The truth about conjoined twins

The comedian grabs his mike, leans forward like a preacher or a cheerleader. “Repeat after me: ‘I am unique.'”

“I am unique!”

“‘I am an individual.'”

“I AM AN INDIVIDUAL!” roars the audience.

“‘I do not repeat phrases just because someone tells me to.'”

“I DO NOT REPEAT phrases just because . . . ” (Confusion. Laughter. Shame-faced applause.)

This routine forever endeared me to Steve Martin – my second-favorite living American philosopher (right after Yogi Berra, who gets top billing because he is only inadvertently wise). Face it, our naive mythos of rugged individualism just makes us all the more susceptible to group-think. The genius of the American system is that we conspire in our own hoodwinking. We are at once the most faithful and the least God-fearing of nations: we want to believe, but not to be confined by the dictates of the conscience.

But for all that, I love our culture of extreme individualism . . .

****

Spurred by my attempt to conjure up a two-headed woman, a couple readers searched the online database ProQuest and came up with an article from Life magazine, July 1996: “Together Forever,” by Kenneth Miller. My father remembers an earlier article, also from Life, describing the English conjoined twins of whom I was thinking the other day. (That article appeared too long ago for Proquest to pick up.)

The Miller article, which The Sylph was kind enough to forward, is touching and thought-provoking. The “Hensen” twins are somewhat more separated: their extra-wide torso contains two hearts, two stomachs, three lungs, and two spinal cords as far as the waist. At the time of the article they were in Kindergarten, and appeared happy, healthy, had loving parents and a supportive community (a small town somewhere in the Midwest). I’d love to reproduce the entire article, but I’ll content myself with a few paragraphs.

Each controls the limbs and trunk, and feels sensations, on her own side exclusively: If you tickle the ribs on the right, only Abby giggles. Yet the girls manage–no one knows exactly how–to move as one being. The paradoxes of the twins’ lives are metaphysical as well as medical. They raise far-reaching questions about human nature: What is individuality? How sharp are the boundaries of the self? How essential is privacy to happiness? Is there such a thing as mental telepathy? Bound to each other but defiantly independent, these little girls are a living textbook on camaraderie and compromise, on dignity and flexibility, on the subtler varieties of freedom. . . .

Abby and Britty are lucky to live in such a [rural] setting, and they’re lucky to have a set of parents intrepid enough to help them navigate a difficult path. If the Hensel adults ever feel overwhelmed, they don’t show it. “I don’t think we’ve ever said, ‘Why us?'” says Mike. Instead, they seem to relish the challenges posed by their two eldest daughters. They have taught Abby and Britty to swim, to ride a bike and to explain that they came from a single egg–and are therefore special–when other kids ask questions. They buy the twins snazzy outfits, then have a seamstress modify the upper portions. “It’s important to create two separate necklines,” says Patty. “Otherwise it would make them look like they’re one person.” They encourage the girls to express their individual tastes in everything from leggings (Abby likes blue; Britty prefers pink) to hobbies (Britty is into animals; Abby loves to draw). While the Hensels are not particularly religious–“We go to church, but we don’t sit in the front pew,” says Mike–they draw on reserves of strength that can only be called spiritual. They also draw on a circle of helpers: Patty’s sister, Mike’s parents, the family doctor, the day-care provider who helped the twins learn to walk. . . .

When Abby and Britty go among strangers, the stir is not entirely the product of ignorance or insensitivity. As Freud noted, any event evoking ancient images of the supernatural makes us shiver–and gods and sorcerers have long been adept at generating doubles of themselves. Twins have symbolized good or evil in many cultures. The Yoruba worshiped them; the Algonquin killed them at birth. No wonder conjoined twins, who throw our definitions of doubleness and singleness into disarray, elicit such awe.

One uncanny phenomenon regularly associated with identical twins, conjoined or not, is paranormal communication: the man who dreams of a plane cash just as his twin’s F-14 is going down in flames; the woman who dreams of a litter of puppies the moment her twin, thousands of miles away, gives birth. Scientists have failed to find a higher incidence of telepathy between twins, but as Eileen Pearlman, a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in twins, puts it, “Is that because it doesn’t exist or because there isn’t a way to test it? The jury is still out.” It is certainly tempting to chalk up some of Abby and Britty’s behavior to mind-reading. Like many twins, they often speak and act in unison. Playing cards with their day-care pals, they shuffle the deck without even looking down. When Britty coughs, Abby’s hand–the right–shoots up reflexively to cover her sister’s mouth. “The other day,” says Mike “they were sitting watching TV. Abby says to Britty; ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ Britty says, ‘Yup.’ And without another word, off they went to the bedroom. They both wanted to read the same book!”

Pearlman, who says she often senses when her own twin is about to call, believes identical twins may simply know each other so well, and have sufficiently similar brain wiring, that they can anticipate each other’s actions. Dr. Carson of Johns Hopkins speculates that something else may be at work with Abby and Britty: “Given the fact that they have shared organs, it’s almost impossible for there not to be some overlapping in their autonomic nervous systems.” . . .

The Hensel girls are stars here. Today the kindergarten teacher, Connie Stahlke, is having her 11 charges cut out paper snowmen. As always, she gives the twins an option: Create two separate projects or team up. Although they often work independently and never copy each other’s answers on tests, they decide to collaborate this time. Since it is impossible to use scissors without a spare hand to hold the paper, it would take them twice as long to finish if each made her own cutout. In the end, the twins’ snowman is the most elaborate of all.

Teamwork is a concept Abby and Britty have grasped more quickly than their peers. Once, after several students got into an argument, the twins led a class discussion on how to get along. “They’ve definitely had to do that their entire lives,” says Stahlke. . . .

It can’t have been easy. Their different temperaments have been apparent since infancy. Abby has a voracious appetite; Britty finds food boring. Abby tends to be the leader (“She wants more things and is more diplomatic in getting them,” says Mike’s mother, Dorothy); Britty is more reflective and academically quicker. Sometimes they argue. Once, Britty hit Abby in the head with a rock. But they have obvious inceptives to arrive at a consensus. When they can’t agree on where to go–a rare occurrence–they literally cannot move. When one misbehaves, both are sent to their room. “They watch out for each other like you wouldn’t believe,” says their father.

To J. David Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has written on conjoined-twin psychology, the individualism of siblings born of a semidivided egg sheds light on the nature-nurture debate–the question of whether we are shaped mainly by heredity or environment. Unconjoined twins have identical genes (nature) and grow up only inches apart (nurture), what can explain their dissimilarities? Some scientists theorize that the position of each fetus in the womb affects development. Some suspect one twin is dominated by the right brain hemisphere, the other by the left. Smith’s answer is less mechanistic: “It isn’t just genes or the environment. People are acutely involved in creating their personalities. They make different choices, choose different directions.” The development of conjoined twins, he says, “is a compelling study in human freedom.” . . .

In the hallway, the girls are putting on their sneakers. Abby consults her sister: “I think I should make a double knot, don’t you?” Britty nods and lends a hand. [Their mother] Patty, watching from the kitchen, gives one of her enormous smiles. “If they had to be put together,” she says, “I think they were put together perfectly.”

This makes me want to weep and cheer at the same time. I left out the central episode of the story, where they go to visit the Mall of America with their parents and siblings and are treated with an amazing mixture of respect and friendly curiosity. A few people stare, then apologize. Folks are friendly and welcoming as only Midwesterners can be. Sometimes I hate this country, but then I read something like this and it makes me realize I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

7 Comments


  1. “When one misbehaves, both are sent to their room.”

    This line has always bothered me. I find the punitive style upsetting especially in this case. Honestly, positive parenting would be so much better.

    I know they are a good family and well loved, but since I read that article years ago, that line has always bothered me, the American obsession with punishment to the point that an innocent child would be punished. That really, really bothers me. Why punish at all when positive parenting works just as well and especially, why punish a child who is innocent for something the other did. The obsession with punishment really, really upset me all those years ago and still does. Just a reflection from a non American, shocked not by the beauty and spirit of two amazing people conjoined but shocked by the choice of the parents to punish, when positive tools work just as well.

    Reply

  2. Good point. I’m not a parent either, but I’ve been witnessing some non-punitive child-rearing at close hand and it seems to work pretty well, as long as the parents are engaged and affectionate, firm in setting boundaries, and extremely patient.

    Thanks for the comment.

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  3. Oh, come on. The parents aren’t whipping the girls black and blue with a belt. I think these “non-punitive” parenting advocates can be as obnoxious and sanctimonious as the “you have to spank to have godly children” types.

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  4. these “non-punitive� parenting advocates
    Which ones? The straw-man fallacy won’t win any arguments around here.

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  5. Children are like canoes; they need a paddle to keep them on course.

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  6. It looks to me like the parents are doing a great job raising those two girls, a very great job. Why get to het up with the “punitive punishment” method. Seems to me, they are extremely well adjusted, considering everything.

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  7. Considering how well adjusted these girls are, I believe their parents have done an exceptional job raising the girls.

    Reply

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