The Phantom Twin

Christa and her twin sister, Cara, did everything they could to set themselves apart. But when tragedy struck, the lengths Christa went to get close to her sister were beyond incredible.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT the "Bloodlines" episode. Today, we're digging into the connections and breaking points tied up in our DNA. For next story, SNAP JUDGMENT's Nancy Lopez explores a bond formed before birth. Listeners with small children are advised.

CHRISTA PARRAVANI: The night before I was married, my sister cornered my husband and said she will never love you as much as she loves me. And she was right. And I think he knew that too.

NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Christa and her sister Cara are identical twins. So of course they go out of their way to set themselves apart - Christa's straight edge, Cara's more eccentric. But the truth is they're inseparable.

PARRAVANI: When we were young women we used to say, well, if Cara ever died, say, she got hit by a car or something, that I would find a cyanide capsule and I would take it and I too would be dead so I would not have to suffer the loss of her. And she would hang herself if something happened to me. But we never really meant that, I mean, that's so utterly dark. The most terrible possible thing that I could ever imagine happening to me was really losing Cara.

LOPEZ: Their bond followed them into adulthood. They went to the same college, shared the same dorm room. They both married young. Christa pursued photography. Cara was becoming a writer. They were both going places. But then something happened that changed all of that.

PARRAVANI: When my sister was in her first year of graduate school and she was 24 years old, she was raped in the woods while she was walking her dog. And I think part of her felt as if she had died there. And she became despondent.

LOPEZ: Christa's sister got hooked on antianxiety pills and then heroin. She cheated on her husband. She dropped out of school. She attempted suicide many times and ended up hospitalized. She was chronically depressed. And for the first time in her life, Christa had no idea how to relate to her twin sister, how to get close to her. There was a distance between them that was impossible to bridge.

PARRAVANI: My life was coming together in this sort of dream that I'd always imagined for myself. I was happily married. I loved my job teaching. I loved my students. I was working hard.

LOPEZ: Christa stayed by her sister's side. She saw her as often as she could, even moved in with her for a while. She tried to be nurturing. She practiced tough love. Once, she kicked her sister out of her house for shooting up in the bathroom. None of it worked.

PARRAVANI: She was very erratic. She was a disaster. And I could see it coming. The day that I found out was a sunny June day and I'd been trying all day to call her. And she hadn't answered her phone. I was driving and the phone rang and I looked in my lap and it was my mom's name that flashed on my phone. And handed it to my husband and I said you've to answer the phone, it's my mom. And he said I don't want to. And I said you have to answer the phone, it's my mom and Cara - Cara died. And he looked at me like I was absolutely insane. I handed him the phone and he listened to what my mom had to say.

His face was blank. And I looked at him and I said - she's dead, isn't she? And he said pull the car over. She's dead, isn't she? And he said pull the car over, Christa. I got out of the car. I stood in the street. And the traffic light changed. And all the cars were trying to drive past. There were screaming at me through the windows - you know, their F yous and their get out of roads and are you crazy - and I looked up at the changing light and I screamed so hard that the straps of my dress broke and I felt like I had left my body.

LOPEZ: Christa's mom found Cara on her bathroom floor, dead from a heroin overdose. Although Christa had seen this coming, nothing could've prepared her for what came next.

PARRAVANI: I was a shell of myself after I lost my sister and it really was exactly the way I thought it would be without her. It was possible.

LOPEZ: And at her mom's request, Christa started planning her sister's funeral.

PARRAVANI: She said I want you to do everything. You need to plan this whole thing because the closest thing to what Cara would want is what you would do.

LOPEZ: Christa chose the flowers, daisies, which were her sister's favorite. She chose the casket, the prayer cards. In attendance were relatives, teachers, friends from high school, Cara's former boyfriends.

PARRAVANI: I stood at the front of the room in front of my sister's casket and I received the mourners one after another. And almost as every single person approached me, they looked at me with absolute horror when they realized that looking at me was like looking at Cara. And I was sort of a stand-in for my sister.

LOPEZ: And that feeling, feeling like she was her sister's stand in, would not go away.

PARRAVANI: The day after her funeral, I looked in the mirror and it was as if she was looking right back at me. And there was no moving beyond that. I began to lose possession of myself. And it started with wearing her clothes. I went into her room and I opened up all of her dresser drawers and I emptied them onto the floor. I picked out all of these clothes of hers that I swear I would've never worn while she was alive. She would put plastic flowers in her hair. She'd wear corsets over T-shirts. She had a collection of scarves that were Victorian. They were ridiculous. She had these ringer T-shirts with funny slogans on them and actually one of them was like the Got Milk? ad, instead it said Got God? on the front. I wore that T-shirt with a scarf that my sister had gotten in Nepal.

I wore that scarf of hers every single day. I wore them until they were holed and stained and totally wrecked. I slept in them. I wore her crappy makeup. She had, you know, this orange lipstick that she wore. And there was a great deal of comfort in that. There was a great deal of comfort too in sleeping in a bed that I made with her sheets or taking some of the furniture that she'd left at my mother's house and reassembling it in my house. It was as if I couldn't get close enough to my sister. It also made me feel crazy because I knew that I had stepped more than one foot beyond what I think most people would consider a normal way to incorporate the belongings of their loved ones into their own lives.

LOPEZ: Christa could see the look of worry on her mom's face. But her mom never said anything to her, neither did her husband or her friends.

PARRAVANI: They didn't know what to do. This loss to them seemed so extreme that they kind of just gave me way. And so I was a tornado of craziness.

LOPEZ: It's like Christa couldn't help herself.

PARRAVANI: I did extreme things with her ashes. I wore them in my eye shadow. I threw them out a window of this little cabin. I traveled the world throwing her ashes in rivers and ravines. I wore her red wedding rings. I listened to the music that she listened to. I even cut my hair like hers and dyed my hair like hers.

LOPEZ: Christa went on dates with her sister's boyfriends too.

PARRAVANI: I have to say, I was never having sex with her boyfriends, I was never kissing her boyfriends. But I went on dates undercover. I wanted to know who she was as a lover and a woman and not a twin. And these men had me out for dinner. They took me out for drinks. We went for long country rides and I allowed them their time with Cara. And I was actively becoming her like a person would become a thing or person for Halloween. I couldn't, at a certain point, divorce my grief of losing Cara with the fact that I felt like I had been possessed by her. It was a horrifying feeling.

I looked at myself in the mirror and there she was staring back at me. And I laughed and I heard my sister's laugh coming out of my mouth. And it sounds like a science-fiction film, it really does. But it happened to me and the only way that I can describe it, the sensation, it was like the phantom limb syndrome where people report that when they lose an arm or a leg, that they can still feel it tingling or it's really itchy and they can't scratch it. For me, losing my sister felt like having a phantom twin. I felt her with me all of the time. I felt her next to me all of the time. I felt her inside of me. I became her.

I started taking the drugs that she took. And I had turned to Valium. And I turned to Ambien. And I took it in extreme quantities.

LOPEZ: Christa starved. She lied. She cut her arms with a knife. She quit her teaching job. She cheated on her husband. She tried to kill herself.

PARRAVANI: I felt like it was my right to follow her into the afterlife. And if I wanted to die taking too many pills and I wanted to die because I wasn't eating any food, that it was my right to do that because the half of me that I understood and that had been with me in the world was dead.

LOPEZ: In the span of a couple years, Christa checked herself into three mental hospitals. She crashed her car and nearly died. Her husband divorced her. She met with therapists, but they didn't help.

PARRAVANI: So I looked on every sort of dark corner of my sisters computer trying to find something to help me understand how she could've made this terrible choice and left me like that.

LOPEZ: So then one day, Christa decided to visit her mom.

PARRAVANI: I went up to my sister's old room and I sat on the floor. And I dropped something and I picked it up and I looked under the bed, and there was this giant Tupperware container filled with my sister's journals. And I'd never seen them before and I was really surprised and I pulled one out and I opened the first page.

LOPEZ: What she found were pages and pages of her sister's writing - poems, letters, an unfinished book, a memoir that detailed their life together.

PARRAVANI: That book was called "Her." That her was me, and I hadn't really known that my was thinking about me in that way.

LOPEZ: And she read Cara's words, Christa felt like her sister was speaking to her.

PARRAVANI: (Reading) We couldn't have known what splitting would mean, time speeds past fast. We wait for the ambush. Sister will find out first. She'll be my living memory. She will be the body left standing. What I am makes me us. Us makes me her. Christa is me. I am, without her, half of her. If I were to write a letter to you it would read - dearest C, nobody can save the naked on the bloody ground. Please, forgive me. Please, forgive yourself. It's that simple.

It was like she was handing me my life back and saying this is who we were and this is what we did and this is what was beautiful about it and this is what was hard. And I walked away from that thinking, OK, there's a torch out there and she's trying to help me out.

LOPEZ: With time, Christa shed her sister's clothes and went back to wearing her own. She got off of all the drugs. She went back to school and took up writing. And after five years of grieving, she finally allowed herself to fall in love, get married again and start a new life. She went back to being Christa, even if that meant leaving her sister's ghost behind.

PARRAVANI: I understood that her death had nothing to do with me, that death was hers alone and there were places that I was never going to be able to go with her and death was certainly one of them.

LOPEZ: They had grown up knowing that death was the only thing that could truly separate them. Even as adults, they discussed what would happen if one of them died. Before Cara's death, Christa took her sister out on a photo shoot. It was something she did to get her out of the house.

PARRAVANI: I dressed us up in these long black coats and Cara was so depressed that she would not get dressed. And so what would happen was these coats would cover up her pajamas. We would go out in the forest together and I would take our portraits. During one of those times that we were going out, my sister looked at me and she said - if you die, I will kill myself. And I looked at her and I said - if you die, I will survive you. And she smiled at me. I think she was happy that I had answered that.

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Christa Parravani for sharing her story with SNAP. We'll have a link to her memoir "Her" on our website snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Nancy Lopez with sound design by Renzo Gorrio. When SNAP returns, a heart and a family bisected by one of the most bizarre regimes in modern history. It's all in the blood. Stay tuned.

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