Broader society tends to have a few visions of twins — who they are, how they are, and what their relationships are like to each other — that are more grounded in myth than in reality. Sometimes, people are just enamored and delighted by them. Other times, people find them freakish or uncanny. Rarely, if ever, do people not hold some kind of bias or belief about the inner lives and interpersonal connections of twins, even if they’ve never encountered any in real life. And the media doesn’t help much to clarify the realities of what it’s like to be a twin, either. Even some of my favorite pieces of media, like both the film and the TV show Dead Ringers, the play Twelfth Night, and the novel The God of Small Things for example, don’t necessarily elucidate those realities and usually engage in a little twin mythmaking of their own.
In professor Helena De Bres’s book, How To Be Multiple: The Philosophy of Twins, she uses experiences from her own life as an identical twin to help clarify some of these realities while also exposing and deconstructing some of our socially constructed biases and beliefs, dissecting the ways twins are portrayed in the media, exploring “the assumptions underlying our reactions to twins and show[ing] how they illuminate wider questions about what it means to be human.” She doesn’t dispel every belief or rewrite every wrongfully written character or attempt to take on each individual stereotype we hold about twins in our greater culture. Instead, she presents a philosophical inquiry into what twinship is to both the people who are twins and those of us looking in from the outside.
After all, as she points out in the book many times, our understandings, fears, and conceptions about how twins are and what they represent didn’t come out of nowhere. In most Western cultures, and especially in the U.S., we’re taught to believe our lives are ours and ours alone. Individualism rules every realm and every environment we’re part of, so it makes sense that twins are an enigma to many people, even if people don’t think about twinship very often. And we’re missing out on some important lessons about humanity as a whole on account of our inability to move beyond these preconceived notions. She explains,
Twins are a walking instance of the essence of freakdom […] Freaks disturb our familiar binary oppositions between male and female, Black and white, primitive and cultured, child and adult, animal and human, normal and abnormal, self and other. They destabilize our grip on the world and others and ignite a fear that we might lose hold of our own identities, to the point that we get submerged in, fused with, and incorporated into an alien other. […] But whether we consider freaks similar to or different from us, thinking about those who fall outside the norm has liberating potential for everyone.
The five essays that comprise How To Be Multiple, which De Bres says can be read together or apart, expertly take on various aspects of twinship that help get at some of these greater understandings of humanity as a whole. De Bres uses a combination of memoir, historical research, theoretical investigation, cultural criticism, and, of course, some examples from philosophy to focus on some of the most commonly misunderstood parts of twinship in order to bring us closer to that understanding. While De Bres’s experiences growing up with her sister Julia reveal how implicitly degrading our collective anxieties about twins can be in their own right, the inclusion of these elements is what makes De Bres’s work here powerful enough to have readers rethinking their notions of identity and how identity operates and fascinating enough to keep them paying attention to the arguments she (very successfully) makes.
Each of the five essays skillfully examines De Bres’s own feelings about her life as an identical twin while also examining the ways non-twins treat twinship. Her interrogation takes her to some of the aspects of twinship you might expect like being confused for her sister on a number of occasions or people assuming twins don’t have any independence, while also getting into areas readers might not expect. The two stand out essays of the collection, “How Many of You Are There?” and “Are You Two In Love?,” bring out some of the least discussed but most revelatory ideas about twinship that exist in our collective consciousness.
In “How Many of You Are There?,” De Bres discusses the phenomenon in which singletons (her word for people who aren’t twins) treat twins as a single, “metaphysical unit,” connected by not only genetics but also by some invisible, almost spiritual tether. The essay brings up some deeply held Western beliefs about personhood, about how we have a tendency to think of ourselves and other people as not just separate bodies but also separate minds. It’s part of what fuels our beliefs in this kind of rugged individualism where we’re each responsible for the outcome of our own lives and helps us feel like we have some semblance of control over what happens to us. But De Bres asks a few important questions in this essay that people should think about more deeply. In a part of the essay where she’s discussing conjoined twins, she points out how the families and friends of conjoined twins often think of them as two distinct people despite the fact that they share a body, and says, “If one body can contain two people, why couldn’t one person be spread across two bodies? Non-conjoined twins are the obvious candidates here. But once we twins have broken the body barrier, what’s stopping singletons from doing it, too? What makes you so sure that all of you is contained within that single envelope of skin?”
For De Bres and her sister, the fact of their separate personhood is, at some points, extremely clear, and, at others, entirely opaque. Of course, they’re separate people with different identities and personalities and oppositional qualities, but as De Bres points out, it doesn’t always feel that way for the two of them. Often, they find themselves having parallel thoughts or experiences even when they’re hundreds of miles apart. By illustrating these experiences, De Bres shows how recognizing the unique connections twins have to one another can help us to restructure and refocus our thoughts on the importance of individuality and our collective responsibilities to one another. Shouldn’t we strive to empathize so deeply with other people around us that we’re able to feel how interconnected our lives are to one another? Even if we don’t want to believe it, our lives are inextricably linked to the lives of everyone around us, twins or not. And that’s exactly where De Bres goes: “You can tell me that I’m fundamentally separate from [Julia], that we’re not metaphysically conjoined, that my personal boundaries are and should remain intact. You can tell yourself that, too, about you and everyone you love. As for me, I’ll believe my independent existence when, God forbid, I see it.”
“Are You Two In Love?” hits on some of the more controversial myths about twinship that exist in our culture. Funnily enough, De Bres brings up some of the examples of twins-related media that have greatly shifted my view of the world and our places in it (Dead Ringers, The God of Small Things, Twelfth Night), and uses them to expose and interrogate a different phenomenon that feels ever present in our societal consideration about twins. As De Bres argues in this essay, twin bonds are romanticized (in the romantic relationship sense and in the exoticization sense) and pathologized in many of the stories, from Greek and Roman mythology to our media now, that involve them. Twins can have a strong bond so long as it still fits our definition of what siblinghood should be and doesn’t detract from their responsibilities as individual beings. She explains, “…we’re encouraged to see young twinships much as we’re encouraged to see intense child and teen friendships: as practice for the real thing, which is a grown-up, romantic relationship between unrelated adults. When the time comes, the idea goes, twins will and should shove aside their sweet little bond, so that the serious business of marriage and parenthood can take center stage.”
She brings a variety of conceptions about twinships to illustrate the way people think of these connections throughout history, from how ancient philosophers discussed the idea of finding the perfect romantic match, to how artists of various mediums portray romantic love as a sort of twin connection, to how works from Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Mann show the ways twins both stabilize and destabilize each other at the same time. With these examples, she proves our culture is generally eager to produce evidence that the twin bond is a problematic one: It’s either sexual, too enmeshed, or doesn’t allow the twins the freedom to grow outside of the bond they have with one another.
She takes the argument even further when she explains the circumstances of her and her sister’s similar coming out stories. De Bres argues that queer people also suffer from these misconceptions. When discussing the disastrous relationships between the twins at the center of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, she points out:
As a contemporary psychologist might diagnose the problem, both sets of twins have clearly failed to individuate. They’ve used each other as mother substitutes, “transitional objects” from which they’ve failed to transition. Deprived of the fresh air of outside company, their closed dyad has turned in on itself, intensified, stalled, and decayed. Queer people have often faced this same charge of arrested development. They’ve been assumed to be stuck in perpetual adolescence, by virtue of their pathological narcissism and lazy refusal to sustain straight social structures, including, until recently, the reproduction of the next generation.
De Bres and her sister’s midlife coming out forced her to confront some of her own deeply held biases about queerness and navigate them through her experiences of and beliefs about twinship, which not only helped her understand herself and her sister better but also helped her see how those kinds of beliefs are engendered within us in the first place. She explains there’s no doubt queer people face much more social stigma than twins do but, again, using the lens of society’s erroneous beliefs about twinship can help deconstruct our culture’s most fallacious thoughts about queerness and what it means to be a queer person.
The final part of the book, a short coda summing up some of De Bres’s arguments, reminds us that “In the West, many of us assume that we’re each physically and mentally discrete: tucked up in our bodies and minds solo, wrapped in a single continuum of skin. We’ve attached to that idea because we ground our autonomy in it, along with our dignity and value.” In How to Be Multiple, De Bres makes several compelling cases for not only why we should be determined to blow up that idea, but also how we can start. And even though the focus of the book is on twins of all kinds, she reiterates over and over again that we need not look further than our own relationships with the people we love and identify with the most. These relationships and our own various versions of enmeshment and closeness can help us redefine personhood as we know it — as a more dependent state of being that proudly admits the importance of intimacy in every area of our lives.