“So why twins?” That’s the question I always expect when telling people what my novel “The Replacement” is about. Only I never seem to get it. Instead my answer often leads to a lengthy discussion on that very subject. It seems that twin relationships fascinate many people. They certainly do me, and here is why…
Mine was a solitary childhood. I was an only child whose parents divorced when I was five and though I loved my home it sometimes felt empty. Like many only children I grew used to my own company and embarked on love affairs with books and history that have never ended. But in spite of my developing self sufficiency I still longed for a constant companion of my own age.
All my friends at school had siblings. My four cousins were siblings too. Of course they didn’t always get on. By the time I was ten I’d lost count of the number of times I’d listened to pleas that a particularly annoying brother or sister be flattened by a passing tank! But at the end of the day that bond of affection was still there. They bickered but they made up. They fought but would usually stick up for each other. And I envied them that. I wanted that sibling bond too, and who better to provide it than a twin?
Over the years I’ve met many people who shared the same childhood fantasy. Some were only children like me. Others had siblings but still felt a sense of something missing. It was only recently that I stumbled across a medical condition called “Vanished Twin Syndrome” and began to understand why this might be. It is estimated that around 20% of conceptions are of twins but only 3% result in twin births. One twin is lost at an early stage in the pregnancy. The mother does not have the normal signs of miscarriage and the twin essentially vanishes in the womb – its foetal matter being absorbed by the mother, the placenta or by the surviving twin. If, as many believe, memory begins at conception then there may well be an unconscious sense that someone is missing together with a desire to try and recreate that lost bond.
As a child my notion of twin-ship was very simplistic. Twins were best friends. They did everything together. They liked the same games, laughed at the same jokes and always kept each other’s secrets. It’s only as an adult, both through meeting twins or reading books and articles about them that I’ve come to see that the relationship can be far more complicated than I ever imagined. Though many twins view their twin-ship as a blessing there are some that view it as a curse and it was these toxic types of relationships that I wanted to explore in the book.
There are advantages to being an only child. One never has to deal with sibling rivalry. It is inevitable in all sibling relationships but imagine how much more intense it can be between twins. You are exactly the same age, you may be physically identical, and will pass through every childhood milestone together. And with such closeness inevitably comes comparisons. What if your twin is better than you at everything? How does that make you feel, both about yourself and about your twin? No one likes to feel second best. To have that feeling permanently must cause immense resentment that can continue long after childhood is over, especially as your bond is often seen as a blessing by other people who are continually telling you how lucky you are to have it.
And what is it like to always be one of a set? What if you really are extremely close? I’ve met twins who’ve told me that as children the only friend they wanted was their twin. Does that closeness impede the ability to form relationships with others? What happens when, in most likelihood, the day approaches when you have to part ways to go to different colleges or to take jobs in different locations?
I read an article where parents of twins talked about how previously peaceful twin relationships suddenly became violent as the day of separation approached. In a way it makes perfect sense. All your life you’ve had this other person by your side. Suddenly they won’t be there anymore. How will you cope? What if you can’t? What if they can? What if they don’t seem to need you anymore? You lash out because you realise that there is a dependency there and you resent the other person for causing it.
In some cases of course that dependency can last a lifetime. I remember watching the film “Dead ringers” in which Jeremy Irons played identical twin doctors whose bond was so complete that neither was capable of functioning without the other. It made me wonder how twins who have so intense a bond can go on functioning if one of them dies.
There is actually an organisation called “Lone Twin” where bereaved twins can meet and share their stories. In a documentary about twins one such twin said that he had formed so intense a bond with another bereaved twin he had met through the organisation that it was causing problems in his relationship with his girlfriend. She was jealous of this new relationship but he had told her that she would just have to come to terms with it. I guess what he was really telling her was this new “twin” did and would always come first.
So if I was ten years old again and had the power to conjure myself a twin would I still do it? The honest answer is that I just don’t know. If we could have that wonderful close bond I’d always dreamed of and neither of us would have to lose the other until very late in life then I think the answer would be yes. But relationships aren’t like household appliances. They don’t come with guarantees. So thank God for my family and friends, for books and history (!) and the fact that I will never have to make that choice.