Thursday, July 06, 2006

Seeing Double

It having been National Twins Day this week and Mad Twin and I (her ephitet, not mine) having trogged down to St Thomas' for a Twins Party at the Twins Research Unit (sorry for the tongue twister), I thought it an appropriate moment to take stock and share some of the more interesting things about being a twin.

People often ask us what it's like being a twin. As we have no experience of anything else, it's quite a toughie to answer. My instinct now is to respond with, What's it like being a singleton? There you can't answer that either can you...

I can only go on my only experience here, but for me the best way of describing being a twin is to say that it is like looking at yourself in the mirror. Your reflection is you, but slightly off. That's kind of the way it is.

My sister and I share many characteristics: we are open, warm, friendly, passionate, impatient, stubborn and bad-tempered. We hate criticism and can be deeply oversensitive, imagining hurts and slights that don't exist, but that does make us quite sensitive and empathetic with others. (We're Cancerian you see - tough exterior, soft insides). We're also insanely competitive - especially with one another.

Somewhere along the line we must have come to some unwritten agreement that we would take some characteristics and make them more our own - so my sister tends to be more passionate then I am, whereas I tend to control my emotions slightly more. She is probably more focussed and disciplined then I am, whereas I have a tendency to fire off at random. She is the unconventional one - in marriage she chose a peace activist, I chose a dentist - and at school was the one most likely to be in trouble. She has a keen sense of injustice and is the first to leap up and say, it's not fair, whereas I am more inclined to shrug my shoulders and take a pragmatic response. And yet, I have a strong sense of fair play to, and when she chooses to she can be pragmatic.

I like to think we're the opposite sides of a circle, and together we make a whole. In fact, my favourite poem, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, by John Donne sums it up pretty well. In it, he compares two lovers being joined together like a set of compasses (bit odd, I know, but hey, he was a metaphysicist) - but he could equally be describing twins, when he ends the poem:

Such wilt thou be to me, who must
Like th’other foot, obliquely run,
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begunne

Being a twin is not without its difficulties sometimes.

There's the obvious one of being mistaken for one another. Time out of number I've been on a train or a bus somewhere and a complete stranger has claimed to know me. I usually just cut to the chase now and say, I think you must know my twin. (If it is a case of mistaken identity and they know neither of us, people tend to think I'm making it up!). Very often they do. But the problem can then arise that they think they know you. Which they don't. I'm not her, I want to scream, I'm me.

So reclaiming your identity can sometimes be tricky. Our brother used to drive as mad as children by claiming we were one person really. No, we're not, we would shriek before hurling ourselves on top of him. As he is six years older, this really wasn't a fair contest, and we always came off worst. But it set alight in me a strong desire for independence, and my mother thinks I spent a lot of my childhood trying to escape being a twin.

I can't remember that really, but I do remember the irritation of my sister always beating me (only marginally, but she did always do better) academically. I was always slightly better at English, and eventually she beat me at that too. I was an absolute cow about it, but fortunately she forgave me. Did I mention the great thing about being a twin? No one else will ever be as forgiving of your sins - what you do to your sister/brother you also do to yourself...

We very rarely fall out - we've only done it twice in our adult lives - and when we do it is cataclysmically awful. Until we make up, neither of us feels quite whole. Not something that those around you can understand too easily, but I'm sure other twins do. It is like the world is out of kilter and nothing fits or feels right. To be at odds with your twin if you are close to them is a pain beyond description. The relief when the argument is over cannot be overstated. It feels like you've come home.

All of this stuff is something non-twins may well have with other siblings, but we have other siblings too and the twin-bond is deeper. We were there at the start together, and I sometimes wonder what happens at the end - I was born half an hour later, do I pop off half an hour later too? I never like to dwell on that one too long. A world without my other half in it doesn't bear thinking about.

We also have shared memories in common - sometimes I know something happened to one of us, but can't remember which one. Or I look at a photo and I don't know if it's me I'm looking at.

The fun side of it is pretending to be each other, which we did a lot as children but now of course we're all grown up and don't do that kind of thing anymore...

But we do share a tendency to ring people up at the same time/send similar cards or presents. I'm not sure if that counts as being psychic, but we certainly think along similar lines and come up with similar conclusions. I guess that is something that other twins can relate to, too...

I'm not hung up on being a twin, and now we have families we don't often get together, but to go and spend a whole day with other twins felt like something of a treat. Several of us stood chatting outside the hospital while waiting for our other halves, who were incredibly easy to spot. Although even for a twin there was something slightly spooky about seeing hordes of identical couples walking up to St Thomas'. I felt at times as though I was in a very bad SF movie. I don't think I'd have been all that surprised if Shaun of the Dead had turned up...

Scary SF experiences aside, it was actually a great day. We all had our picture taken in the blazing sunshine (yay! fame at last), before heading off to lunch. All the twins were met were very jolly and convivial and chatting with them, it is quite apparent there is a huge commonality of experience amongst us. And for once in our lives it was nice not to feel like the odd ones out.

I am also hugely grateful to the lovely people at the TRU for letting Mad Twin and I talk about our experiences running the marathon.

One good turn deserves another, so....

The work the TRU unit does in using twins to research different diseases is hugely important and they are always looking for more twins for their database. If you're a twin/know of some twins and want to find out more:
ring: 020 7188 5555
or email:

With huge thanks to Ursula and Lynn at the Twins Unit for a wonderful day and to Professor Tim Spector for getting the unit going. It is a huge privilege to be part of the database!

And to my mad twin for being the other half of my whole.


As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
—Whose soul is sense—
cannot admit Of absence,
'cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

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