Book Review: ‘Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and Their Journey Through Schizophrenia’

The alternating voices of twin sisters Pamela Spiro Wagner and Carolyn “Lynnie” Spiro in Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and Their Journey Through Schizophrenia (St. Martin, 2006) give readers an intimate view of life with schizophrenia from two vantage points.

Pamela, who fights a decades-long battle with the illness, creates an unsettling picture of the paranoia, fear and malevolent voices that hijack her mind. Her skilled use of language (she is an award-winning poet) slips readers into an uncomfortable seat that looks directly into her thought processes as she experiences a psychotic episode. Carolyn’s parallel narrative documents her own struggle to support her twin while establishing her own identity.

Born in the 1950s, when mental illness was still very much a taboo subject, Pamela appeared to be the gifted twin, a golden girl high-achiever that Carolyn, as a child, often resented. The dynamics of their relationship were altered when symptoms of Pam’s illness began to surface when the girls were middle school age. Pam develops eating and sleep disorders and begins to fall behind the achievements of her sister.

They both attended Brown University, but Pam’s years as an undergraduate were fraught with challenges, and it was there she suffered her first major breakdown and hospitalization. She became estranged from her family. Carolyn notes that unproven psychodynamic theories of the time laid blame for the disorder on the parents. This belief contributes to the fracturing of families affected by the disease with misplaced blame creating anger and shame. Their own family shattered.

Pam’s father, disappointed by her failure to meet expectations, viewed her illness as willfulness, and withdrew from a relationship with his daughter (in 2004, they did reunite.)  The strained family relationship also distanced Pam from her mother. Carolyn becomes Pam’s primary social supporter despite the toll it takes on her own life. “I can never really know the hell in which Pammy lives,” Carolyn writes. “When I hang up the phone, hell disappears. Hell is her life.”

Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and Their Journey Through Schizophrenia gives readers a vivid look at schizophrenia as it is presented by two who have been there. It also contributes to our understanding of how neurobiological disorders affect families. The authors do offer hope for sufferers. With medication and therapy, Pam has made great strides towards controlling the disease and reclaiming her life. She closes her narrative saying, “I can live only in the now, happy to be well for the time being, and alive — but not overly attached to the possibilities of tomorrow.”