Posted Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009, at 10:42 AM
Back in 1986, when I was in college with my twin sister, Robin, we were invited on the Today Show . Co-host Jane Pauley had recently given birth to twins and she wanted to talk to grown twins about what it was like to be one.
All I remember about the interview is that at one point Pauley leaned into us, her animated face seemingly enlarged by the TV lights and heavy made-up, and asked, "So one of you gets an A, one of you gets a B; how do you handle that?"
It wasn’t the most inspired of inquiries, but it distilled what most people always presupposed: that we were competitive. It’s true that identical twins are constantly measured against the other and confused with the other, so strangers assume we’re a species doomed to combat.
This honestly wasn’t the case with Robin and me. I won’t say our twinship was uncomplicated-it wasn’t and isn’t-but we were never competitive in the sense of feeling plagued or overshadowed by the other’s successes, or wishing each other ill. Her victories felt like mine, and similarly, when she struggled, it was hard not to experience her unhappiness.
Now that I’ve spent two-plus years researching a book about twins , and interviewing many other pairs, I know that my experience is echoed by most identical twins: They root for each other. True, they may feel spurred by the other’s skills or drive, and often strive to match each other-in athletics, for example, or academics-but there’s rarely schadenfreude.
That’s true even when twins opt for the same line of work, as Robin and I did. It’s no accident that identicals gravitate toward the same interests; our genetic blueprint is the same, which means our traits are similar, which sparks similar preferences, and choices.
As kids, Robin and I both loved theater and writing. We ultimately ended up both choosing journalism as a career, which could have been problematic– New York City is a hard enough town in which to claim some professional turf without having to worry about the person closest to you trying to make it in the same racket.
But here the ephemeral twin universe kind of kept things in balance for us: Robin went to print journalism (ending up at the New York Times ), I went to broadcast journalism (ending up producing for Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes ), and when she took a brief detour to my world-she spent a year producing for Peter Jennings’ documentary unit at ABC News-she found she missed the daily deadlines and returned happily to the Times .
The only awkwardness about our overlapping careers comes from other people: How many times have I been at a cocktail party when an acquaintance mixes me up and compliments my Times articles by mistake? I’m happy to accept the praise on Robin’s behalf, but the person usually looks stricken when I explain that the Times writer is my twin, not me; he or she will try to recover by quickly offering me a similar compliment. Except these well-wishers don’t necessarily know what I’ve been writing, and when they have to ask, they look worried about having hurt my feelings. Suddenly I’m in the pathetic position of having to recite my resume so that they feel better about having made me feel bad, which they truly haven’t. If they only knew how many times I’ve endured this particular moment; it’s fleeting but strained every time. So nine times out of 10, when someone compliments the Times articles I haven’t written, I just say, "Thank you," and head for the bar.
Robin and I may have selected parallel pursuits but they’ve always been firmly separate, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence. It’s that partition that has maintained our equilibrium, simplified our sisterhood, and allowed us to keep cheering each other on.