I am thinking soulfully of the U2 song, but what my kids are thinking of is poop. This is not atypical; poop is, in fact, the paradigm for much of their philosophical reflection. “Gosh, I don’t know,” Birdy is saying. “You’d have to sit and sit and wait and wait and just be so bored while the other person was pooping.” I picture us in the gas station bathroom just yesterday, me leaning against the wall of the stall, breathing through my mouth, eager to get back on the road, while Birdy grunted and groaned and wound toilet paper around and around her hand and hummed a little bit of “Rainbow Connection” and then exclaimed, laughing, “Gosh, I forgot for a second what I was even trying to do in here!”
“You’re right,” I say now. “I bet it can be pretty boring.”
“But you’d never be lonely,” Ben sighs—Ben, this tender-hearted ten-year-old who still bolts into our bedroom in the dead of night, driven by a loneliness that beats in his body like a second heart. “Though it could be kind of hard to learn to swim.”
My children are somewhat obsessed with conjoined twins, their awe and fascination marinated in the brine of a salty something that tastes a lot like existential angst. I get this, and not only because I, too—at their age and still—have felt the tug of curiosity in this exact direction, but also because conjoined twins offer a kind of de facto case study of personhood. Would you still be you if you were your own self in a shared body? Your independent will in a dependent package? As Patty Hensel, the mother of conjoined twins Abby and Brittany, puts it so beautifully, “They’re two girls wrapped in the same blanket.” This particular pair of sisters each has a head and a heart, but share their other limbs and organs: one liver, one uterus, two arms, two legs. Ask them if they have two heads and they roll their eyes, say, “No.” Because, duh, they each have one head.
And I know this because up late in a motel room, Michael and I watched the Discovery Channel special about them turning sixteen and learning to drive. These happy, fearless Minnesotan kids with their shiny ponytails and spunk, bickering over when to signal and turn. My God, can you imagine your kids sharing arms and legs? It’s hard enough for mine to share Laffy Taffy. You can’t help admiring the parents with their Midwestern absence of nonsense: These are kids with household chores and sturdy egos. You can’t help wishing for that kind of confidence and character for your own. In fact, we almost woke ours to watch with us—they would have loved these girls—but then we didn’t know how to feel. It was such a guilty pleasure, this sating of our own voyeuristic curiosity. There they are, so sassy, so teen-glossy, in their cute Aeropostale tank top; there they are, e-mailing their friends, doing each other’s hair, playing softball, stopping at school lockers to gossip and giggle. When Brittany says that they plan to be moms, but then snaps that when and who they date “is none of the world’s business,” you feel slapped, as if she knew that you were just then wondering about that very thing.
Which is how I always felt as a kid reading Very Special People: The Phenomenal Bestseller That Reveals the Real Lives of Human Oddities—Their Loves and Triumphs. This is a book that I rummaged from a bookshop bargain bin, and then spent countless summer afternoons poring over while all my little ten-year-old friends were braiding lanyard key chains and swimming in each other’s pools. Given my own personality, the attraction to human oddities was really no great mystery. But then here was a book that, like pornography, invited you to stare at the very things from which you knew you were supposed to look away: extra and missing limbs, beards on ladies, folks who were microscopically tiny or wildly humongous; The Mule-Faced Woman; The Dog-Faced Boy; The Elastic-Skin Man.
There were photographic plates of all of them, all uncomfortably riveting, but only the conjoined twins opened up a can of existential worms. You’d still be you with three legs or no legs, after all; you’d be you even if you were the limbless “Caterpillar Man,” rolling cigarettes with your lips, or if you were featured hirsutely in the chapter, “Hairy, Hairy People” (as I doubtless will be soon). But what if your body were not yours alone? What about the saxophone-playing Hilton sisters, joined at the spine? What about Radica and Doodica Orissa, connected at the chest? “When one took medicine, the other felt its effect” was a claim that struck—and stuck with—me. Even then it felt like a metaphor, though I wasn’t sure for what. Compassion, maybe? It was a sibling trait I sorely lacked. Somewhere deep down, I worried that my own brother could have lain writhing on the floor, and I would have hopped over him to yoink the last Fudgsicle from the freezer.
But, like that of my own kids now, my curiosity was often scatological in nature. The same way I wondered where Laura and Mary pooped when they were snowed in for shockingly cheerful months on end, I wondered about the Tocci brothers, who, the book pointed out, shared a rectum. (I can’t help picturing my kids in a whining argument about whose turn it is to wipe). Or Chang and Eng Bunker who, married to a pair of sisters, fathered twenty-one children between them. And there’s just no getting around the twenty-one certain instances of conjoined doing it required by that count of offspring. This latter is so preoccupying a subject that it actually seems to have generated a whole entire novel, Chang and Eng, by Darin Strauss. Oh, sure, it’s about other stuff, too: nineteenth-century Thailand and American slavery, for instance. But when you get to the procreation half of the book, you realize that the whole thing has been written in response to the question: How on earth did they have sex? Like the punch line to the joke about porcupines: very carefully. And the imaginary plot twist of one of the twins cheating with the other’s wife is almost too ecstatically strange to bear.
For my own kids, though, it’s not sex they’re curious about, not just yet. It’s the umbrella category privacy—someone else snatching a peek at your nethers, say—that gets them. “For me?” Birdy says suddenly over a plate of spaghetti. “The worst thing if you were a joined twin? You couldn’t get privacy to go to the bathroom.” Really? That’s the worst thing? I scroll through the six years of her life and wonder how many times out of a hundred she has yelled from the bathroom for company, wonder how many times out of a hundred I have actually finished my own wiping and flushed before she barged in.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Ben is saying now. “What if you pulled down your pants, and you were, like, Hey everyone, look at my penis! Then you’d be showing everyone your brother’s penis, too!” Ben thinks for a moment, absentmindedly drinking out of his sister’s water glass. “But I guess you wouldn’t really do that. You just couldn’t. Being a conjoined twin would be good that way—I mean, it would make you a better person, a kinder person. You wouldn’t always get what you wanted.” Another moment of quiet drinking follows. “Not that you do anyways,” he adds, which seems somehow to be the point exactly.
Maybe Ben is wrestling with a fantasy of unfettered independence—a fantasy that keeps getting disrupted by his identification with conjoined twins; he keeps realizing that his own independence is, in fact, fettered. He is not, after all, like my free-bird ex-boyfriend, tripping off to Santa Fe to play ultimate Frisbee and drop acid every other day without a shred of concern for anybody else’s pesky feelings, not that I remember or care. For better or worse, Ben’s life is conjoined with ours. “Or what if you’re on a road trip,” he’s saying now, “and one of you has to use the bathroom, but it’s not actually the best time to stop and find a bathroom?”
“Um, honey?” I say, picturing our various national tours of fast-food restaurant toilets. “That’s basically every road trip our family has ever taken.”
He laughs but can’t stop with his conjoined case studies. “Or, like, at fairs, if one person wanted to go on the roller coaster and the other didn’t? That would be kind of hard.” Yes, that would be kind of hard: I know this, given that my kids insist on each other’s company on the merry-go-round or Tilt-A-Whirl, but rarely agree on which rides to try. “Or on a trip? If one person wanted to go to a clam shack but the other wanted, like, barbecue?”
“Isn’t that kind of what it’s like anyways?” I ask gently, and Ben laughs again.
“Oh yeah, right! It’s not like I’m just eating alone in a clam shack because that’s what I wanted!” I think about the Hensel twins saying, so beautifully simply, “We take turns a lot.” Exactly.
Birdy can’t help taking her visions of conjoinedness to accidentally absurd endpoints. “What if you just had one brain and one face and one body?” Her eyes are wide with the shock of imagination.
“Um, Birdy?” Ben says. “Then you’d just be a regular single person.”
“Oh, right!” Birdy laughs, while Michael whispers to me, “A regular single schizophrenic person.”
But I understand. She’s testing out her difference from us: After years of behaving transparently, kids learn at a certain point that the movie screens of their minds play for them and them alone. Privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread. Birdy is different from us—connected, but apart—and after an umbilical fetus-hood and a nursling babyhood, this seems to be hard to grasp. I explain to her about the way Chang and Eng mixed first-person singular and plural in utterances like, “We am Chang-Eng.” It actually reminds me of Birdy herself as a comically pronoun-challenged toddler, never knowing if, as a speaker, she was “I” or “you.” “Are you hungry?” you’d ask her, and she’d reply, heartbreakingly, “You am.”
Thinking about conjoined twins is somehow making concrete for us the family condition of connection and compromise, the childhood condition of separation and dependence, the parental condition of empathy and encumberedness. And it’s not that conjoined twins exist as a metaphor, of course; they’re not here for us; they’re not simply a screen onto which we get to project our curiosity and philosophical questions. One egg split into two consciousnesses, that’s why they’re here, and you only have to watch Abby and Brittany for one minute to grasp their fundamentally unabstract humanness. In fact, I’m thinking now of this one still photo of them as little girls—a black and white picture of them in a swimsuit by the pool, with their frightened faces, their arms wrapped protectively around each other while a little boy gapes at them from the water. And what I feel, looking at that photo, is what it’s like to be their parents. To be any parent. The way you ache when they ache, the way you experience their stomachaches or heartaches or fear in your very self. It’s as if, having once been placentally connected to your beating heart, having once inhabited your actual body, your children continue to live there with you. For better and worse, you are never alone again. Sex might test your apartness from another person, but parental love defies it utterly. With a pair of small, beloved feet pressed hot against my belly, I have burned with a fever not my own; and as Tylenol cooled that body, I have known relief. When one took medicine, the other felt its effect. This love is an affliction, a true human oddity. I have never been so conjoined in all my life.
“We am Birdy-Mama,” my daughter teases from my lap.
But then Ben is saying suddenly, “Oh gosh. Another thing? If one of them dies?” Then the other will die, too. I hear it before he even says it—think of Chang’s dying hours after he felt Eng’s fatal coldness, his heart broken literally and figuratively by the broken heart of his brother. He refused to be separated, even then, even if it meant saving his own life. I think of parents everywhere—the feeling you have that you’d die if your child died, though you wouldn’t. You’d grieve and live and perhaps even thrive in your truncated self, though the ache of the missing part would never leave you. This is an individual feeling, yes, but one that exceeds the beating of a single heart. My eyes fill with tears. Only then what Ben actually says is, “I mean, you’d have to, like, drag around a—yuck—dead body everywhere you went.” He shudders, adds, “Gross,” and I am reminded for the umpteenth time that we have shared a body, this child and I, I have imagined him almost as a second self, but then, like Chang and Eng, like Abby and Brittany, we are two different people after all.
Author’s Note: I’m worried that it sounds here like all we do as a family is sit around chatting merrily about other people’s physical challenges—Wow, if you were blind, you’d sure trip over everything!—especially given the ugly, terrorizing history of the “normal,” which has always felt fully entitled, it seems, to marshal gigantic armies of alleged oddity to define itself against. Which is what I want my children to grasp: that every time you point to another person and think, “That,” you might imagine a filament casting off the rod of your finger to catch that person and reel them in close; you might consider pointing back at yourself, and thinking, “Me, too.”
Brain, Child (Fall 2009)
Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines, including FamilyFun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. She writes about cooking and parenting on her blog at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.
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