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Twin Sisters and Their Journey Through Schizophrenia
Pamela Spiro Wagner and Carolyn S. Spiro, M.D.
St. Martin's Griffin, August 2006
ISBN: 978-0-312-32065-2, ISBN10: 0-312-32065-5,
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 336 pages, Includes eight pages of black-and-white photographs,
Trade Paperback, $16.99
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Growing up in the fifties, Carolyn Spiro was always in the shadow of her more intellectually dominant and socially outgoing twin, Pamela. But as the twins approached adolescence, Pamela began to suffer the initial symptoms of schizophrenia, hearing disembodied voices that haunted her for years, the symptoms culminating during her freshman year of college at Brown University, where she had her first major breakdown and hospitalization. Pamela's illness allowed Carolyn to enter the spotlight that had for so long been focused on her sister. Exceeding everyone's expectations, Carolyn graduated from Harvard Medical School and forged a successful career in psychiatry.
Despite Pamela's estrangement from the rest of her family, the sisters remained very close, "bonded with the twin glue," calling each other several times a week, and visiting as frequently as possible. Carolyn continued to believe in the humanity of her sister, not merely in her illness, and Pamela responded.
Told in the alternating voices of the sisters,
is an account of the far reaches of madness as well as the depths of ambivalence and love between twins. It is a true and unusually frank story of identical twins with very different identities and wildly different experiences of the world around them. It is one of the most compelling histories of two such siblings in the canon of writing on mental illness.
is] the product of months of painstakingly peeling back layers to write honestly about sisterhood, illness and love . . . The book provides detailed memories of the sisters, and it is fascinating to see how they both remember the same event . . . This is not meant to be a book about history, but a book of memory between sisters who cling to one another through the fog. Their sisterhood is especially obvious when the women try to explain themselves, in print, to one another. What sister hasn't wanted that chance?"—
The Hartford Courant
"[A] riveting memoir . . .
does a remarkable job of interpreting [a] hellish realm."—
"A vividly honest account . . . While Pamela becomes mysteriously moody and depressed, Carolyn blossoms in school and as a dancer . . . The book has remarkable details of Pamela's life, from her bizarre delusions to the twin's dual attempts to stay extremely thin in high school."—
The Journal News
"Joint memoir by a pair of identical twins, one a writer and award-winning poet with an incurable mental disease and the other a practicing psychiatrist. When the Spiro girls were young, Pamela was considered the more creative, brilliant one, but by 1963, when they were in sixth grade, the first inklings of her future disorder appeared: on hearing of President Kennedy's assassination, she believed that she was to blame. With gripping detail, she describes her descent into mental chaos, revealing the frightening nature of schizophrenia and her confusion and helplessness when under its spell. By early adolescence she becomes withdrawn, and by the time she is a freshman at Brown she is tortured by chaotic thoughts, is hearing voices and fears that people are planning to harm her. After overdosing on Sominex, she is taken by Carolyn to the college infirmary, the first of the countless stays in hospitals and sessions with psychiatrists that will mark the rest of her life. The sisters' relationship is an ambiguous one: after that first semester at Brown, they talk on the phone for hours every week, but they never go home to visit their parents at the same time. Pamela's illness permits Carolyn to shine but it does not end their sibling rivalry. Both enter medical school after college, but while Carolyn is studying at Harvard Medical School, Pam is at the University of Connecticut, the only school that would admit her. Within a year, she's back in a mental hospital, catatonic and hearing commanding voices. The sisters alternate in the telling, but this is clearly Pamela's book, for without her schizophrenia, there would be no story. It is she that is the powerful storyteller at its center, she that alters the Spiro family dynamic, she that suffers and makes demands, embarrasses and frustrates. With the rest of her family uncomfortable around Pamela, Carolyn struggles to be her sister, not her psychiatrist, yet being a psychiatrist makes all the difference in the caretaker relationship that develops over time. The combination of first-person narratives provides an unusually well-rounded portrait of schizophrenia."—
"For many, the idea of being one of identical twins—and possibly the possessor of telepathic communicative powers—sends chills up the spine. Add certifiable schizophrenia to the potent emotional state of identical twinship, and the potential for nightmare magnifies. In their disturbingly powerful memoir, however, the Spiro sisters reveal all this as the stuff of their everyday reality. Explosive encounters with one another, other family members, friends, and medical professionals are recounted with jarring straightforwardness. Alternating recollections about being half of a pair of youngsters growing up in the 1960s highlight the sisters' individual personalities while they relate sisterly connections, competitiveness, and co-option. When Pamela's illness emerged at the beginning of adolescence and subsequently spiraled out of her control, it became a virtual separate entity that taxed the limits of the sisters' relationship and continues to test their endurance."—
"In this true story, twin baby boomers convey their unique perspectives on living with mental illness. Pamela and Carolyn's sibling rivalry began early in their prosperous childhood. Carolyn felt inferior to her more creative sister, but that 'favored' child also heard voices and experienced odd thought patterns early in life (e.g., feeling she shot JFK). Their chronological narrative follows Carolyn's progress at Harvard Medical School, where she earned a psychiatry degree, and Pamela's setbacks, which include an overdose episode in college and numerous hospitalizations. In adulthood, Pamela develops a writing career, and Carolyn raises two children as a single mother while running a private practice and acting as her sister's advocate. The dual-memoir format successfully yields compelling insights on familial bonds and the ravaging effects of mental illness on family; jargon-filled discussions of 'brain disease' and glib advice on how to live with mental illness are avoided. As a lay reader's supplement to the influential twin studies on schizophrenia, this book is recommended."—
"This harrowing but arresting memoir—written in alternating voices by identical twins, now in their 50s—reveals how devastating schizophrenia is to both the victim and those who love her. The condition, which afflicts Pamela (an award-winning poet), can be controlled with drugs and psychiatry, but never cured. When the twins were young, Pamela always outshone Carolyn. But in junior high, Pamela was beset by fears and began a lifelong pattern of cutting and burning herself. After the two entered Brown University, Pamela's decline into paranoia accelerated until she attempted suicide. During the ensuing years of Pamela's frequent breakdowns and hospitalizations, Carolyn became a psychiatrist, married and had two children. Empathetic and concerned, Carolyn nonetheless conveys her overwhelming frustration and occasional alienation from her sister, when she is unable to help. Pamela's schizophrenia caused their father to sever his relationship with her. Remarkably descriptive, Pamela's account details how it feels to hear voices and to suspect evil in everyone. Though she struggles with her medications, Pamela remains a committed poet and is now reconciled with her father and close to her twin."—
About the Author(s)
Pamela Spiro Wagner
Pamela Spiro Wagner
is a writer and poet living in Wethersfield, Connecticut. She is the winner of the 1993 Connecticut Mental Health Media Award, a two-time first-prize winner of the
Tunxis Poetry Review
, and the winner of the 2002 BBC International Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in
The Hartford Courant
Midwest Poetry Review
Carolyn S. Spiro
, M.D., is a private-practice psychiatrist and writer living in Wilton, Connecticut.
I know where Mrs. Jardin keeps the crowns, we all do. They are locked in a cabinet high above the utility sink in which we wash our paintbrushes and the yellow sponge erasers used for clearing the blackboard at the end of each day. Only on very special occasions, like a birthday, does she take a crown out of the cabinet and with great dignity crown the lucky king or queen of the day, a royal blue velvet coronet trimmed with silver foil for girls, a glowing red and gold one for boys.
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