My mother’s fear of identicalness was shaped by a reservoir of twin tales, stories that concern the intrinsic unity of twinship, the oneness created by two. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes’s creation myth proposes that the original human was round — composed of two corporeally linked beings. In time, Zeus cleaved these powerful creatures in two, giving form to our present human body while violently tearing us from our other half. As the myth goes, ever since, humans have been yearning for and seeking out their counterparts, aching for a return to their original unity. Though Aristophanes’s account serves as a metaphor for the origins of romantic love and desire, representations of identical twinship often embody the very essence of the myth. Monozygotic twins, united prenatally and separated at birth, only find total completeness when they return to their original form as one made up of two.
In ancient foundation myths, twins are often represented as a fantasy of the greatest intimacy known to humankind. Take Castor and Pollux, or the Gemini as they are popularly known. The tale of their twinship, from the womb to individuals who refuse to separate in death, is imbued with a cosmic intimacy. Like the halved human who has encountered his soulmate, the twins are struck by a sense of belonging, an intense feeling of love and desire to remain entwined with their double at all costs. Other origin tales depict a dramatically different version of twinship. The Book of Genesis’s Jacob and Esau, who represent two nations, go from womb to war as they spar each other in an iconic example of fierce twin rivalry. In one version of an ancient Zoroastrian myth, Ahura Mazdā, the supreme god and ruler of the universe, creates twin spirits Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu. The two are forever locked in battle, serving as a symbolic representation of the dualities of good and evil. An interesting binary emerges in these narratives: on the one hand, twins who return to the united state of the womb and live out the highest form of love and unity, and on the other, twins who live as ultimate rivals, symbolizing the most extreme embodiments of separation and difference.
From a statistical perspective, twins today make up only about three percent of the population, a number that has increased significantly in the past few decades owing to the rise of fertility treatments. Yet they have remained recurrent symbols in our popular imagination for centuries. And why wouldn’t they be? We are endlessly fascinated and repelled by them, in awe of their irrevocable bond or revolted by their bodily joining. Twins can be freakish doubles, doppelgängers, representations of the divided self, the Jekyll and Hyde within us all. Twins are also deities, vehicles of the divine, desirous objects. Though the birth of twins is relatively rare, twins are ubiquitous in storytelling — functioning as devices upon which we project our most pressing questions of identity.
My mother’s aversion to identicality was informed, I am sure, by this history of twin tales. While she wasn’t exactly worried that my sister and I would be mortal rivals or pathologically interdependent, she recognized the threat and difficulty of individuating when you are more readily identified as part of a collective “we.” Contemporary twin tales reveal a similar preoccupation: these stories trace the journeys of identical twins on their complicated paths to individuation or unity. Often, these narratives begin with some traditional notion of twin uniformity — a genetically, temporally, and circumstantially identical hand — and explore the process by which one or both twins make choices that lead them into togetherness or apartness.
Edmund White’s new novel, A Saint from Texas, is preoccupied with this very arc of identical twinship, the journey from prenatal unity to inexorable division. Yvonne and Yvette are Texan twins from oil money who are “identical […] down to the least little mole,” but are diametrically opposed in spirit. Yvonne, the novel’s primary narrator who tells the story of her life retrospectively with epistolary interjections from her twin, is a bawdy, brassy blonde with a world of appetites and an ambition to become a part of the Parisian gratin, the aristocratic elite. Her identical twin, Yvette, is seemingly the opposite. She is virtue embodied: a volume of Kant under her arm at all times in case of “an idle moment,” and a commitment to a life of service. Though their geographic and moral separation becomes more prominent as the novel progresses — Yvonne moves to Paris and marries an impoverished patrician while Yvette joins a Colombian convent — the twins remain indelibly connected. No matter how distant they might seem, they are cosmically linked, sharing a private language, sense of pain, and past.
Though these twins seem to personify the most extreme versions of personal difference — one twin is vacuous and promiscuous while the other is cerebral and saint-like — White complicates these traditional binaries of identity. Both are delightfully obtuse and judgmental at times, both “a little bit gay around the edges” with a tendency toward domination, both reverent toward their different forms of “god.” In fact, the lives they have respectively chosen, though superficially dissimilar, resemble each other enormously. Both have escaped the violence of their family in dusty Texas where “everything was a simulacrum,” and traded it in for vibrant locations alive with history. Both have immersed themselves in new languages and customs. Both have found love and lost it. Neither twin returns to Texas.
In escaping their homes then, and leading such separate lives, the sisters have lost some of the original unity of twinship but have somehow found their way back into sameness. White explicitly links this back to the biological origins of twinning: Yvonne reflects, “[F]or the first twenty-four hours we’d been just one zygote […] mitosis had split us one from the other […] what remained was the intuition that for a long day we’d been a single cell.” This oneness, then, is presented as inescapable, unavoidable. No matter how far the twins go, they remain inextricably linked.
White’s A Saint from Texas is, at its core, a comedy of manners that explores twinship as merely one element among many other thematic endeavors. The book is populated by a cast of eccentric characters impervious to their ridiculousness and delightful in the asides they cast on society, desire, and devotion. The sisters are just two of them, and though their twinship continues to be discussed lightheartedly, neither the sisters nor White are oriented toward the nuances of twinship. Perhaps this is his most astute representation of all, though. It is possible, White seems to say, to live life as a twin, aware of your original unity, but free to live without it dominating your life.
According to Yoruba culture, not only do identical twins share an egg in utero, but they also share a soul. Toward the end of Tola Rotimi Abraham’s recent twin novel, Black Sunday, identical twin sister Bibike remembers her Yoruban grandmother’s belief that the length of twins lives is “nothing but a conscious uncoupling of souls.” This is a striking moment for the reader — over the course of the novel, we have watched a family disintegrate, and a pair of twins, once carefully united, choosing to break from one another.
Like A Saint from Texas, Black Sunday is preoccupied with the diverging journeys of identical twin sisters. Though Bibike and Ariyike’s separation is instigated by external forces rather than inherent difference — a shattered household, differing faith, sexual abuse, fetishization — Abraham sharply captures the internal forces that also drive their uncoupling. At the end of the book, Ariyike recalls the first time she realized she was a different person than her sister: “It is possible that my personality has been framed entirely by that moment, by the joy of being separate,” she says. “It is possible that all my life, I have continued in this vein, intent on proving that I am different, separate from her.” Here, Ariyike reveals the potentially monstrous intensity of identical twinship; a union and identity so all-consuming that she felt her only chance at individual worth must come in opposition to her sister.
In Yoruban lore, the twin unit is considered close to the supernatural world and to God. Their power is in their union; if one twin dies, the other is in danger of dying as well. “[E]verything is a story unless you live in it,” Bibike remarks as a child. Must twins accept the myths imposed, or can they rewrite them? Can power exist apart from your other half? The pair end the novel in separation, not consciously uncoupled but instead, violently fractured. Once “the closest sisters in all of Lagos,” they haven’t spoken in three years, divided by loyalty to their individual autonomy.
What Black Sunday implies, Dorothy Baker’s novel Cassandra at the Wedding makes dramatically explicit: twinship can exist as both an unparalleled experience of platonic unity and a source of interminable oppression. Cassandra at the Wedding, the 1962 novel reissued by the New York Review Books in 2004, tells the story of an identical sister twinship that devours individual identity. Cassandra cannot imagine herself without her other half and aches to preserve the unity and “ancient oneness” that she and her sister have shared since birth. Her twin, Judith, meanwhile, reveals how lonely she is with her sister and seeks to extract herself from the almost romantic intensity of their twinhood by joining in another form of union: marriage. The twins’ drastic enmeshment is manifest in their experience with a mirror: each sister sees the other’s reflection. The inability for a twin pair to establish separate identities is often linked to the mirror stage. In Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the mirror stage is an essential phase of development; the child recognizes itself in the reflection as an image of an object external from the subject. According to psychologist Dorothy Burlingham, monozygotic twins often have delayed mirror identification: the twin recognizes the image in the mirror not as themselves but as their other half.
Twin siblings can be torn in a million directions. Like Cassandra and Judith, they can be pulled apart to encourage “becom[ing] individuals,” so as not to be “confused in ourselves, nor confusing to other people.” They can be revered as a rarity or discriminated against for their likeness. They are constantly subject to a “menacing mass of clichés that are thrust on [them] from the outside.” “Twinship, it seems, is a never-ending cycle of pulled-apart and put-back togetherness — negotiations between external expectations and lived realities.”
While Cassandra at the Wedding is in explicit dialogue with mythologies of twinship, 21st-century twin tales often deploy twinship to tackle more general questions of identity. Like Black Sunday or A Saint from Texas, like Brit Bennett’s affecting novel The Vanishing Half, or Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians, most recent female twin stories provide a lens through which we may understand our own personal journeys. How do we form our identities? How do our birth circumstances shape the course of our lives? How do the stories we are told about ourselves change us? These twin narratives serve as battlegrounds upon which we explore contemporary questions of choice and individuality. Rather than utilizing a third-person narrator, they are stories narrated by the twin herself — both mirroring and steering the reader’s own search for identity in a world that tells them they are unique but deficient.
As I read these stories, I wonder how my version fits in. My parents were fixated on creating boundaries between my sister and me. We were sent to different schools; we stopped sharing a room when we were young; we drifted in and out of friendship. Both of us craved the twinship we read about in books; neither of us felt that we had it. None of it felt cosmic; a lot of it was mundane.
When I tell someone I’m a twin sister, I’m always met with enthusiasm. First, they clear up the identical, fraternal question. And then, without fail, I am always asked the same thing: where is she?
To have a twin sister is to know her whereabouts. To have made the conscious choice that you are together, or she is elsewhere. To have moved from togetherness to some semblance of apart. My sister and I aren’t one; we live our lives distinctly, individually. We are twins though, one iteration among the millions.
Tanya Bush is a graduate student living in Brooklyn. She’s on the creative team at Tables of Contents and writes book reviews for Publishers Weekly.