December 2009

Mariya Strauss

nonfiction

One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I've Learned About Everyone's Struggle to Be Singular by Abigail Pogrebin

Dual. Indivi-dual. Duality within a singularity. Is that it? My aged Oxford English Dictionary says no. It's in-dividual. As in, not dividable from itself. “One in substance or essence: forming an indivisible entity.” I’ve met identical twins who constantly assert their individuality, and was curious to read a book by a twin who says she loves being one of a matching pair.

It’s among the oldest thought experiments: when one splits into two, does some essential sameness endure? In one of many shocking insights Abigail Pogrebin tosses out with casualness, twins are each other's clones. They may grow to become individuals, but for a time, however brief, they were one being. When you are looking at twins, how many people do you see? Pogrebin’s book gives a good clue: it’s more than two. Scrutinizing the lives of twins, her vision kaleidoscopes into vibrating facets. We are each our own person, this book seems to say, but we contain multitudes.

Lots of people hear a voice inside their heads guiding them along in times of trouble, advising them, contradicting them or cooling their anger. Twins have that too, but in their case the voice actually belongs to a real person.

Pogrebin found lots of twins to interview for her book, many of whom could be assigned a “type” -- The Twins who Obsess About Being Twins, The Estranged Twins, The Famous Football Playing Twins, The Twin who Lost His Brother on 9/11 and even The Twin Holocaust Survivors. To teach us -- and herself -- about what twinship can mean, she lets the twins tell their stories. With effusive, loving descriptions, Pogrebin makes their individuality shine through even as the twins describe how much they share.

She also digs up crazy facts to illustrate some generalizations she makes about twinship. (For instance, in the chapter on how hard it is to handle multiple infants,  she drops this: the twin birth rate in the US has gone up 70% since 1980, a fact Pogrebin attributes mainly to women waiting longer to have kids because the chance of releasing two eggs at once goes way up between ages 35 and 40. See what I mean about shocking casualness? My 36-year-old, just-one-more-kid-wanting butt nearly slipped off my chair with that one.) Her bibliography backs up her claim that twins are among the most studied groups of humans.

I found Pogrebin’s candor about her own twinship to be often endearing. She offers kindly advice, from her sister and their parents, for expecting parents of twins. She is sensitive and quietly detailed in her exploration of twin mortality; some of the book’s best moments are when Pogrebin uses her own experience as a twin as a sextant to chart the delicate emotions around twin birth and death.

But, dear reader, you will miss much that is challenging about this book if you go into it like it’s What to Expect When You’re Curious About Or Maybe Having Some Twins. Pogrebin herself yearns, and her yearning invades the narrative. For the first half of the book I almost couldn’t believe her editor let her get away with it. Abigail wants a closer relationship with her identical twin sister, Robin -- and she’s not above creating an intertextual narrative aimed squarely at Robin to make the case for why they should become closer.

At least I think that’s what she is doing. It’s not quite clear. Most of the book reads like a lightly academic nonfiction narrative. It is about something: experts are speaking, subjects are interviewed, conclusions are drawn. But then Abigail’s conversational voice breaks through. Her comments to the reader throughout the text seem at times compulsively inserted. Like this: “Robin told me in our interview that when we’re in social situations, she’ll defer to my talkativeness. (No wonder I lost my voice.)” I begin to wonder if I’ve grasped what this book is really about. Is the author simply being undisciplined, allowing the noise of her internal voice to enter and dilute the narrative haphazardly? Not quite: I think she uses these moments of self-disclosure to build the confidence she needs to state her case to her sister. Contrasting her twinship with the twins she studies allows her to catalogue the ways in which she wishes things could be better with Robin.

And that’s a shame. Abigail did some real work here, documenting the stories of twins with huge variances in lifestyle and upbringing. She could have built a more formal case for better psychological resources for adult twins, or explored one of her many interesting themes -- like how the fertility services industry normalizes the idea of multiple birth, often to the detriment of children and families -- in greater depth. Had her subjects known that their intimately shared stories would be used mainly in the service of restoring the interviewer’s own relationship with her sister, I wonder if they would have shared so freely.

Then again, perhaps they would have. Nearly all of Pogrebin’s interviewees riff on the sacred mystery of twinship. They might be just fine with trying to help one twin bring herself and her sister closer together. Which brings us back to the essential unknowableness of twinness, and this book does ultimately raise more questions than it answers. The fact that some of those questions are about the writer’s own motives just makes it a juicier read.

One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to be Singular by Abigail Pogrebin
Doubleday

ISBN: 0385521561

288 Pages