Confessions of a Twin Obsessive
Being a singleton never seemed good enough.
I clipped articles from newspapers and magazines—birth announcements and human interest stories about parents of quads and quints—and kept them in a manila folder on my desk. I went online using our dial-up connection and queried early search engines to find primordial websites with content uploaded from Twins magazine, FAQs from triplet support groups, and message boards for parents of multiples seeking advice. My weekends no longer found me in the dog book aisle of the nearby bookstore; instead, I took two buses to get to a specialty bookshop called Women and Children First, which carried the few books about multiples that were available at the time—all intended, of course, for expectant parents. These books had titles like Multiple Blessings and The Joy of Twins, and I can only imagine what the cashiers thought as a gawky, androgynous preteen girl paid for them with crumpled bills and change.
I loved the birth stories, but I particularly loved when hometown newspapers would follow a particular set of multiples into childhood, reporting on the experience of growing up with built-in playmates. The Pisner quintuplets were four brothers and a sister, born in 1983 (my own birth year) in Olney, Md., after their mother took a fertility drug called Perganol. Washingtonian magazine had covered their story from the time the quints were a few months old, checking in every few years on their development. I found them in a piece that ran in 1996, when they were turning 13. A photograph showed five recently bar-mitzvahed siblings goofing off together against a white backdrop. They looked like the nerdiest kids you might have known in Hebrew school; they looked like they could be my friends. I was particularly drawn to Shira, the only girl, a tomboy like myself—who got to rule the roost over a houseful of brothers. It felt like the stuff of sitcoms.
Rarely did writers dwell on unsavory details, and only occasionally did they touch upon the darker side of these pregnancies. The 1996 Washingtonian article about the Pisners very briefly mentioned that Elliot Pisner, the youngest quint, had endured serious health problems at birth—but that was a detail left out of most newspaper reports back in 1983. What was true for the Pisners was true of most media coverage of multiples. In a 1990 book about quadruplets that I bought secondhand at a library sale, a writer and academic named Marie Clay summed up the situation: "the births are newsworthy but the questions are of a superficial kind," she wrote. "How many sets of quins [sic] are there alive? What is the largest set ever born? How is that other set I heard about growing up?" I took pride in memorizing the answers to those shallow questions, and I continued to focus on the metaphysical, not the bioethical implications of multiple births. What did it feel like to be one of those kids, I wondered, not, what is the cost of these dangerous pregnancies?
The Dionnes and the Pisners charmed a good number of editors (and readers such as myself), but it wasn't until November of 1997 that the media frenzy over multiples really began. That was the year Bobbi McCaughey, a seamstress in Carlisle, Iowa, who had taken a fertility drug called Metrodin, gave birth to the nation's first living set of septuplets. The story was plastered on the front page of national newspapers and the cover of several major newsweeklies (including Newsweek, Time, and People). The McCaughey parents got a book deal. Then Bobbi wrote another book. The septuplets celebrated their birthdays with Ann Curry on the Today show. The country was obsessed with multiples, and my weird hobby was no longer so unique.
Many doctors and academics characterize the media response to the McCaughey births as irresponsibly encouraging— Slatereferred to most of the coverage as "uncomplicated boosterism"—but the birth of the septuplets was also a turning point in terms of disseminating more realistic information about the dangers of fertility treatments. Alongside the articles proclaiming a "miracle" in Ohio were sidebars about the risks of these pregnancies, illustrated with images of disturbingly tiny babies sprouting tubes and wires, hooked up to life support machines. These pieces (which I still have in my yellowing "multiple births" folder) juxtaposed glowing and folksy quotes from the devoutly Baptist McCaugheys and the remarkably supportive community of Carlisle with warnings from experts about the risks the McCaugheys had taken.
After a year or so of constant updates, magazine cover stories, television specials, and McCaughey merchandise—my seemingly unquenchable thirst began to dissipate. It wasn't just the stern critics or the frightening sidebars about premature babies. It didn't help that the McCaughey babies were so fragile and undercooked-looking themselves, or that two of the seven, who have cerebral palsy, were clearly damaged from the start. It didn't help, either, that the Dionne quintuplets wrote a letter to the McCaughey parents, urging them to remove their children from the spotlight, or that the McCaugheys seemed a bit too camera-ready. But the truth is I was simply starting to grow up. I was 14 when the McCaugheys were born. A year later, I finally went through puberty, cut my rat tail, and started dressing like a girl. It was beginning to feel silly to project my fantasies about companionship and connection onto siblings or pets. I no longer wanted a twin brother; I wanted a boyfriend.
As my attention waned, the nation's waxed. An increasing number of multiples, wider press coverage, and the development of several multiple-centric reality-TV shows entrenched these families in the national zeitgeist. But at what cost? It's difficult to watch the Gosselin children and their parents on TLC's (now-defunct) Jon and Kate Plus Eight, and not think of the Dionnes, imprisoned in their amusement park. It's hard to see the rising numbers of multiples, and the rising numbers of difficult pregnancies, and not feel that the press, with its history of rosy coverage, and the public, with its endless enthusiasm, are complicit. It's especially hard to see Nadya Suleman, commonly known as Octomom, with her perverse and deliberate attempt to bear eight children, and not wonder about the system of rewards and expectations that would encourage such nutty behavior.
As the nation has gleefully and unabashedly ogled these kids, my impulse has been to judge. But I can't; I did the exact same thing. Octomom made a spectacle of giving birth, but who gave birth to Octomom? When I think back on my files and my clippings, my books and my Christmas ornaments, my endless daydreaming and glamorizing, I can't help but feel that in some small way, I did.
Julia Felsenthal is an assistant at Slate.
Photograph of the Dionne quintuplets from Library and Archives Canada.