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Allen Shawn’s Twin— a memoir of his twin who is autistic

Allen Shawn, a composer and son of long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn and brother of playwright/actor Wallace Shawn, previously wrote the well-regarded memoir Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life. This time, he’s writing about his twin sister Mary and about having an autistic sibling.  This is an intensely internal memoir– the primary focus is Shawn’s effort to understand his own reactions and feelings about his sister.  There is talk about family history and specifically his father– including the fact that his father (with knowledge of his mother) had a long relationship with New Yorker writer Lilian Ross, spending part of every day at her house.  The primary focus is on Mary, though, and Allen’s reaction to having his twin increasingly moved away from him, first partly when their parents realized she was autistic and then when she was institutionalized when Allen and Mary were about eight.  For a memoirist going into such personal details, Allen Shawn is strangely private– he mentions his first wife in passing, but gives no information about her (she was the writer Jamaica Kincaid), and he only gives initials for Lilian Ross in describing the family crisis over he and his brother letting their parents know they are aware of the relationship.

One of the odder moments bears quoting.  His mother went into the hospital late in life in New York City.  His father, New Yorker editor William Shawn, went into the bathroom, which was covered with grafitti.  “When he emerged, he announced quietly, ‘Many unpleasant messages.'”

The review got a savagely negative review in a New York Times group review of memoirs a few weeks ago (oddly, the quick sideswipe at this book lead me to check it out and read it) but yet a highly positive review in the daily Times from Muchiko Kakutani.  I liked it, though not as much as Kakutani; there’s an odd superficiality at times to Shawn’s efforts to understand himself, and the extremely external focus about how he feels about his sister, the loss of a daily connection to her, and autism all cry out for some sort of distance to really understand this.  The matter-of-fact account of how his father came to tell them about the relationship with Lillian Ross, which gives no hint this all seemed pretty strange to Allen Shawn (perhaps it didn’t?) shows how lacking in distance this memoir can be.  He does engagingly explore changing notions about autism over the decades of his and his sister’s lives.

This is the sixth book in my year long reading project.

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