Twins, Intertwined

That most intimate of sibling relationships

The two sets of twins most discussed in the Torah are men who are in jealous conflict with one another to the point of actual or impending fratricide (Cain and Abel; Jacob and Esau). They present quite a contrast to the stories of twinship in 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, $26.95).

The book moves forward on two levels, the first being a series of chapters on the many aspects of being a twin that non-twins will find fascinating and twins (and their families) will probably find extraordinarily validating. These areas include the issue of twin love for one another, the effects of being a twin on other love relationships, competition between twins, the struggle for separation and individuation, the meaning of genetic sameness and the facts of epigenetic differences (caused by factors in the environment) and the impact of the loss of a twin relationship through death. The second level of the book is about the author’s own journey to understand her relationship with her 43-year-old twin sister, Robin. Throughout the text (and highlighted at the end of each chapter) are Abigail’s ruminations and passages from interviews Abigail has done with Robin, exploring their relationship. In their current lives, Abigail revels in her twinness and is seeking more intensity in their relationship, while Robin is working more on individuation, wanting to be known as a singular person, rather than as one half of a twin pair. Their struggle is presented in an authentic, poignant and riveting manner.

The book includes quotes from interviews with many professionals who have done research or clinical work with twins (and who themselves are often twins or married to twins). They offer ideas and suggestions that would be helpful to any family with twins. The most practical piece of advice that I (a non-twin psychologist) gleaned from the book was that parents of twins should be very careful to spend time with each twin separately, even if the twins don’t want to do it. Pogrebin stresses the importance of each twin being known as an individual to their parents, a goal most likely attained through time spent with each parent singularly.

The struggle to be known as an individual (rather than only as part of a twin) reminded me of similar issues faced by women enmeshed in traditional marital relationships (as portrayed in the TV show Mad Men, or described in Betty Friedan’s classic book The Feminine Mystique). Women in these relationships often felt that their identity existed only as part of the couple. If we change the word “sister” to “husband” in this quote from One and the Same, we may begin to see how the complete loss of self in any relationship can lead to emotional difficulties. “My sense of self was organized around my sister, so once she and I were apart… I had no idea who I was… .”

Nechama Liss-Levinson, a psychologist in private practice, and is the author of When a Grandparent Dies: A Kid’s Own Remembering Workbook for Dealing with Shiva and the Year Beyond.