Twin Studies

Back in September, I found myself in a small community just outside of Ithaca, NY, in the company of several colleagues from Cornell. We were there to participate in community’s annual “Fun Run.” I use the term “fun” here with some reservations, defining it provisionally and according to terminology that was current when I ran track over a decade ago, as the experience of being “smoked” by two young people not yet graduated from middle school. I came in third.

All this was followed, in traditional Ithacan fashion, by a community dinner. And it was there that I discovered that one of our party was, like me, an identical twin! Growing up with a double, no one lets you forget it. My sister and I spent much of our early lives being hailed jointly as “The [Maiden-Name] Twins.” Even our beleaguered younger sibling often referred to us as a single unit– “sisters” – as in “Sisters are being mean to me again!” But to be an adult twin is to operate in stealth mode. When I’m not physically in the company of my sister, I carry no visible sign of my twinship. It’s only when I meet another twin, in this case a postdoc in archeology, that I have occasion to dip back into that experience of being recognized as one half of a pair.

Soon, however, our shared reveries were interrupted by another person at our table: a young man just embarking on his Ph.D. in plant genetics. “Tell me you’re signed up for twin studies!” he gushed, and then when we demurred, “you have to do it, for science!” Thereupon followed perhaps half an hour of spiel educating us about the value of identical twins as a kind of natural experiment, our utility for types of studies that would otherwise present enormous logistical or ethical quandaries. It did not seem to occur to him that either of us had even heard of twin studies before. I chalk it up to the type of casual arrogance common to the male graduate student, who assumes he has much to teach women with their Ph.D.s. In fact, I’ve been thinking about twin studies for a long time. I think about them every time I run.

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My twin and I were born identical, but a lot has happened since then. A freak illness contracted in our youth means that I can run, and my twin can’t. So many differences have followed from that experience of disability, I always assumed they erased whatever benefit we might offer as each-other’s naturally occurring control group. And yet, it was precisely those differences that have heightened my awareness of a different type of twin study, one undertaken not in the realm of sciences, but in literature.

Twins appear everywhere in literature. And though they operate in many different ways, one of the most common and enduring tropes about twins is their capacity to offer a “natural experiment” in which one set of personal traits can experience two diverging fates in the world. Thus, some of our oldest fictional twins, Castor and Pollux, are defined by their one genetic distinction: Castor is mortal, and can die. In service of their bond, Pollux asks to attenuate his own immortality so that they can return to being truly identical. For us mere mortals, such wishes cannot be granted. When it is attempted, as when Shiva seeks to donate his kidney to his brother Marion in Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (2009), the results are often fatal.

More commonly, though, life intervenes, and fictional twins allow their bond of sameness to erode. The point of so many of these narratives is precisely that the same start does not entail the same end. One of my favorite explorations of this theme comes from the work of the Argentine novelist Juan José Saer. Saer’s whole body of work is dominated by a single region in Argentina and a small group of associates who move in and out of that region from the late 1960s into the present. Among them are a set of twins, Cat and Pigeon, the former remaining and ultimately dying in Argentina, the latter leaving for a life in Paris, much as Saer did himself. Beginning as a broader meditation on identity, the recurrent appearance of the twins and their divergent fates over the course of so many years  became a way for Saer to reflect on Argentina’s violent final decades of the twentieth century.

“Two paths diverged in a yellow wood…” This is what our culture uses twins to represent, in both science and the arts: infinite divergent possibilities out of sameness, a chance to have things both ways. I wonder, do we owe it to you, our single brethren, to share that power in potentia? This is why I’ve always been anxious about participating in twin studies. Shall I give over to somebody else my life as an object lesson?
Recently, in one of our daily marathon phone calls, I brought up the subject of twin studies with my twin. To my surprise, she was ecstatic, and quickly added our names to several databases. “We have to do it” she insisted “for science!”

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