnesses. Dashed hopes and fulfilled dreams. The weight of any one of these things can be enormous. There’s no telling how they’ll be digested.