When my identical twin, Julia, came to visit recently, I took her to my favorite café for a coffee and a waffle. As we settled into our drinks, I glanced at the barista, a lavishly tattooed heteroflexible twenty-seven-year-old with an unsympathetic landlord, a crazed ex-girlfriend and a complicated relationship to Orthodox Judaism.
“That guy has a pet rabbit,” I whispered.
Julia looked up instantly and beamed.
“I hear you have a rabbit!” she shouted.
I’ve spent many hours writing in this café over the past few years and have picked up these tidbits in the ether, but I haven’t spoken to the barista for longer than five seconds at a time. Usually I fill those five seconds with “a latte and a waffle, thanks.” Once a season or so, if I’m pre-caffeinated and feeling wild, I’ll add “crazy weather we’re having, huh?” and then swiftly retreat, made slightly breathless by my own extravagance.
The barista was enveloped in a cloud of steam from the espresso machine. He peered out of it, uncertainly.
“Yee—es,” he said.
“What’s its name?” Julia asked brightly.
“Bertha,” the barista answered. “Wait a second.”
“Oh my god,” I hissed, “Julia.”
“What?” she asked. Half a minute later the barista was at our table, walking Julia through Bertha’s Instagram page and discussing the skidding issues large bunnies face on hardwood floors.
“I left home at seventeen and have lived alone ever since,” said Bertha’s dad. “Bertha is the first time I’ve ever had to look after anyone other than myself. It’s taught me to be more responsible, you know?—even in a financial sense.”
Julia nodded. “I totally get that,” she said, leaning in. “Aww! Look at her fluffy paws! Bertha, you little rascal, you!”
When people ask how my twin and I differ, this is the kind of example I wheel out. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that Julia is the extrovert and I’m the introvert, though I wouldn’t have used those terms when we were kids. Back then I’d have described myself as “quiet” or “happy by myself” or “hard to get to know” and Julia as the opposite. It’s part of the family mythology that this contrast was apparent from day one, as we lay in our incubators at the hospital. I was wrapped contentedly in my swaddling cloth, calmly observing my environs like a philosophical burrito. Julia had worked her way out of her confines and was energetically smearing her shit onto the perspex walls, batting her eyelids at the nurses and crowing with delight. Five years later, at our first official birthday party, we reenacted this primal scene in front of our crowd of admirers. The cake had just been brought out: a sculptural wishing well covered in M&M’s, with log-shaped cookies supporting a rustic roof thatched in chocolate shavings. It threw Julia over the edge. She flung herself under the table and had a full-scale tantrum of joy, while I sat above her smiling benignly at the guests and waiting patiently for her to get it out of her system.
People love hearing these sorts of stories because people love twins. We’re recurring subjects in myth, literature and visual art in probably every culture on the planet. We work well as aesthetic devices because we’re unusual and eye-catching and, given the tendency to get us mixed up, ripe for comic use. But our imaginative hold on the species doesn’t bottom out there: in most twin tales, even the B-grade ones, there’s something deeper going on.
As kids, Julia and I obscurely sensed this in our interactions with other children and adults. We could tell their fascination was intense and loaded with emotion. They seemed to want something from us, but we didn’t have a grip on what it was. For the past two decades we’ve lived in different countries and no longer look very alike. Though being a twin is still a central part of our lives, being viewed as a twin is largely behind us. With some distance on the experience, we’re freer to ask ourselves: What were all those people after?
At least one thing they were after, I think, is something we wanted too: aid in the ongoing task of self-definition. Whether or not the unitary and enduring self is a fiction, it’s hard to go through life without a sense of what distinguishes you as a person: the features that hold you together and track you over time. This isn’t just a matter of your appearance, habits, talents and tastes, but also, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has argued, of commitment to a set of values: a cluster of convictions about the good, the true and the beautiful, and about how to relate to and order each of those things.
In life as in art, twins can function as models of available selves: representations of contrasting, perhaps incompatible, modes of living. From a young age, twins are described to themselves and others in terms of Derrida’s “violent hierarchy” of binary oppositions: the leader vs. the follower, the flirt vs. the wallflower, the athlete vs. the aesthete, the clown vs. the sage. When confronted with us, people feel the need to examine and categorize us and, often, to take sides.We become real-life characters in a set of two-person morality plays—plays that mirror other plays, other narratives, given history’s overstuffed library of twin tales.
The fictional twins who made the biggest impression on me and Julia, growing up in New Zealand suburbia in the 1980s, were Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, the identical heroines of Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series. Each book reminded us within the first three pages that Jessica and Elizabeth were svelte, golden-skinned, blonde Californians blessed with “eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean.” Other than living right by that ocean, which, at our end of it, was often the color of concrete and bordered by rotting seaweed, Julia and I had almost nothing in common with the Wakefield sisters, but we set that aside. The key thing was to determine which twin we each were, which didn’t take long. Liz (“Lena” starts with “L”) was caring, responsible and sincere, a wearer of cream cashmere and a self-satisfied, moralistic prude. Jessica was four minutes younger (exactly like Julia), assertive, zestful, a sporter of short skirts and distressed denim and a scheming, narcissistic man-killer. As a description of us at the time, this was inexact, but we had another six years to go before we turned sixteen, so maybe, we figured hopefully, we could grow into it.
While Julia and I were busy using twins in books and movies to shore up our senses of self, others were likely using us for the same purpose. Some felt the need to explicitly announce which of us they’d identified as being closest to their soul, as if we were options in a personality questionnaire. With the kids at school and our cousins, the answers were erratic: one day I’d be Victoria’s or Jenny’s soul mate, by the weekend Julia would have taken my place. Adults were more consistent, but not much subtler. Nor could they be guaranteed to get it right. I was out for a walk once with a woman of such extraordinary loudness and gregariousness that she often frightened me. “I’m glad we can get some time alone,” she said conspiratorially. “I love Julia, but I have so much more in common with you.”
It’s a lot to carry when you’re just a pair of young girls trying to play with your My Little Ponies in the lounge. Looking back, I can’t remember which felt more uncomfortable: having someone declare themself on Team Julia in front of me or being clasped like a totem to the beating chest of a stranger. Julia and I would have preferred people to do neither of those things and simply take us on our own terms, non-comparatively and non-symbolically. But what could we do? We learned early on that even gracious and sensible people tend to lose themselves around twins.
Intimates and strangers use twins not just to get clear on the nature of their own self, but also to think about the nature of the self in general. Among the stories people most want to hear from us, more than tales of striking differences or tales of swapping places, are tales involving the blurring of the mental and physical boundaries between one twin and another. For instance: once when we were kids, Julia seemed to know, without anyone telling her, that I’d broken my leg on the other side of the playground. Another time, we had the same complex dream on the same night, only with our roles reversed. More prosaically, right through the Nineties Julia and I were terrible to play Pictionary with. Julia would draw a radish and I would scream “The North Pole!” or “Zsa Zsa Gabor!”—and I would be right. We always won.
In placing pressure on our usual understanding of where one self stops and another starts, such stories raise an interesting philosophical question. What determines how many people exist right now? We tend to assume a one-to-one relationship between persons and bodies. But approaching the question that way might result in under or overcounting, as the case of twins suggests. One possibility is that two (or more) people might share a single body. Conjoined twins are a real-life instance. In myth, we have Hercules, who intermittently took his mortal twin brother’s place after Iphicles’ death, sometimes appearing as a human, other times as a god. Another possibility is that a single person might be distributed across two (or more) bodies. One developmental study describes a pair of twins who, between the ages of two and four, used a single name, singular verbs and the pronoun “me” when referring to themselves collectively. The psychologist recorded in his notes, after observing the twins chatting at 36 months, that “they talked as if they considered themselves one.” At 41 months he noted, with what I read as suppressed breathlessness, that “one subject is afraid of the other’s dreams.”
I feel some affinity with those toddlers. When Julia underwent the latest in a series of disasters a few years ago and my therapist asked me if I felt any “survivor’s guilt,” I experienced a flash of confusion and found myself snapping back internally “I can’t have that if I am her.” Social media seems to back me up on this point. A friend recently sent me and Julia a screenshot of her Google Photos app, which had lined up avatars of us both and inquired underneath them “Same person?” Similarly, Facebook often asks me “Want to tag yourself? Yes—No” in a photo that appears to contain only Julia. No? I sometimes wonder, my hand hovering over the mouse. Yes?
If such stories provide fodder for metaphysical speculation, they’re ethically loaded, too. One of the reasons people like to hear them is to tut-tut over them. People tend to think that twins should have a firm grip on where they end and where their twin begins and make sure they have robust social lives beyond their twinship. Julia and I were placed in different classes early on, were never dressed in matching outfits and were given carefully distinct birthday gifts. This was well-intentioned and probably beneficial, but it also felt admonitory: a preemptive measure near an abyss we were presumed to find attractive. Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is emblematic of a centuries-long literary trope of pathologically entwined twins who become ever more isolated, then sink into stagnation and decay. Roderick and Madeline have turned inward, regressed, become suffocated by their sameness, and when they inevitably die, they take the manor and the dynasty down with them.
The fascination comes from another, opposite source as well. We may tell ourselves that proper human relationships retain a healthy degree of differentiation and separation. But many of us are also, despite ourselves, drawn to the contrary fantasy of the ideal relationship as a kind of merger: one soul, as Aristotle put it, spread over two bodies. We generally reserve this ideal for sexual relationships—“Nelly,” Cathy wails, “I am Heathcliff!”—yet surely part of what captivates us about twins is that they seem to embody it too. Arguably, they embody it more purely. Maybe one reason soul-mate twins have to die in literature is that they make singletons morbidly envious.
I don’t really believe that Julia and I are the same person and I’d be annoyed if someone else said we were. That thought, when it arrives, is just a reflection of the intensity and depth of our connection. Julia knows me better than anyone else does, including, sometimes, myself. And, though our personalities, interests and aims may differ, my pains and joys are hers, because they pass directly and instantly to her and shed very little of themselves in transit. If we can in some sense be said to be one person, that’s a metaphor for an emotional state, not a metaphysical fact. But it’s a very special emotional state.
Castor and Pollux are the one major example in the Western canon of soul-mate twins who make it through the end of the story, at least in part. When the mortal Castor is killed, Zeus informs Pollux that he can either live forever on Mount Olympus or give half of his immortality to his brother. Pollux goes for the latter, which means sharing half of Castor’s death. (The practical details are hazy: in some tellings, the twins live on alternate days forever, in others they winter together in Hades and summer on Olympus.) Pollux’s act is touching, but anyone with a sound twinship knows it was no great sacrifice. The universe didn’t mean much without Castor in it. Deathless though he was, Pollux couldn’t live without his twin.
The claim that two people share a love so strong that they can’t live without each other is beautiful but questionable when said of romantic partners or of children and parents. Though the relationship may have been transformative, the awkward fact remains that at least one party did just fine previously in the absence of the other. That’s not so with twins. We accept in theory that we could manage it, but (for those of us who still have our twin) it hasn’t been demonstrated. While the part of me that’s a hardheaded rationalist believes I could live without Julia, the rest of me is with Pollux.
When others witness this kind of love from the outside, their longing for something similar for themselves can be palpable. Child twins attract this reaction most intensely, because their bond is so complete, so unchallenged by any equivalent affection. When Julia and I were released a few feet from each other on our first walk in a public park, we brought a neighboring man to tears by instantly tottering back toward each other, our four arms outstretched. Coming across one of these especially susceptible adults as kids was like being admitted involuntarily into a private therapy session. At the time, all we felt was the heat, but looking back it’s not hard to flesh out the picture: the singleton’s bitterness about their distant father, grief for their dead mother, or rage against their cheating ex-husband burnt into their eyes. Maybe in some cases the thought was that, alongside our lasting bond with each other, we were being set up nicely for future relationships—no anxious or avoidant attachment disorders here! But does having a twin make you better at other relationships? I wonder sometimes if it’s just made me unreasonably demanding.
It does seem that twins are happier and healthier than the standard human, which might be a distinct source of envy. Twins are at lower risk of depression and suicide than singletons and have higher life expectancy on average, once they get past their vulnerable first year. The hypothesis in the mental-health department is that their lifelong connection provides an emotional buffer against stress and grief. As for the extra years, they’re especially marked in male twins, who, researchers suggest, may engage in less risk-taking behavior than their singleton peers, for fear of hurting or enraging their twins were they to injure themselves. “For the love of Zeus!” you can hear these latter-day Polluxes cursing to their Castors, “step away from that chariot, bro!”
We twins get used, then, as moral-psychological props, philosophical thought experiments and pyschotherapeutic prompts just about every time we leave the house. With all this baggage attached to us, it’s no wonder that being a twin in public is often uncomfortable. It’s like there’s a vacuum around us within which the standard rules of social engagement fail to apply. Identical twins, in particular, are treated as a sort of public property. Strangers stare at us, ask invasive questions and strongly express views about what our relationship should or shouldn’t look like and how we should or shouldn’t be.
In several of these ways, being an identical twin is like being a woman. Not coincidentally, twins are at strong risk of being objectified. First, we get reduced to our appearances: what matters most about us is how our bodies hit the senses. Second, we get treated as fungible: interchangeable with our fellow objects. Third, in many cases, our subjectivity is ignored. People don’t deny, exactly, that twins have rich and distinctive inner lives, just as sexists don’t deny, exactly, that hot young women do. But those lives often aren’t what’s interesting about us, and they’re easily glossed over. In the worst cases, these attitudes result in appalling acts of exploitation, such as the use of child identical twins in scientific experiments.
But the emotional and intellectual uses of twins I’m talking about, which are by far the most common, needn’t have those features. Though sometimes unpleasant, they’re not usually harmful, and they don’t involve a major violation of respect. They focus on difference along with similarity, and they attend, to some degree, to what it’s like from the inside to be a twin.
When I left the Southern hemisphere, and Julia, to go to graduate school in the United States, my roommate Paul gave me a farewell card with a poem by the Australian Judith Wright inside it. The poem describes a pair of young female identical twins walking down a street, while passersby “wave[r] like dry leaves around them on the wind.” Not for their beauty, Wright suggests, but for “the chord, the intricate unison / of one and one”:
Salt blood like tears freshens the crowd’s dry veins,
and moving in its web of time and harm,
the unloved heart asks, “Where is my reply,
my kin, my answer? I am driven and alone.”
Their serene eyes seek nothing. They walk by.
They move into the future and are gone.
The singletons in this poem are staring at twins and using them for private emotional purposes. But if there’s objectification here, it’s of the friendlier and forgivable kind. Though they may be forgetting their manners, who can really blame them? We twins are as susceptible to our own mythology as anyone else. And, relatedly, we’re not incapable of pity for those who suffer the almost unimaginable misfortune of being born into this world alone.