1. I have been working on a novel about conjoined twins for a long time. 2. I have a sister. I suspect these facts are related.
My sister and I were close in age, and character, and interests, and tastes. We got each other’s jokes. We played day-long games of pretend with plots we made up together as we went along, without squabbles over authorship. We were reciprocal ghost writers; we were, somehow, not quite two people. But you don’t need an almost-twin to know what it’s like to get mixed up with someone else. People do it all the time.
Who are we, after all? A slurry of half-formulated thoughts and impressions, most of them too fleeting to register. Our minds are sieves. We’re wispy, gaseous. Our bodies are more solid, but often we seem to occupy our bodies rather than to be them. “Is anybody home?” we ask. Well, yes and no. Our bodies are haunted houses, and we’re the ghosts in the attic. Just as often, we can be found in the yard, the tool shed, the crawl space under the stairs: we hover nearby, keeping half an eye on the action. Most of us float a little to one side of who we think we are. We propel ourselves forward like children steering dolls across a rug, simultaneously in and outside the action. We are “beside ourselves,” we’re “absent-minded,” we “look for” and then “find” ourselves, as if our selves were kept somewhere different than the people who look for them.
Nevertheless, if asked “Where are you?” we usually answer “Here,” not “Over there,” and mean by that the place our body is. As existential philosophers we follow Samuel Johnson: if we can thump it, it exists. In Cartesian doubt we don’t syllogize, we pinch ourselves: I wince therefore I am. We can’t feel other people’s pain (“I feel your pain” is usually a lie) so pain is a pretty good persuader of self. The mind may wander, but the body brings it back. So we think of the body as the solider side of self, a plug stuck in the drain, an anchor to true the derelict craft. Confess depression, and you might be asked “Are you eating well?” This is not a non-sequitur, but pretty shrewd psychology: the way to our own hearts is through our stomachs.
However, the bounds of our body are not as clear as we think. Biology colors outside the lines. That Zeus seduced Io in the form of a cloud is not so implausible. Looked at up close all our lovers dissolve into tinted clouds, and we splash into their wetter places as if hoping to dissolve our own stiffness there, to soak in. And we do just that. Our cloudy edges are not only figments of nearsightedness. We’re made of atoms, after all, and atoms are mostly empty space. Bifocals might clear up what is cloudy about our baby’s bottom, but under stronger lenses still, the fog creeps back in. Sure, we’re thick, as fogs go—real pea-soupers—but our edges are unclear. In Flann O’Brien’s brilliant, peculiar novel, The Third Policeman, an enormous otherworldly copper explains his Atomic Theory as it pertains to bicycles: the longer you pedal, the more of you rubs off on your bike, and the more bike rubs off on you. Sooner or later, your bicycle develops a mind of its own, while you take to leaning on walls to nap.
If you think you ought to be able to tell your living atoms from those belonging to your Radio Flyer, consider the trick performed by the weed-whacker that whacks, instead, your baby toe, magicking in an instant a bit of you into mere stuff, worm fodder. Suddenly you’re here and it’s… an it—unless you pick up the toe and hightail it to a surgeon who can work the countermagic of turning a distressing morsel back into a person, you.
Ancient natural philosophers recognized two kinds of monstrous births: Monstres par Defaut and Monstres par Exces—those with too little and those with too much. Well, we can be made monsters par Defaut without, it seems, suffering a proportionate diminishment of the soul. Feats of weight-loss are not regarded as suicide, not even when the sheer mass shed could make up an entire second person, nor do we imagine that our clipped toenails and hair trimmings will meet us in heaven.
And Monstres par Exces? Well, the desire to add to certain body parts is confirmed every time I check my email. But nobody worries that by putting on extra pounds we’ll slip into a plural form. The self is singular. Sure, we pay lip service to what slips of the tongue tell us, since Freud, about the second self muttering behind the whitewashed latticework of a well-constructed sentence. “I is an other,” said Rimbaud. But that other still answered to “Rimbaud.” A conjoined twin, however, really is an other. Here, mere split personalities retire in embarrassment. Chang and Eng, dubbed the “hyphenated brotherhood”, signed letters Chang Eng and called themselves “I.”
Or should it be “themself”? It strikes me as pertinent that, typing “themself” in Word, I repeatedly find my lone elf magically multiplied (“auto-corrected”) into elves. Language does not provide for a state of being that is neither singular nor plural, neither I nor you. “We” does not begin to express the partisanship of a pair that shares one flesh. Maybe the “we” of the couple comes close, with its breezy unease about the decency of speaking for another. But generally, “we” is capacious and a bit slack, and slack is something conjoined twins rarely are. Like the Push-me-Pull-you, they are often heading in different directions, and both the body and the language shows the strain. Speaking of the 19th-century conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy, the New York Times, tossing aside their style guide, said, “As for Millie Chrissy, the two-headed girl, she is a perfect little gem, or gems, or a gem and a half, we don’t know which.”
I’m not the only one to associate monstrosity with a problem of language. “Hath God written in great letters the guilt of sin, and in a deformed body drawn a resemblance of the soul's deformity?” asked pastor Thomas Bedford at an interring of conjoined twins at Plymouth in 1635. More playfully, though still evoking a sentence passed by the father, a French journalist declared of the McCoys, “All we know at present is that nine months before their birth, on a hot summer night, their sleepy father dozed off in the middle of a conversation he was having with his wife, woke up two minutes later, and not remembering at just what point he had stopped, he began the phrase all over again.”
But the kind of sentence delivered by a judge does not court double entendre. Criminal law, property law, and marriage all depend on being able to tell the difference between one person and another. Religion, which one might imagine could accept unresolvable mysteries, becomes sophistical over this issue. Catholics have been greatly concerned over how many baptisms to perform, while an ancient text asks, if a Jew should be born with two heads, on which of them does he have to lay his phylacteries?
The confusion about conjoined twins can be resolved one way: by cutting them apart. Increasingly, this is seen as the only acceptable response. Nobody would want to be monstrous if they could help it, goes the thinking, despite the testimony of Lori and Reba Schappel—or Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst, in the 1100s—that they like themselves just fine as is. Similarly, vestigial tails and extra fingers are lopped off without giving the baby the chance to decide they like being different. The same was done to hermaphrodites until very recently. Profound philosophical questions were resolved surgically.
Conjoined twins are always the same sex, since they come from the same egg. But there is a more profound borderline they straddle. Conjoined twins usually do not live very long. But they don’t necessarily die at the same time. The difference between the living and the dead has been described as so vast a thing as a chasm, a void, or a wall, and as something as insubstantial as a curtain or a veil. Either way, though, it’s generally understood that you can’t be on both sides of it at the same time; even when someone’s described as having one foot in the grave, most of his weight is on the other one. The law certainly seems to know the difference, but then again the very fact that one must be pronounced dead is proof that sometimes it’s a question of nomenclature. Conjoined twins, though, seldom part the veil at the same time. The band of flesh that joined Chang and Eng hyphenated life and death for a terrifying span of time. Chang died of heart failure; two and a half hours later, Eng died, said his doctor, of fright. What’s it like to share a body with someone dead? “As we came together, we will also go together,” said the pious Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst. The problem was, they didn’t. “This Mezentian existence,” one writer poetically described the six hours between Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst’s departures, referencing a particularly gruesome punishment invented by a mythical Etruscan king: to strap a living prisoner to a dead one and leave him to die.
This is the strongest argument for the court’s binary logic, their
intolerance of ambiguity. It is necessary to decide whether an entity
is one person or two in order to decide whether it’s all right to cut
it in half, especially if half of it (or one of them) is going to die
in the process.
But does this question have an answer? Conjoined twins
unsettle everything we think we know about the self. They are neither
singular nor plural. They are neither comfortably merged, nor
righteously free-standing. They are problematic, even to themselves.
(Themself.) However much individual control one twin may have over
their turf—the arm or leg or bit of shoulder they steer—there is always
a no-man’s-land that belongs to both, and neither. Even if it’s just a
hyphen that holds two proper nouns together and apart.
I can’t help feeling, though, that we are all a little
hyphenated. Our own experience of the world, even if it’s one we can’t
easily put in words, is precisely this, of glomming on or being glommed
onto, losing oneself in one’s lover (or one’s bicycle). We are
dependent on others, permeable, amorphous. After the initial surprise,
conjoined twins actually seem kind of normal.
After all, after the sperm cozies up to it, what does the egg do? It
divides. Where there was one, there are two, and they’re twins. Then
the twins divide, and those twins divide, and those twins divide, and
so on and on. The grand project of individuality has its origin in
For more on the story of Millie and Christine McCoy, see Joanne Martel’s Millie-Christine: Fearfully And Wonderfully Made (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2000) from which the above McCoy citations are taken.
Shelley Jackson is the author of a story collection, The Melancholy of Anatomy, the hypertexts Patchwork Girl and The Doll Games, and several children's books. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Grand Street, Conjunctions, Fence, and many other journals and anthologies. She is the recent recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Cabinet 11 launched her project Skin, a story tattooed one word at a time on the skin of her readers, now nearing completion.
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