Twins: Issues of Identity and Communication
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Twins have always fascinated me. When I learned that I would become the mother of twins, I felt like I had won the lottery. The saga of raising them has been an enviable experience. The caption on the shower invitation at their birth, “Double the Pleasure,” turned out to be prophetic as those early days blurred by sleepless nights turned quickly into the months and years that became their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Those years have produced two strong, well-adjusted individuals whose delightful personalities bring joy to their family and friends alike. This chapter of our sojourn together is ending with Ashley’s February marriage and Adrienne’s upcoming wedding in May. This seemed like an appropriate time to try to learn more about and preserve something of their experience as twins so far in life. As I did my research for this paper and my fieldwork with the girls, I came to know and understand things about them and about twins in general that I had never realized before, in spite of the closeness we have shared. Twins see the world in a unique way, and view life from a perspective they both celebrate and enjoy. Their worldview is affected by their experience as a twin. However, the difference between their view of themselves and the erroneous viewpoint sometimes held by singletons concerning twins is a paradox they confront often. I have collected stories from Adrienne and Ashley that illustrate how it feels to be a twin, that reflect the world as they see it, and that confront the different viewpoints held by themselves and others.
Folklorist George H. Schoemaker defines worldview as “the system of values, attitudes, and beliefs that provides a person’s fundamental understanding of the way the world works” (241). Normally this idea is associated with a particular religious or cultural group. However as I have conducted this research, I have realized how being a twin creates a unique worldview as well. In fact, in an interview with Ashley, she used the word “culture” to describe her experience as a twin. Shoemaker makes the point that “a culture’s worldview includes beliefs that people of that culture take for granted and ideas about the world that they see as inarguably true, and therefore as natural” (53). Barre Toelken calls world view a “particularized method of thinking” (225). He also claims that “much of our deportment in life as individuals is based on where we conceive of ourselves to stand in time and space, for our concepts of appropriate behavior rest on these perceptions” (231). Of course, those ideas of what is natural and appropriate that are held by a particular group, especially if that group is in the minority of the population, can cause misunderstandings between the majority and the minority group. Such is the case with twins on issues of identity and communication. The majority of the population sees these issues through the exoteric eyes of a singleton, and a minority sees them through the esoteric eyes of an identical twin. These discrepancies in worldview are the cause of many misunderstandings about twins.
My informants, more fondly referred to as my daughters, Ashley Paige and Adrienne Hale Andros will turn 22 years old on May 13th of this year (2002). They are both completing bachelor’s degrees at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Ashley will graduate in April 2002 in Marketing, and Adrienne will graduate in December 2002 in Public Relations. When I told them I wanted to collect some of their stories about their experiences as twins for my semester paper, they were enthusiastic about the project. However, we all found that the distance between us and our individual time constraints were challenging obstacles to overcome. Consequently, I bought a telephone tape recording devise, and we began trying to mesh our hectic schedules for the long interviews. The two-hour time difference made the telephone interviews especially difficult to obtain. I did three one hour interview sessions: one taped telephone interview with Ashley alone, one taped telephone interview with Adrienne alone, and one taped personal interview with the two of them together while I was visiting in Utah. The girls were eager to do the interviews. They love being twins and they love to talk about it. I was concerned that the telephone interviews might not feel quite natural. However, I discovered that once we began to talk, the telephone and tape recorder did not deter them from telling their stories. Many of the first stories they told dealt with the issue of identity.
In all three interviews with the girls, there was a topic related to identity that came up early and often. It was the topic of the questions people ask them about being twins. The girls refer to them as “dumb questions” because they threaten their identity as individuals. Questions such as “If I pinch her can you feel it?” often reflect the attitude that much of the world has about identical twins: If they look the same, they are the same person. This attitude is as old as mythological stories about twins and as recent as modern research on human cloning. Many people feel that if someone is identical genetically, they are exactly alike in all other ways as well. In the first interview I had with Ashley, the subject of the questions people ask was one of the first things she mentioned.
This interview took place on Friday night, February 28, 2002, shortly after 8:00 p.m. Because of the distance involved, we had planned a telephone interview, so at the appointed time, Ashley was home alone waiting for my call. I was looking forward to hearing her “twin stories,” and she was eager to share them. I had selected Adrienne’s room as the place to do my interviews and had set up the tape recorder and hooked it up to the telephone. The room was filled with paraphernalia that reminded me of the girls. A heart-shaped photograph of Ashley and Adrienne as 10-year-olds adorned the dresser. Young Women posters and favorite artistic prints decorated the walls. Left over monkeys that had not been carted off to college were carefully placed to await their owner’s return. And on the desk was a mug featuring Adrienne and her fiancé. In my mind’s eye, I could see the girls giggling on the bed, trying on outfit after outfit before a dance, or doing their homework on the floor to the beat of a favorite CD. I sat down at Adrienne’s desk and dialed the phone number.
Ashley picked it up after a couple of rings. We chatted for a minute, and then I asked her if she was ready to tell me some stories. I told her that I would be recording what she said. I suggested that she try not to think about that but to imagine that we were at home hanging out in the family room talking to each other. She didn’t seem bothered that a tape recorder would be running, so I turned it on and she started to talk. As Ashley told me stories about growing up as a twin, my eyes kept returning to a picture of the girls that was sitting on Adrienne’s desk. They were in their high school track uniforms, smiling broadly at me. Ashley had been talking awhile when she laughed and said that she and Adrienne get asked a lot of “dumb questions.” Then she started to tell this story:
Here’s a “Dumb Question” story.
I was walking down
I never thought that I’d get myself mixed up!
Just as the symbol of the mirror contributes to the understanding of identity, so do the dialogic voices in Ashley’s story. Ross and Ray report that “according to Bakhtin, the multiple voices contained in any narrative work invariably represent diverse and often conflicting attitudes…” (86). One voice in Ashley’s story, the “dumb question” voice, is telling her something that she doesn’t want to hear, that she and Adrienne are one person. Ashley realizes that this is false and ridiculous and is therefore a “dumb question” that stereotypes twins and frustrates her. If the questioner’s assumption were true, it would threaten her sense of identity and individuality (l.17). The “dumb question” voice is an exoteric voice trying to grasp the concept of twinness. It represents the way others see identical twins, as two reflections of the same person, like seeing double. It only sees the similarities and not the differences, which are so important to a person’s identity. The other voice in the story is the esoteric voice, the voice of experience. Yet it acknowledges that while the outsider may have a dumb question, that there is a grain of truth in such a query (l.6-7). It is Ashley’s voice trying to explain something significant about the identity of twins. It distinguishes between the sameness and oneness experienced by twins. Ashley’s voice tells about how someone looking at twins from the outside can seem so close to being right, but be very wrong in their assessment of being a twin (l.18-20). One twin is not a carbon copy, or a mirror image of the other, but the two are separate individuals with unique talents, preferences, and personalities. Each person needs her own identity.
While identity is not a comfortable thing for twins to share, a sense of place can be easily shared. In fact, it seems to me that sense of place evokes what Ashley and Adrienne enjoy about being twins. Ashley’s voice in the story resounds with a sense of place that has been created by shared memories. It echoes the rightness of twins being together and the comfort of transferring the sense of oneness that they share from place to place, even when she and Adrienne are apart (l.8-10). It gives information about place that is not geographical but is abstract. Lucy R. Lippard touches on the qualities of the place that Ashley sees. Lippard writes that “the word place has psychological echoes as well as social ramifications” (9). “Unlike place (which I defined. . . as seen from the inside),” Lippard also writes, “landscape can be seen only from the outside, as a backdrop for the experience of viewing” (8). Ashley is inside the place in which she is most comfortable, a place that is filled with fond memories. That is her place in life as a twin. From inside that place, she can see and is happy with the oneness she and Adrienne share. It is a oneness that is hard for the outsider (who may view twinness as merely a landscape) to appreciate. It doesn’t have anything to do with the way twins look (sameness), but has everything to do with the bond they feel (oneness).
Ashley is happy with her sense of place as a twin, yet she values her distinct identity as well, and is insulted when others rob her of it. By viewing Ashley’s personal narrative through the symbolism of the mirror, examining its dialogic voices, and exploring its sense of place, it becomes more clear how the bond of oneness felt by twins and the need for individual identity need not be a paradox. It is possible to have a sense of oneness with another person, but remain a separate and unique individual. The “Dumb Question” illustrates the paradox of being a twin. It is a “Dumb Question” not because it implies likeness in twins, but because it completely misunderstands that likeness, seeing it as outward and underestimating the inner closeness shared by the two girls. Adrienne put it best in our interview on March 21. She said, “It’s kind of ironic because there are times where we act like the same person, but if somebody else treats us like that it’s not okay.”
In a 1998 Washington Post Magazine, Arthur Allen’s article “The Mystery of Twins “ explores the similarity of twins and talks about some research done on identical twins by psychologist Thomas Bouchard. He was involved in an extensive study begun in 1979 of 60 pairs of identical twins raised separately. Journalists highlighted and wrote about the “spectacularly similar” (2) pairs from that study, such as the Springer-Lewis twins, but those publicized cases turned out to be standouts in the study, while most of the twins studied were not nearly as similar. Bouchard says that “the emphasis on the idiosyncratic characteristics is misleading. On average, identical twins raised separately are about 50 percent similar—and that defeats the widespread belief that identical twins are carbon copies. Obviously they are not. Each is a unique individual in his or her own right” (3). Allen talks about the current genetic research and the public desire to identify a gene that is responsible for every human trait or problem. He goes on to say that “something inside us—a fatalism gene, perhaps?—makes us want to believe that the genetic blueprint holds the secrets of who we are. Something of this fatalism imbues the folklore of twins…[but] natural born clones don’t have to be told they are separate individuals—they know it” (3-4).
Not only do Adrienne and Ashley recognize and assert their individuality, but they sometimes even forget they look alike, and they forget what they look like to other people. In fact, they reported in an interview, it was some time before they realized how much they look alike. Every once in awhile something happens that causes them to see themselves as others see them. During my interview with Adrienne, she talked about that.
This interview took place over the telephone about 11:00 p.m. on the night of March 7, 2002. As with the previous interview I had had with Ashley, my recording equipment was set up in Adrienne’s room. We had been set up for it on several previous evenings, but had had to cancel, so we were happy when we were finally able to find a time to talk. It was late at night, but we had had many other late-night conversations sprawled on the bed in this room, so it was a natural time for us to talk. She was enthusiastic about telling her stories and began by telling me how nice it is to have a twin in social situations. She said that there is always someone to talk to when there is a lull in a party or dance. Then she told me the following story:
You’re never looking awkward
25 The other day on the drive back from San Diego, we stopped for lunch
in Las Vegas and
Adrienne is telling about moments of clarity when she and Ashley suddenly
see themselves as others see them and realize that they look exactly alike
and that people notice them because of that. Because they are distinct
individuals and their differences are very apparent to them, they forget
that their outward similarity is so striking until they see twins on campus
or suddenly notice someone staring at them and catch a glimpse of themselves.
The symbol of the mirror once again emerges here, their moment of clarity
being a glance into a symbolic mirror.
The gaps in her story are intriguing, as well. They spark the imagination of the reader as the need arises to fill in those gaps. At the end of the first stanza Adrienne says, “When I see other twins I think it’s more unusual than I think it is for us to be. . . .” To be what? The reader is left to wonder. Did she trail off not wanting to connect what it feels like to be a twin to what she is afraid it may look like to others? Is she so self-consciously aware of the likeness at that moment of clarity that her mirror is suddenly like the mirror of a fun house distorting her vision and making her feel silly? Her voice trails off, leaving the sentence unfinished and in the next stanza she is telling about a trip to San Diego. Neal and Robidoux explain that “when these narrative gaps occur there is a moment of indeterminacy; a moment when the audience must create some details for themselves” (218). They also note that “this interplay between the narrator and the audience keeps the story vital and alive within the minds of the audience” (219). Filling in the gaps makes the audience part of the story. In Adrienne’s case, it causes the listener to become emotionally involved in her story about how it feels to look exactly like someone else.
Both of the stories related by Ashley and Adrienne talk about the exoteric response to the way they look and how they feel about that. When I had the interview with the two of them together, one thing they talked a lot about was the inner closeness they share, what being a twin feels like, and the resulting issues of communication. (I wonder if that is why they are both majoring in communications?) Ironically, I started our session by inadvertently causing them to experience a communication situation that is a common problem for them.
This interview took place March 21, 2002 at 9:30 p.m. at the home of my daughter (their sister) Melissa, who lives in Provo Utah. Ashley and Adrienne had arrived at the door of Melissa’s apartment. As they were getting out of the car, Ashley asked Adrienne if she had brought the tape recorder. Earlier, I had asked Ashley to remind Adrienne to bring it. In the rush of the evening, Ashley had forgotten to remind her until they arrived and Adrienne had, in fact, forgotten the tape recorder. She was a bit frustrated that Ashley had not reminded her before they came. She was no doubt irritated with me as well, for telling Ashley to remind her instead of reminding Adrienne myself. This is one of their pet peeves and one of the ways that people treat them like one person: to tell one of them something and then assume that the information has been communicated to both of them. That incident and the fact that we were late starting our interview created an atmosphere that was not quite as relaxed as it might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, we went forward with our plan and closed ourselves in the bedroom of Melissa’s apartment. The bedroom was small, so it made for close proximity as we talked, which was warm and personal. Ashley and Adrienne sat on the bed and I sat on a chair facing them. Adrienne did the taping with the tape recorder she has been using this semester to tape interviews for her newspaper stories, which made the recording go smoothly. In spite of the fact that I had caused them to experience a common twin frustration right before the interview, as they began to talk about being twins and telling their experiences, they were soon laughing and giggling and enjoying the performance of their stories. It was fun to listen to them reminisce and to be drawn into the bond of oneness that they have achieved as a result of time spent together and an entire lifetime of shared experiences. The stories they told gave me new insights to the level of communication that they have with each other.
Adrienne: If somebody is telling a story, you know,
Ashley and Adrienne illustrate through this story that their communications with each other are so complete that they feel the personal relevance of each other’s experiences. It is a story about their personal stories and the performance of them. They tell how they try to make a connection with their audience, but when their “personal” story is about the other twin and not about themselves that connection is lost. In Adrienne’s performance of Ashley’s calcium intake to Maria, Adrienne is very attuned to Maria’s response. She wants the performance to be an exchange, but feels it is one-sided as she gauges Maria’s reaction. In lines 15-19, Adrienne notes a couple of times that Maria does not really care about what she is telling her about Ashley.
Ashley and Adrienne see each other’s personal experiences as coming from the place they share and therefore equally significant. This abstract shared place is difficult for Maria and other singletons to relate to. Perhaps it originated from their earliest sharing of the womb, two individuals enclosed in one small place. Since that time, the physical place has become less and less defined. From womb to crib, from crib to classroom, their physical proximity grows further and further apart with each passing year. But the sense of that abstract place they share as identical twins, which is symbolized but not limited to other shared physical places, is still strong and filled with memories and shared experiences that define it. Ashley and Adrienne transport this sense of place with them and the experiences generated there belong to both of them. This story is a performance of a performance in an effort to generate understanding of this complicated concept. Adrienne tells this story because on one level it is funny and entertaining. But on another level she hopes that the telling of it will bridge a gap between herself and her audience. Especially in the context of the purpose of the interview, she realizes that I am not the only “audience” that will hear her story. As the girls talked, I noticed that finishing each other’s sentences was common practice. This is not because they have ESP or some bizarre twin connection, but because of knowledge gained through intricate interactions and profoundly thorough communication. And yet, conveying to others the things twins share and the ways in which they are different from each other becomes a daunting task. Ashley explained it this way:
There are some things of us, I mean some aspects of our lives that we don’t share and it seems like those are the things that people try to lump us together in. But then there are some aspects that we do share and those are the ones we want everyone to recognize but not everyone understands twins like we understand twins. And so it’s hard for everyone to understand it like we understand it and for them to treat us how we expect. You know what I mean? I mean to be identified like we expect to be identified.
Because of this communications gap between twins and singletons, the needs of twins are sometimes misunderstood. Consequently, they develop ways to beat the system to get their needs met. One need that has been expressed by Ashley and Adrienne in our interviews is the need for almost constant communication with each other. In the first interview I had with Ashley she said, “If we are apart for fifteen minutes, we have two hours worth of things to talk about.” Because most people in the world don’t come in pairs, it is hard for others to understand this need. Another obstacle of communication is the rules of social appropriateness. Sometimes, it just isn’t appropriate to talk to each other, for instance in a class, in a larger group conversation, or in church. To do so, might bring disapproval, or other undesirable consequences. As a result of their need for close communication and the obstacles that inhibit them from meeting that need, Ashley and Adrienne have developed a system of communication that enables them to talk wherever they are. The following story is one example of their use of this system and how it works:
Ashley: I remember one time.
According to “Strategies of Coding in Women’s Cultures” by Joan N. Radner and Susan S. Lanser, Ashley and Adrienne’s way of communicating in church could be classified as explicit coding because it is “apparent even to those who cannot decipher it” (5). Radner and Lanser further state that “explicit acts of coding are manifestly deliberate—unambiguously conscious and intentional in that both the concealed message and the adoption of a code are undertaken knowingly and purposefully” (6).
If Ashley and Adrienne were to carry on a regular conversation in church, it would be irreverent and disruptive and might cause those around them to be irritated or even angry. However, when this coding is witnessed by members of the congregation, instead of irritation, there is a good-natured interest such as Brother Morgan displayed when he asked Ashley, ”How do you do it?” (l.25). In this way, Ashley and Adrienne’s situation differs from other minorities or groups under domination in that they are not at risk when their coding is discovered. Their antics are disarming and may even help to bridge the gap between what others understand about them and what they understand about themselves. The only risk they take is that someone may actually be able to figure out what they are saying, which could prove embarrassing. So far, however, the response seems to be puzzlement, not success in deciphering it.
In the following story, the issues of identity and communication come together as the girls lament the possible loss of identity with separation, and contemplate the difficulty of communicating this loss. As I listened to Ashley tell this story, with Adrienne listening attentively, nodding in total agreement, I understood more fully the tender attachment they feel to their place in life as identical twins. I could recognize from their faces and voices a sense of displacement as the reality of their inevitable separation becomes apparent. Ashley relates:
I was talking to a girl last night and I mentioned
There was an urgency in the tone of this performance that begged that this precious part of their identity not be lost with adulthood. Adrienne’s insertion in line 9 “that I’m a twin, I’m a twin, too” finishes Ashley’s sentence to the satisfaction of both of them and emphasizes Ashley’s unsaid words better than if she had completed the sentence herself. As Ashley speaks, she trails off in lines 5, 10, and 19, leaving some gaps to be filled by her audience. It seemed as though by not speaking the words, she might delay the inevitable separation. In lines 13-16 of her story, Ashley bridges the gap between herself and her friend by telling her she has a twin and then by “[talking] about it forever.” I sensed as I listened to the beauty of their lilting voices, that while they feel “kind of sad” (l.12) about a future in which their twinship may not be apparent to their new friends, they will insure that it is remembered through the stories they will tell. The continuing performance of these stories will allow them to perpetuate the fond memories of this stage of life as they move onto and enjoy the next. Ashley’s story tells about the satisfaction of having her friend discover that she has a twin. Hopefully, there will continue to be responsive friends who think having a twin is “cool” and that she and Adrienne will continue to reaffirm that by announcing, “Yes, I do have a twin!” (l.17).
Becoming involved in the fieldwork on twins has been meaningful for me and I have learned a lot as well. Working with the girls on this project was a new and unique experience that all three of us enjoyed. As I have listened to, transcribed and analyzed the girl’s stories, I have come to have a deeper appreciation of the value and beauty of oral narrative. Ashley and Adrienne’s stories have given me insight into the lives of twins in general and into their lives in particular that I wouldn’t have had any other way.
Being close to the topic and informants has been one thing that has made this research rewarding for me. Chronicling their experiences has been a useful thing for me to do as we finish one chapter of our lives and move on to the next. There have been times during this project that I have had tears rolling down my cheeks from laughing and other times from crying. The paper has been an outlet for a thickness of intimate experience. However, there were times when I felt like that closeness also made the project more difficult than if I had been doing something I could have been more objective about. For one thing, I had so much material and so many things to talk about I could have filled a book. Therefore, it was hard to sort through the possibilities and decide on a few concepts for the paper. Also, because I had a vast amount of prior knowledge of the informants, it was difficult to focus on the goal at hand and not wander off course as each story reminded me of many other stories and experiences in the past. However, as I persisted in my research and revisions, it was satisfying to see a few points come into focus that accurately represent the worldview of twins.
Twins see the world differently than singletons. Their worldview is affected by their “cultural” experience as a twin. Toelken states that “it is precisely because the members of each culture consider their worldview to represent normalcy, a system of reality that can be experienced in all traditional forms…that folklore provides us with one of the most valuable and reliable ways of entering the subject” (235). Through consideration of this collection of stories, it is possible to better understand how the worldview of twins affects the way they see themselves and their relationship to the world, especially in the issues of identity and communication. Through the voices of these experienced informants the paradox of being a twin comes alive in the rich full tones unique to the performance of personal narrative.
Note: Explanations of ethnopoetic notation:
1.The beginning of each sentence is even with the left margin. The rest
of the sentence is indented.
Allen, Aurthur. “The Mysteries of Twins.” The Washington
Post Magazine. Jan. 1998.