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.
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.