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MFA Graduate Explores Twin Sister's Death in New Memoir

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Photo by Christa Parravani/Courtesy of 31GRAND
Christa Parravani's new book, already receiving praise in advanced reviews, will be published by Henry Holt in March.

Rutgers Today, Sept.  4, 2012

For several years after her identical twin died of a drug overdose in 2006, Christa Parravani MFA ’11 would look in the mirror and see her sister's face staring back at her. No matter where she went, she could not escape the image of her twin, Cara.

Longing to reconnect with her, Parravani found herself acting out the same destructive behavior that had unraveled Cara's life: becoming addicted to anti-anxiety drugs. Hospitalized because of a suicide attempt, Parravani, who had starved herself down to 80 pounds, started writing poems about Cara. "I went to therapy three times a week and I started writing, and it saved me," she says.

Three years later, when she enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, Rutgers- Newark, Parravani began transforming those poems into a memoir, Her. She credits the outstanding faculty and the small classes in the two-year MFA program with providing the close attention she needed to complete the book.

"I would definitely never have been able to finish this memoir without the help of the faculty," Parravani says. "The professors were amazing."

The memoir, which will be published next March by Henry Holt, has already received praise in advance reviews. "The writing itself is the writing of a stylist," says Jayne Anne Phillips, a noted author who is director of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program, where she taught Parravani. "It also deals with the question of identity in a really unique way because it's about the relationship between identical twin sisters."

When Parravani entered the master's program, Phillips said it was clear that she would finish the memoir and that it would be published. "Christa isn't the only extremely talented student we've had," Phillips says. "She is just one of those who is going to publish early and publish a very well-received book."

As a child, Parravani recalls that she was inseparable from her twin: they were nearly impossible to tell apart and could read each other's thoughts. The sisters were reared alone by their mother, who had left their physically and emotionally abusive father. "I had a built-in best friend and someone to bond with over the best and worst aspects of our family," Parravani says.

When they graduated from high school in Guilderland, N.Y., they both chose Bard College to study writing. But because of their competitiveness with each other, Parravani realized they both could not become writers, so after taking a photography course one summer in France, she decided to switch her focus to photography.

In October 2001, Cara was enrolled in her first semester in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst when she was brutally raped while walking her dog in woods near a park. After escaping from the six-hour attack, she collapsed at the feet of a man sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store. The rapist was caught and is now serving a life sentence.

Cara, who was married at the time, never recovered from the attack. She became addicted to Valium and Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug. Craving a stronger narcotic, she eventually turned to heroin, left her husband and moved in with her mother. In June 2006, she died on her mother's bathroom floor after injecting a strain of heroin that was laced with fentanyl, a sedative making it more potent  but also lethal.

 "What led to that moment was that she wanted to get high and the drugs were too strong and she died," Parravani says. "She wasn't suicidal. It was definitely an accidental overdose."

Without Cara, Parravani had to confront her worst fear: losing her twin. "There was a moment in my life when my sister said to me, 'If you ever die, I'll kill myself,' " Parravani recalls. "I said, 'If you ever die, I will survive.' But after she died, I wasn't actually sure that I was going to be able to do that."

While searching her sister's room after her death, Parravani found an account of her sister's rape Cara had written and hidden under her bed. The story of the attack — in Cara's words — is included in the memoir.

In writing the memoir, Parravani says she was able to resurrect her relationship with Cara and bring her back as a companion. Yet she also came to understand that she would have to keep her promise to her sister — and survive on her own.

"It was a slow climb out of it," says Parravani, who is remarried and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and baby daughter. "What I needed to realize was that my life was valuable and that I should be here on this earth, and I was going to have to do it without her."