Ideas

Brainiac

How being an identical twin changes your outlook

A composite multiple exposure photo of American identical twins Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Thelma Furness.

Yale Joel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

A composite multiple exposure photo of American identical twins Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Thelma Furness.

It’s a cultural habit to think about difference — to consider ways that features like race, family background, and sexual orientation affect how people see the world. But sometimes it’s sameness that sets you apart, like the profound genetic sameness of identical twins.

Identical twins aren’t all that uncommon — estimates say identical twins occur roughly once every 300 to 400 births. They lead pretty normal lives, too. But, a new book suggests, identical twinship does change how twins see themselves in some radical ways, especially when it comes to figuring out their individual identities.

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Dona Lee Davis is an identical twin herself, and an anthropologist at the University of South Dakota. Her new book, “Twins Talk,” is an ethnographic study of identical twins based on interviews with 22 sets of twins at the annual Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio.

That may have given her a particular insight into the kind of twins who are really into twin culture. “When the twins came in to interview with us, they were hyped on being twins,” Davis says. “They’d been in a twins parade, they were dressed alike for the festival.”

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The identical twins Davis spoke with, who were mostly women, introduced her to the term “singleton,” which twins use to describe those common people who had the womb all to themselves. Singletons assume that they are each special, unique people all their own, a value that American society prizes. In the case of twins, Davis says, achieving individuality is an unusual challenge.

“Twins would say, ‘I have basketball eyes and my sister has football eyes,’ or ‘My cowlick goes this way and hers goes that way.’” Davis says. “If you’re a singleton you never have to mine your body for that kind of distinctiveness.”

Parenting strategies for dealing with twinship have changed over time. Davis says that when she was growing up, her mother always dressed her and her identical twin in matching clothes of different colors. She says that was understood to be the best way to raise twins in the ’40s and ’50s. Ideas have changed since then. “When you get into the generations of the ’80s and such, there’s much more of a parent focus on having twins be individuals,” she says.

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Davis found that twins have pet peeves about how singleton society perceives them. “The twins we interviewed didn’t like the idea of researchers saying one twin was dominant and one twin was subordinate,” she says.

Another frequent theme in her conversations at Twinsburg had to do with what Davis refer to as “the split”: the moment twins start leading separate lives. She found that throughout adolescence twins “drift into difference” — one plays sports, the other does theater — but that the big break is often related to marriage. “[They] were together through school, together through early work, then one of the twins got married and that was the initial kind of split,” Davis says. For twins, that can be the first time they feel like the only one of their kind around — a feeling that the rest of us experience from birth.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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