Confessions of a Twin Obsessive
Being a singleton never seemed good enough.
When I was about 9 years old, my parents enrolled me in the Lincoln Park Zoo summer camp in Chicago. I was obsessed that year with dogs, though our family didn't have one, entertaining elaborate fantasies of a preternaturally loyal and perceptive animal friend. I spent weekends in the pet care aisle of a bookstore near my house, researching breeds and dreaming about adventures that would transform me from an anxious city kid to a freewheeling country tramp in the mold of Huck Finn. Zoo camp, my parents figured, would satisfy my desire for companionship, either by exposing me to real live animals or else to real live other children. In a way, they were right, because it was at zoo camp that I found my twin.
Or at least I thought I did. Gordon, like me, was a scrappy, knob-kneed brunette, decked out with a bowl cut and oversized umbros. He was just a boy I hoped would want to be my friend, until the day a counselor casually remarked that we looked like we could be brother and sister, and I became unshakably convinced that Gordon and I had shared a womb. Amputees often speak of feeling a phantom pain in the arm or leg that is no longer there. Similarly, twins separated at birth and later reunited sometimes report having had the sense that something was missing. The possibility that Gordon was my long-lost twin clarified my solitary, misunderstood childhood: I had been suffering the pain of phantom twin syndrome.
At camp I became Gordon's shadow, examining everything he did, searching for gestures, postures, predilections that reminded me of myself. I fretted about how I would break it to him that his whole life had been a lie. Eventually, I took the problem to my mother. How could you give him away, I wailed to her. Finding me inconsolable, and probably pretty annoying, my mother pulled out our family photo albums, and showed me the photographs of my birth. There I was, froglike, howling, covered in what appeared to be cottage cheese—and totally solo. Gordon, it seemed, had not been in attendance. I had never felt so alone in my life.
Why did I so desperately want to have a twin? Dr. Nancy L. Segal, professor of psychology and director of the Twins Studies Center at California State University-Fullerton (and a twin herself), has studied twins for her entire career. She says that the allure, fittingly, is twofold. First, our society values individuality—sharp differences in appearance and behavior. Twins, especially identical twins, present an intriguing exception to that. Second, singletons envy the intimacy we perceive exists between same-age siblings.
Segal's second argument pretty well encapsulates the nature of my obsession. It was the mid-'90s, and I was proud, to a fault, of the ways in which I was weird. I wore my hair short, except for a long, stringy, tangled rattail in the back, which, to make matters worse, I often dyed green. I wore boys' clothes and played sports that I wasn't very good at, yet boys only tolerated me to a point. I didn't want to fit in, but I wanted someone to not fit in with. A twin, I imagined, would not threaten my unconventional persona; a twin would reinforce that persona, by being, I thought, just like me.
Another, more normal, kid would have taken the reality of her singleton-hood as reason to move on to new obsessions, or back to the original one. But normal I was not. If I could never be a twin myself, I would learn everything I could about them—and about their higher order counterparts, with whom I became equally fascinated.
Like many people, I was particularly drawn to the Dionne quintuplets. Five identical sisters born in Ontario in the 1930s, the girls were darlings of the international press. Shortly after their birth they were taken into custody by the Canadian government and put on display in a theme park called Quintland, which became a major tourist attraction. The harm they endured at the hands of the government, and later at the hands of their abusive parents, who regained custody when the quints were 9, made them tragic heroines. The fact that the three sisters still alive in the mid-'90s continued living together was testament to the unknowable closeness I imagined all twins and multiples shared. I bought their autobiography. I even bought Dionne quintuplet Christmas ornaments that I found at a truck stop in Michigan—little cardboard cutouts of the sisters in various matching outfits—though my family was Jewish and I had nowhere to hang them.
While the Dionne sisters enthralled me, they also were, with their old-fashioned clothes and their draconian tale of woe, relics from another age. Which is perhaps why I became increasingly interested in newly born multiples. This was more dangerous terrain, since I couldn't justify my obsession as a sort of history project. But my curiosity, I rationalized, was nothing like the voyeuristic fascination that the public had showed in the Dionne sisters, half a century earlier. I didn't want to gawk at these kids like they were freaks; I wanted to be these kids. And If I couldn't be them, I wanted to understand them better than they understood themselves.
Julia Felsenthal is an assistant at Slate.
Photograph of the Dionne quintuplets from Library and Archives Canada.