How to Approach Twins in the Wild

by HILLARY MOSES MOHAUPT

Ten Questions Every Twin Must Answer

  1. Are you identical? Do you look alike?

  2. Which one of you is older?

  3. Is it hard to live so far away from your twin?

  4. What's your sister's name?

  5. Do you have the same personality?

  6. Did you dress alike growing up?

  7. Did you go to the same school and study the same thing?

  8. Can you read each other's minds?

  9. Do you feel pain when she feels pain?

  10. Do you every wake up and wonder which one you are?

Abby & Hillary then

Abby & Hillary then

Wait, You Have a Twin?

Recently I was at a conference for an organization my sister and I both support. I was strolling through the exhibit hall when a handsome stranger suddenly greeted me with a huge smile of recognition and a hug. Before I let go I said, “Do you know I’m Hillary and not Abby?”

He looked confused and a little crestfallen. “I’m Abby’s twin sister,” I explained. “People mix us up all the time.”

Now that my twin sister and I are adults and live on opposite coasts of the United States, there are few opportunities for this kind of confusion, but in high school we encountered it on a daily basis. People would stop us in the hallways and start talking, without waiting to confirm they were talking to the right twin. Later, my sister and I would confer; we called this “taking messages.”

Over the last couple of years, since my sister moved to California, and I moved to Philadelphia, I've been thinking about twinship with renewed intensity. Because we are not often together, people don’t know immediately that we are twins, and these days, when I talk about my sisters I don’t always distinguish my twin from my non-twin, precisely because I know what’s coming (see above). I don’t want to have an otherwise fluid conversation interrupted by a flurry of questions.

Abby & Hillary now

Abby & Hillary now

The Most Mysterious Humans Beings on Earth?

Fraternal twins are the most common kind of multiple birth among humans beings, occurring in one of every eighty pregnancies. Fraternal (non-identical) twins can be kind of a disappointment to people – less sexy, maybe.

The fascination with twins is centuries old, fueled, in part, by circuses that touted them as freaks, but the treatment continues to occur. Gemellology – the scientific study of twins – has been important to understanding human genetics as a whole, but it lends some weight to the image of twins as anomalies to be studied and, in the darkest contexts, subjected to experiments.

One recent example of the depiction of twins in American culture is Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. The book appears to have been written by someone who’s never interacted with twins other than as strangers on the sidewalk. With two sets of identical twins, Her Fearful Symmetry depends heavily on a certain number of assumptions – that (spoiler alert!) the spouses and children of twins do not recognize their own kin.

On the other hand, one recent meditation on twins is particularly nuanced: Stephanie Porcell’s essay “Tracking the San Francisco Twin" in Narratively really speaks to the pressure of growing up a twin and finding yourself in the tension between a desire for individuality and the very real and very deep connection that can be present between twins.

Twins are featured in a lot of movies (think “The Parent Trap”). This list on IMDB eventually devolves into movies starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen who are, despite obvious outward appearances, fraternal twins.

Ten Questions Every Twin Must Answer

Sometimes these are not posed as questions; sometimes they are stated as fact. As in, “You two are identical because your parents dressed you alike as toddlers.”

  1. Are you identical? Our parents didn't know they were having twins before we were born, and they never had us tested to determine whether we're genetically identical or fraternal. Our answer changes, depending on the day and whether we want to talk about it. (I imagine this is not very much unlike the “where are you from?” question many Asian Americans report having to answer, ad nauseum.) No one likes the "we don't know" answer. Even when they stop us in the middle of the marathon we’re running together, side by side, in order to ask this question. Most people like to hear “yes”; some people don’t think fraternal twins are “real” twins. My mother recently asked if, given the opportunity, I had any interest in knowing whether my sister and I are identical or fraternal. It was a good question. I said no, except if there were some life-saving reason to know that we were identical and I could therefore give my sister a kidney or something Do you look alike? Yes. Kind of. Sometimes. She dyes her hair. We're not the same weight anymore. I'm half an inch taller. People like to hear "yes."

  2. Which one of you is older? We were born by c-section, within the same minute as recorded on our birth certificate, which means neither one of us is older. We were born on the same day. We are the same age.

  3. Is it hard to live so far away from your twin? No. Not any harder than living far away from my other sister and my parents.

  4. What's your sister's name? This is to see if we have matching names, like Hillary and Holly. My sister is named Abigail Wynne and my full name is Hillary Gail. I like that we do share some part of our names--we both have Gail in our names in memory of our grandfather Gale--but that it isn't obvious. Like so much about us, we don’t match, but we coordinate.

  5. Do you have the same personality? No. My sister is loud and gregarious. I'm not. We re two different people so – shocker – we have two different personalities. Even though we have the same parents and grew up in the same environment. Two brains, two personalities.

  6. Did you dress alike growing up? Kind of. My parents often had us in coordinating outfits -- the same style of shirt in two different colors, because it was easier to shop that way. But we started dressing ourselves when we were in pre-school. In college, we sometimes called each other to wear the same thing--or same kind of thing--on a day when one of us needed to have some long-distance support. But we were the only ones who knew we were doing it. And we never did it because we were twins.

  7. Did you go to the same school and study the same thing? No. We both applied to my parents' alma mater and when my sister decided to go there, I decided to go somewhere else, and I was very happy about that decision.

  8. Can you read each other's minds? Yes. Right now she is thinking that you are asking rude, probing questions. No, although in sixth grade we finally realized that we could probably jinx the system and have some canned answer for "What number is your sister thinking of right now?"

  9. Do you feel pain when she feels pain? When we still lived together in Illinois, the answer was no. But when I studied abroad in France during high school I inexplicably got sick on the Metro at what turned out to be the same moment my sister was having an intense, abusive fight with her boyfriend in Illinois. Then recently my sister broke her right hand and in the same period my right wrist flared with some nerve pain (that went away when my sister got her cast off).

  10. Do you every wake up and wonder which one you are? Only one person has ever asked us this.

Why Twins Matter

My younger sister, who has spent her whole life reminding my twin sister and me that we are not special and we are no different from other people, an attitude that I appreciate more and more in my adulthood, because it has nicely balanced out the ways in which other people examined us like specimens in science class.

To be clear, of course: the perils of twinship – the impolite staring, the thoughtless questions, the invasion of our privacy, the history of freakdom – are nothing compared to the systemic oppression experienced by large groups of people in the United States and around the world.

I like to think, however, that the experience and the stress of being subjected to other people’s probing ignorance have engendered a unique kind of empathy in me, and in most twins who want to be seen and treated as two individual human beings rather than merely half of whole. I want to hope that the upshot of enduring a lifetime of inconsiderate, innumerable questions is a heart that considers the feelings, perspective and gifts of each unique person.

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Hillary Moses Mohaupt is a listmaker: she writes, runs, talks like a Midwesterner, and bakes too many pies. Follow her at hillarymohaupt.com and on Twitter at @greymusegal