Remembering the sister who couldn’t come home again

By Caroline Leavitt
January 6, 2011

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How does shared DNA bind us — and keep us apart? Twins have always been thought to share a mysterious connection, but what if your twin is autistic and you are not? Composer, pianist, and teacher Allen Shawn, author of “Wish I Could Be There,’’ turns his laser focus to his fraternal twin, Mary. Undeniably close as youngsters, Shawn and his sister communicate in their own secret language of gestures, looks, and vocal inflections. As Shawn begins to explore music, it’s something Mary responds to, as well. But from the moment his parents feel there is something wrong with Mary, the twins are separated. Diagnosed with mental retardation and autism, Mary is put into a residential institution at the age of 8. She never lives at home again, an event that impacts Shawn all his life.

Shawn deftly probes the ways autism was dealt with and misunderstood in the 1950s, a world with no support groups or real treatments. As he unveils dark family secrets (and there are doozies), he also delves into his own sense of guilt and loss, and he comes to realize how his life was shaped by his missing sister.

He writes eloquently of how he sees Mary only once or twice a year, and how although this helps him forget that he’s her twin (he broods that he might be autistic, as well), their severed bond also makes him feel estranged from his creativity. Dubbed a musical genius early on, he’s crippled with anxiety, claustrophobia, and stomachaches so severe that he turns down performance opportunities. If he wants to flourish artistically, can he find a way to internalize his relationship with Mary and take her with him?

Shawn’s answers are both heartbreaking and moving. Music is a language his sister can understand and appreciate. In playing it, he feels like he is bringing the “unknowable inner life of Mary back from the underworld’’ and bonding anew with her while also exploring his own deepest feelings. In some of the most poetically written passages of the book, Shawn reveals how music offered a doorway for him to both disappear and, more importantly, discover himself.

But creativity isn’t limited to Allen Shawn. It’s great fun to read his portrait of his frisky playwright-actor brother, Wallace, who deals with his sister by using themes of mental deterioration in his work, and who quickly breaks free of the family in his own rebellious way. It’s even more fascinating to read about Shawn’s father, William, the esteemed editor of The New Yorker, an agoraphobic whose insistence on secrets included both hiding away Mary and a clandestine 40-year love affair with a writer at his magazine. Even more incredible, since William was unwilling to leave his wife, they make an agreement to live with the arrangement, never discuss it, and continue their married life.

Probing and astonishingly brave, Shawn’s book continually takes apart everything we think we know about autism. What does it mean to be fully alive but in a way that is different than most other people? When one observer says that “Mary seems to pass the time rather than enjoy it,’’ Shawn asks whether or not this is true, or does this person simply “lack the ability to comprehend the ways in which Mary enjoys things?’’ Poignant and full of hope, “Twin’’ hauntingly explores the family ties that both bind and release us, even as it asks us to contemplate new ways of knowing and understanding the ones we love.

Caroline Leavitt is the author of “Pictures of You.’’ She can be reached at


By Allen Shawn

Viking, 232 pp., $25.95