One But Not The Same

November 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

by Jacqueline Austin

Twins in Utero, public domain image (Web)

My identical twin sister and I didn’t used to have identities. Until we became adults, we felt we were the same person. Nobody could tell us apart, not friends, not teachers, not family–not even ourselves. We spoke a secret language. Our fingerprints were the same. We were in the same class at school; when we switched seats, no one noticed. The freakish power of being one was exhilarating, but horrible. I remember one night when we were six, we both woke screaming from the same nightmare.

Looking at old photographs, I still can’t tell us apart, my twin and I, unless we are smiling (my smile was always my own), or unless I study the ears. My sister’s left ear, which was twisted at birth, is slightly square. Neither of us was born perfect. our mother’s womb seems to have been reluctant to let us go. The doctor yanked us out with forceps, my sister first, her ear bleeding, and myself, blue with cyanosis, five minutes later. Umbilical cords were wrapped around both of our necks. My sister’s cord was around my neck; mine was around hers. We had shared a placenta. In this process of birth, we seem to have strangled each other. Each twin thus deprived the other of what otherwise could have been her last moments of prenatal protection.

My birth taught me, I guess, that it can be fatal to be similar, but five steps behind. But it could be equally fatal to be five steps ahead. And so we grew: five steps forward, five steps back, one always yanking an invisible, strangulating cord, chortling at the follower’s, the inferior’s, ill fortune. I used to use “I” to mean either of us. Sometimes it was I who was ahead, and I always felt an expansion. Later would come sick guilt–a deadly hangover following the exhilarating binge of feeling free.

Today, my twin and I live in different cities. Our voices, many of our gestures and intonations and thoughts, are still similar. Sometimes I pick up the phone before it’s rung, and call the silent, breathing presence on the other end of the line, by her right name–the name of my twin. I am still occasionally accosted by strangers who insist I’m she, who stare at me when I tell them she’s my twin, and then frown as if they’ve caught me playing a practical joke on them. But today if we stood side by side, nobody observant could mistake us for each other. I have had children; she has not. She is in better physical condition. She’s clipped her hair and left it natural. My long hair, I color, and let fly wild around my face. We still share the bitter joke that was our past, but from the same genes, we have build divergent futures. Somewhere and sometime I don’t recollect, we stopped strangling each other. We became ourselves.

My twin and I don’t represent all twins. There are many ways to be a twin. One’s (or two’s) choice of relationship depends on how the twins perceive one another, on what they expect from themselves and from each other, and how when they were growing up, their families responded to them–what others expected of them.

There are also many twins who, like my sister and myself, have developed separate careers and very different lives. How do those other twins feel about the mini-society that is their pair bond? Do they enjoy being objectified by the larger world? How alike do they consider themselves, and how different? What is the nature of their current relationship compared to the one they had as children? What is it like to be the twin of their twin?

I suspect that many twins will have had a dramatic struggle with identity. Their lovers may have castigated them for being too close to their twin. The twinship might have dramatically affected both of their families of choice, as well as the family they both inherited.

In Identity and Intimacy in Twins (Praeger, 1983), Barbara Schave and Janet Ciriello (both twins, but not of each other) describe a spectrum of ways in which twins are twins. At one end of the spectrum (sibling attachment identity), are twins who relate to each other like any other siblings. At the other (unit identity), twins construct, or perhaps fall back on by default, a fused sense of self, two-as-one, that would boggle any single person’s mind. Between these two extremes lies a range of twin bonds: interdependent, idealized, split (good twin/bad twin), competitive. But if a twin is to develop a true individual identity, she or he must step outside the bond. It is in this moment, brave and lonely, that anyone who looks at twins, will see him or herself.

When I lived in New York a few years ago, I used to always see one pair of unit identity twins. A green bench near an Upper Westside fountain was the particular territory of two identically matched, delicate, beautiful old ladies in lacy, flower-sprigged shirtwaists, white hair twisted into identical, pretty French knots. Pink and white as powder puffs, the two ladies, seemingly both the same, sat half-facing each other, nylons squeaking as they uncrossed and recrossed their legs at the ankle, lifting their eyebrows at the passersby. To them, we watchers must have presented ourselves as a spectacular fantasy; to themselves they seemed to be just–them. Under their bench would be propped the day’s New York Times, spread out against the city dirt. On it would be resting the ancient Bonwit Teller bag in which every day, they transported their world. Between them was always a pretty place mat, a tea pot, two identical china mugs with floral patterns, and, if it was early in the day, exactly four biscuits. The ladies would take turns pouring, sipping, nibbling and speaking. Little of the speaking was done in words. If pigeons hopped too close, two pretty little napkins would fly out, flap once or twice, then come to rest.

Do either of these ladies, or both, sometimes feel that they’re the real person, and that the other is their mirror? When they look in a glass, who do they see? What is identity? How do we become ourselves? What is it like to live so closely bonded to another, that the very nature of the boundary between people is different?

What can twins show us?

What can’t they show us?

Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin. All rights reserved. Adapted and excerpted from One But Not The Same, 1994.

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