Let error, not the truth be told—
Make one of three and three of one;
That’s how it always has been done.
…that possible multiplication of oneself, which is happiness.
—Proust, In Search of Lost Time
In his essay “On a monster-child,” Montaigne tells of seeing an infant that has been marked by God. In many respects the child is perfectly normal. It walks, warbles and feeds like any other baby. But there is a reason that the infant’s relatives, or the people who claim to be his relatives, are touring the country exhibiting him in exchange for pennies. Just below the chest, the boy is fused to another child with no head and a curved, stunted spine. The smaller child’s legs dangle against his brother’s knees. “They were joined facing each other,” Montaigne recalls, “looking as though a slightly smaller child were trying to put his arm round the neck of a slightly bigger one.” A pair of conjoined twins, with one survivor.
When I read Montaigne’s essay, I felt a stir of sympathy. Not with Montaigne, continuously observant, looking on with a fascination characteristically free of disgust. Nor with the child on display, heaving the dragging weight of his brother’s limbs. No, I felt a sense of kinship, even identification, with the dead headless child twisted around his brother. He never got a chance to live. His head, the seat of identity, is subsumed into that of his twin: a disturbing picture of unrealized potential. Strictly speaking, this second brother has no personality, no existence of his own. He is a dangling appendage. But there is something strangely assertive about this parasitic knot of trunk and limbs. The dead brother has locked his twin in an embrace, forced him to bear his weight into the world. I do not envy his fate. But I understand the desire for permanent attachment.
Morbid, surely, to dwell on tales of missing heads and monstrous multiples. But I, too, was the smaller brother. Montaigne’s monster-child is, for me, less an alien curiosity than a fate narrowly skirted.
In the tale of my triplethood, the boundaries of identity melt and fuse. It began with the three of us, tangled in the womb. As we grew, we grew apart. Our parents magnified tiny differences in birth order—two minutes, three minutes—to maintain clean divisions among us, to slot us into distinct social roles. I was the third triplet—superfluous, redundant. With time, the role assigned to me began to reveal itself as false.
All this came later. In the beginning, I was lucky to leave the womb alive.
In January 1992, nearly three months early, I was born. I emerged blank and gray, eyes closed, shuddering at the exposure. I weighed two pounds, thirteen ounces.
Ordinarily a nurse would have lined us up, three in a row, to pose sleepily on our mother’s breast. The only photograph I have seen from that day, however, is of my brother David, alone, toppled mouth-open against my mother. David, the eldest and healthiest of the newly born triplets: my sister Rachel and I having been spirited elsewhere in the hospital to fight for breath amid beeping monitors, plastic tubes and masked figures clad in white. He alone went home that day with my mother.
My parents have told me stories of my gestation and birth many times. The details sometimes differ—occasionally a callous doctor will be summoned from the vaults of memory to receive long-simmering abuse—but the fundamentals remain the same. The long empty years of infertility; the hormonal treatment that worked perhaps too well; the sight of one, then two, then three blinking heartbeats on the monitor; the grand ceremony of birth in a university hospital in North Carolina with seventeen medical workers in attendance. For my parents, nothing since has equaled the drama of bringing triplets into the world. It was the great heroic act of their lives, arduous, costly and entailing a real risk of death.
As my parents lean over the kitchen table, reminiscing about a time when we, the children, were passive, dependent, fetal, and when they, the parents, were assured, courageous, self-sacrificing, they move back and forth between two settings for the story they are telling. One setting is the world outside the womb, bureaucratic and sterile. The cold slime of ultrasound gel, the contemptuous doctors, the quarrels with insurance providers. The other is the world inside the womb: red, primal, dreamlike. As with an Edwardian comedy that rotates between the aristocrats upstairs and the servants downstairs, or an Elizabethan drama that follows one plot at court and another in a madhouse, the submerged “downstairs” setting—the socially marginal place normally restricted from view—is the more interesting one. And so my mother and father muse endlessly on the invisible inner sanctum of the crowded womb, and the conflicts that unfolded there.
The Torah is filled with stories of brothers, twins, fighting for the birthright granted to the eldest. One extraordinary passage in Genesis shows twins wrestling in the womb for supremacy while the mother is in labor. One infant, Zarah, shoots out his hand from his mother’s vagina. The midwife binds the hand with a scarlet thread and declares: “This came out first.” But then the hand is withdrawn, the struggle resumes. Through the breach tumbles out his brother Pharez. Zarah, trailing the scarlet thread, emerges in second place. On the threshold of birth, the privileged position of eldest son is wrested from him.
Jewish lore places great emphasis on the role of the firstborn son and yet, in its stories of fraternal rivalry, shows how tenuous that position is, how easily overthrown. A cresting infant can be hauled back by a brother whose will to dominate is, in the end, the stronger. Other more famous reversals follow this theme. Esau, faint with hunger, sold his birthright to Jacob in exchange for bread and a pot of lentils. Cain, feeling his position threatened, slew his upstart younger brother only to find himself excluded not just from his own birthright but the entire human community.
My contest for birthright ended not with murder or trickery or intrauterine grappling but with surrender. My brother David was the dominant one. As the gestational months wore on, he expanded his territory. He began usurping a larger portion of placental nutrients. Near the end, he had doubled his share. While he feasted, my umbilical cord was running close to empty. I resigned myself to the most marginal corner of the womb. There I remained, floating upside down, suspended in amniotic fluid. As far as could be ascertained from the ultrasound imaging—and as far as my parents, their imaginations fed on ancient legends of fraternal agon, could surmise—I gave up on life before I was born.
An emergency C-section brought the brotherly conflict to a halt. As the blade cleaved into the red chamber, the result of the battle seemed clear. I had lost, but I would live—perhaps. I was the last triplet unearthed from the womb, born breech and dangerously small. I also came out marked, with a large red puffy birthmark above my lip: the result, my parents liked to speculate, of a sibling’s good hard kick to the face, a medically dubious explanation that suggests their faith in competition as life’s overriding principle. The birthmark verified my distinctness. I would never be confused with my brother. But as I grew, the mark grew with me, becoming swollen and distended. Kids at school called me a freak.
David preceded me by three minutes, Rachel by two. In the life of our family, these small facts would take on great importance.
Montaigne saw the monster-child as a symbol for the unity of the French state: disparate factions united under a single head. My parents, seeing three infants laid side by side, engaged in no such acts of political augury. But, beleaguered and outnumbered, they feared anarchy, and took steps against it.
Against the unruliness of three equal and undifferentiated children, my mother and father strived to bring order, discipline, coherence. They did so by imposing a power dynamic based on birth order and gender. Minuscule differences of age—three minutes separated the oldest triplet from the youngest—were emphasized and credited with profound significance. Without inequality, incoherence. Without hierarchy, chaos. So my parents believed. We were assigned our roles and expected to play them. First, second, third. Boy, girl, boy. According to these precepts, my parents governed us.
Each Friday night, on Shabbat, we would line up in birth order—first David, then Rachel, then me—to receive a blessing. The candles lit and the prayers sung, I would wait my turn and stoop before my father, feeling the warmth of his hand gripping my skull. Any distribution of goods—Hanukkah gifts, winter coats—followed the same pattern. When in high school we took driver’s ed, my parents, citing the cost of auto insurance, announced that only one of us would be permitted to get a driver’s license. (For a teenager in North Carolina, a driver’s license spelled freedom.) This privilege, too, was allotted by birthright. David—easily flustered on the road, gripping the wheel hard—became a driver, while Rachel and I spent most of our time at home. There was a proper order, and it could not be violated: the Great Chain of Triplets, ordained from above. To think that some parents dress their twins alike!
The division of children of equal age into oldest, middle and youngest took its authority, at least nominally, from Jewish tradition. For my mother, the Torah’s tales of birthright and sibling competition had been verified by personal experience. She grew up as the youngest of three girls in an Orthodox Jewish household in blue-collar Virginia: the favored and most beautiful daughter. Later in life, as she tells it, her wayward sister tried to seize control of their sick old mother’s money. A court battle, and then a permanent estrangement between the sisters, followed; to this day I do not know whether this aunt is dead or alive. (In my mother’s stories, she always appears with a snarling rottweiler by her side, a motif that underlines her abandonment of human morals.) The Hebraic themes of sibling betrayal and the struggle for inheritance were trials my mother knew firsthand.
The triplets were not set against each other. No, not quite. But we were made to learn that we were different, and that our differences ran deep. Appealing to biblical precedent and exploiting the drama of religious ritual—the weekly blessings, the Hanukkah ceremony—my parents installed a hierarchy among the three of us, a regime apparently sanctioned by divine mandate.
In truth, my parents’ approach owed more to pop ideas about birth order than to any scriptural source. Guided by faintly remembered scraps of child psychology, they proposed for us the following roles. David, as the eldest and the future patriarch, was to be the smartest and the best, and should be deferred to. Rachel, the girl, was required to be submissive and decorous, otherwise no husband would want her. As for me, the superfluous male, I was permitted to be “creative,” to a point—but expected to wait in the wings should my older brother falter. In the struggle for parental favor and family resources, I was instructed to begin in third place.
I submitted to the arrangement. I accepted it as the way of the world. Well into my teenage years, I spoke of David as “my older brother.” David, in turn, was bossy and proud, as befits an eldest son. My parents relished his arrogance. They took it as proof that their folk ideas about birth order were correct, not realizing he was responding to their cues, trying to please them by being the eldest son they wanted. Most likely, his youthful egotism concealed a quiver of fear. Privileged and favored, he was required to be a success: a burden of expectation familiar to many firstborn sons. In most families, however, the eldest son has a head start of several years. David had three minutes.
Two make a pair; three make a group. I learned this lesson well.
Our culture exalts the bond between twins as a unique form of human closeness. One twin expert sums up this rosy picture by crediting twins with, “in the best instances, absolute mutual trust, a highly developed theory of the other’s mind, and an ability to work together that surpasses that of any other human dyad.” Every adult I encountered during my childhood seemed to assume that, as triplets, we shared a deep, unfathomable bond. One teacher asked if I could read my siblings’ thoughts. No, I wanted to reply; I found them puzzling and opaque, harder to read than my friends at school. More than once, I heard: “Triplets! You’ll never be lonely.”
In fact I was desperately lonely, and such assurances deepened my sense of isolation. Being a triplet was not like being a twin. I did not have a friend for life. Instead, I had been cast into a hostile miniature society. Within the triad, shifting alliances were routine. No truce was secure. Two could always gang up on one. The habits of discord that started in the womb continued out of it. We appeared distant and alien to one another, competing for a limited pool of resources, both material and emotional. Like courtiers trying to satisfy a monarch’s whims, we vied for our mother’s favor, each of us hungry for praise.
The difference between two and three, the pair and the group, is profound. Twins present a study in symmetry and contrast. But triplets, when they get too close, threaten to dissolve into an undifferentiated throng. An extreme example of this dissolution occurs in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, in which a proud matriarch takes in three boys and calls them all “Dewey.” The Deweys differ in race, age and appearance. But with time they become a de-individuated whirl of limbs: “inseparable, loving nothing and no one but themselves. … They spoke with one voice, thought with one mind, and maintained an annoying privacy.” The Deweys override their apparent differences and retreat into a world of three—or is it one? Eventually Morrison stops capitalizing the name: “Dewey” becomes “the deweys.” The boys relinquish any claim to individual identity. Three become one.
Morrison shows how losing oneself in a group—seemingly an act of self-negation—can slide into narcissism. The deweys love nothing and no one but themselves. Her depiction grasps how triplets are difficult to manage or make sense of; something about triplethood resists representation. Triplets are not an easy site of fantasy, like twins. The deweys, rather, are shot through with monstrosity. How one responds to Morrison’s literary triplets depends on which attitude is primary: the ecstasy of dissolving into a group, or the horror of losing oneself in an undifferentiated mass.
The truth is, the Tyson triplets could never have become the deweys. We did not love each other enough. Even while teachers assumed that I lived in an enchanted circle of three, what I remember most from my childhood are the hours I spent reading in lonely rooms.
I read stories about crime-solving geckos, boarding schools filled with witches and grandmotherly assassins who killed their targets with knitting needles. More crucially, I read Dickens. In my imagination I walked the filthy streets of Victorian London. I was drawn to novels in which orphaned boys were cruelly treated—beaten, unloved, degraded—for hundreds of pages. At last, these victimized children would be liberated from their oppressors (Nicholas Nickleby); or a twist of plot would reveal that the penniless boy-hero was of respectable birth (Oliver Twist). I loved David Copperfield best of all. In that novel, the disparaged boy becomes a writer, capable of telling, and thus creating, his own story. Better to be an author than a gentleman. An author, I knew—my finger running down the book’s spine, tracing my own name, “Charles,” on the cover—could earn affection with his stories, much as young David at school entrances the handsome older boy Steerforth by whispering tales in the blue moonlight. A writer could win the world’s love by being—becoming—unmistakably himself.
Between me and David was a sense of rivalry that occasionally erupted into violence. Between me and Rachel, a feeling of shared marginalization: her on the basis of gender, me on the basis of those irrevocable three minutes. As for David and Rachel, their relationship was marked by wariness and distrust. Condescension on his part met with quiet defiance on hers.
These ever-shifting triangular dynamics asserted themselves when in middle school we embarked on a rare cooperative endeavor. We were to be bar mitzvahed—b’nei mitzvahed, in the plural—in a joint ceremony. This scheme pleased my parents on multiple counts. It was cost-efficient, a public display of family unity and covertly competitive, a coming-of-age ceremony with the structure of a singing contest.
We would sit, three in a row, at the kitchen table of our Hebrew tutor, a pious middle-aged woman who when bewildered would push her glasses up to her forehead and offer us chocolate mandelbrot. Rachel had trouble singing in David’s presence. Many lessons stalled out with Rachel silent and withdrawn, David visibly frustrated and me staring out the window into the yard of the apartment complex, where a laurel tree was growing.
The day, when it came, passed unremarkably. When I stepped down from the bimah, I felt a warm satisfaction. In the eyes of the community, I had established myself as an equal member of the three, not just the “younger” brother.
My comeuppance swiftly followed. A classmate was having his bar mitzvah the same day at another synagogue, and to save money my parents sent us to his reception, rather than host one ourselves.
I sat alone at a table, eating carrot cake, watching twelve-year-olds dance to “Cotton Eye Joe,” and giving in to a storm of irritation. I had already had to share my day with two others; now I was at a celebration for someone else. Musing on the sorrows of my young life, I barely perceived, above my head, a tinkling, like wind chimes.
By the time I looked up it was too late. A waitress, carrying a heavy tray laden with twenty glasses of Sprite, had stumbled. The tray’s entire contents overturned on my head. My suit was ruined. The remains of my carrot cake floated in a pool of fizz. My self-esteem was so low that, drenched and sputtering, I stammered, “I’m sorry!” as the waitress gaped at me in horror. My Jewish coming of age had become an impromptu baptism.
It was two hours before my parents were due to pick me up. When I rose from my chair, rivulets of soda streamed into my shoes. I shivered in the air-conditioned hall. My hair hardened into sticky curls. Despite the commotion, neither Rachel nor David glanced in my direction. Some three musketeers we were, I thought, tilting my head to let the Sprite dribble out of my ear. Even on our shared day, it was every man for himself.
My individual relationships with Rachel and David have fluctuated over the years. There will be occasional spells of passionate friendship. Nearly always, we lapse into our habits of distance. But I cannot keep away entirely. My triplets offer visions of my alternate selves, of who I might have become had my genetic material or upbringing been slightly modified. The arbitrary distinctions stressed by my parents have shaped each sibling bond: with Rachel, gender difference; with David, the ancient struggle for birthright.
It is in relation to my sister Rachel that my sense of doubling is most pronounced. She is the sibling I most resemble physically; and sometimes, when I take in her small, curved nose and yielding brown eyes, I think of what my life would have been had I been born a woman.
My disgrace was being born third; hers was being born female. In a household in which deviation from our parents’ wishes was quickly punished—and in which friendships with classmates were viewed with suspicion, as possible infiltrations of corrupt values—Rachel came in for the most rigorous policing. Her table manners, dress, vocal intonations, use of slang and taste in movies were screened for feminine delicacy. My parents thought of such attentions as signs of special affection bestowed on their only daughter—primping and prizing and pampering. But the scrutiny damaged her confidence.
Hardly a surprise, then, that my interest in femininity was, if anything, stronger than hers. For me, femininity meant exploration, play, reprieve from the rough codes that rule the world of boys. For her, it meant restraint. So as Rachel submitted to the bridle of girlhood—with resentment, and knowledge of the loss, taking the bit in between her teeth—I began conducting my secret experiments in femininity.
Once—or was it twice? a dozen times?—when I was nine or ten, I went into the bathroom and locked the door. I fished out one of my mother’s old lipsticks from the bottom drawer. I twisted and twisted until the red cylinder protruded. I stood on my toes and, eyes fixed on the mirror, coated my lips with the polish. I smeared lines of waxy red over my cheeks and rubbed them in, admiring my blush. The shame of it excited me.
From there I went on to mascara, eyeshadow, foundation. I uncapped vial after vial, the fluids leaking and staining the white porcelain. In the glass I saw a sister I had never met. I studied myself at leisure, wondering about this feminine counterfactual.
My parents’ insistence on gender norms had, in practice, the opposite effect. Watching them try to mold recalcitrant Rachel into a demure and diffident woman revealed to me the extent to which gender is externally imposed. To this day I find it easy and natural to imagine my way into female characters in novels, a pleasure for which I have my sister to thank. Her example gave me a sense of gender not as some impassable ontological divide but as one element of identity sometimes taken, wrongly, as the whole.
My relationship with my brother David, meanwhile, has never fully extricated itself from the habits of competition first established in the womb. As the years go on, this rivalry has asserted itself in an increasingly comic key. In my superstitious moments, I have felt as if our fortunes were forked, with one’s rise entailing the other’s fall.
After college graduation, I was whisked away on a fellowship to Oxford to row, drink warm ale, read George Eliot and pontificate with naïve self-seriousness about the various crises afflicting humanity. As I marinated in this environment of obscene privilege, my brother was thrown into the pitiless, inhospitable world. Many times, my parents had warned us about the indifference of adult society. “Hard, cold, cruel,” my father would say, a staccato mantra, worthy of Dickens, which summarized his sardonic view of life. David’s fate seemed to verify this premonition. While I took shots of absinthe, kissed British boys and listened to raunchy jokes from inebriated Oxford dons, David, marooned on the other side of the Atlantic, got a job with an environmental organization. His task, doomed to failure, was to walk door to door and warn North Carolina’s citizens about the environmental harms of fracking.
Further humiliations were in the offing. Since childhood, we had all been regularly seeing the same family dentist. A white-haired man with a fluty voice, he was a lover of classical music and a devotee of the writings of Carl Jung. As the years went on, it slowly became clear that this friendly medical professional was at best senile and at worst insane. The last time I saw him, at age 22, he languidly brushed my teeth, patted my cheek, asked me how high school was going and charged me 120 dollars. Not long after, my parents spied him in his office, hemmed in on all sides, nodding nervously as officials, presumably from the state board of dental examiners, questioned him about his operations. He retired that summer.
So it was that after years of dental neglect, the Tyson offspring lined up, in birth order, to visit a new dentist. Although this new clinician could not match the Jungian’s knowledge of baroque opera, she had things her predecessor lacked, such as technology, billing software and a staff. The carnage was disclosed. I had four cavities. David had sixteen: one for every two teeth.
Soon after receiving this news, David lost his anti-fracking job. Unemployed and ashen-faced, he went under the drill, gritting whatever teeth remained intact. Meanwhile, I went back to England, where no one had good teeth anyway, and devoted myself to writing poems about trees.
Probably it is unkind of me to describe one of David’s most harrowing moments with glee—to show the biblical struggle transmuted into farce. My only defense is the fact that I spent years under his heel, relegated to an inferior position simply because he was gifted with those three minutes.
Now that we are older, I see matters differently. The sibling arrangement my parents devised was harder for him than for me. He was pushed to be the best, to be perfect—the family’s best hope in an age of relentless competition and harsh inequality. With my marginal position came a measure of freedom. Being the “younger” son released me from some of the demands of meritocratic competition and allowed me to pursue a more creative path. David was the family’s prime investment; I was the fallback. Rachel, for her part, was sidelined; the fact that she graduated first in her class in pharmacy school suggests that she could have gone to medical school, like David, or done a Ph.D., like me, had she not been drilled in more modest aspirations. Being the surplus brother also gave me freedom in matters of love. It took my mother eight years to say my lover’s name. Had her firstborn son been gay, she may never have recovered from the blow.
You may be wondering: What happened to David? What destiny awaited this scion of a right-wing Jewish household in which family conflict was routine, and birth order the object of neurotic fixation? Yes, reader: he became a psychiatrist.
A man and a woman, having long prayed for a child, receive not one child but three. It is a difficult birth. The third child survives. It will be triplets, not twins, after all. The parents strive to act rightly, to bring order to the family. But the seeds they plant yield unforeseen fruit.
Every family has its own vocabulary, its own mythology. In creating a scheme of differentiation based on birth order, my parents believed they were giving us a gift. Triplets are messy, monstrous even. There are too many heads and limbs, too many mouths clamoring for attention. We cannot be allowed to conjoin. The monster-child must be split apart. We must know our roles and how to play them.
My parents were great storytellers. The narratives they crafted for each of us were hard to resist. Hard to resist, yes, because the helpless child wants to please his parents. But not for that reason only. The scheme they created, though unequal, was in a way reassuring. Everyone knew their place.
Is the story of my triplethood fundamentally tragic, a tale of how arbitrary distinctions coercively shape our consciousness? A parable of surplus life, in which the third triplet, the extra boy who should have died in the womb, must defend his claim to existence? Or is this a comic saga, in which two Jewish Republicans living in the South do their best after being saddled with three howling infants—with the added twist that the third triplet turns out to be not just gay but a writer?
“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Czesław Milosz’s famous remark has traditionally been interpreted as a warning about the dredging up of secrets—the writer’s temptation to mine the intimate life of the household for literary material. Yet the comment captures something else, too. Every family tells stories about itself. Such narratives give structure and meaning to domestic life; often, they shore up parental authority. The emergence of a competing storyteller from below dooms the family by destabilizing its governing myths.
Whether I shall turn out to be the author of my own life, these pages must show. To become myself, I had to escape from the stories of triplethood my parents wrote for me. I do not claim, however, that the stories I tell myself are any truer. These stories, too, are “tales,” tinged with romance. But they are mine.
Image credit: A child with two heads joined at the vertex. Line engraving by J. Basire after W. Bell. Wellcome Collection