In her latest book, One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular, author Abigail Pogrebin examines twinship from the inside out seamlessly weaving her personal journey with twin sister Robin along with interviews from dozens of twin experts, parents of twins, and twins themselves. Part memoir, part investigative journalism, One and the Same is a fresh alternative to traditional how-to guidebooks for parents expecting two or more. I had a chance to talk with Abby about her book, her relationship with her sister, and what two-and-a-half years of research taught her. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
Question: You write that after the publication of your first book, your editor asked you what you’d like to work on next. You said, “I remember they asked me what I found myself thinking most about, which subject had always preoccupied me. I blurted out, ‘Twins.’” What was going on with you at that time that made you focus so much on being a twin?
Answer: If I look back on the time there was something percolating that I wasn’t necessarily honest about. There was a certain kind of hunger that I had for something with Robin that was not fluid or natural as it had been between us in the past, and I missed it. That translated to a curiosity as to what happened with us. How did we get here? It’s not like we got to a bad place. It’s hard to explain to people how you can be so close to someone and also be dissatisfied. How you can have this ultimate intimacy and it can also be flawed. I think that’s what drove the curiosity. And not that it’s all about me and I wanted it explained, but I had a hunch that there was something more universal about these questions—closeness versus independence, about identity and how we all really need to be sure that we’re somehow singular in the world, that we’re somehow uncommon. I think all of that stuff was swimming around somewhere in my unconscious.
Question: There are many wonderful revelations about your relationship with Robin in the book. For instance, you write, “Some part of me is simply unwilling to accept the fact that our friendship today doesn’t resemble its 12-year-old version. Maybe it’s not that Robin gives me too little; it’s that I expect too much.” What was the biggest lesson that you learned?
Answer: That it’s time for me to let go of a certain standard of sentimentality. It’s not just realizing that Robin needs distance, but also accepting that this may be the new version of our intimacy—so many of the experts told me that this has to happen, that twins have to separate twice. They have to first separate from their parents, and they have to separate from each other. And that doesn’t necessarily happen when you think it should like when you’re kids. It can happen really late in life. At a certain point I had to start hearing that. This has got to happen, and I had to let Robin have that. That was actually a revelation to me.
Question: There was this underlying melancholy throughout the book. Every set of twins must face the inevitable painful parting, or as you write, “Identical or fraternal, establishing separateness seemed to be the primary stumbling block.” Do you think that parents interfere with the separation process?
Answer: I think there are things that parents can do to facilitate the separation process. I talk in the book about spending separate time with each twin. Which maybe shouldn’t have been a “eureka moment” but was in my family. It wasn’t as though my parents did something malevolent by not spending time with us separately. It literally never occurred to them. I think there’s an environment that can be fostered where there are opportunities for forging separate memories, separate bonds, separate ties, and I think that’s where a parent can help. But at the same time there’s going to be a moment in that twinship that is right for those twins to separate and it’s not going to happen at the same time. So many twins that I spoke with described that time where one needed a break at a time when the other wasn’t ready for it.
Question: What other advice can you give parents of young twins?
Answer: There is an impulse—completely understandably—that parents have to balance the scales with twins. When I talked with other parents of twins for this book, they talked about how strenuous and exhaustive it gets. A number of them talked about if one twin gets invited to a party, then they’ll call the parent and ask if the other can go too. The problem with that is that twins don’t develop a muscle—and I don’t think Robin and I did—for the regular rough and tumble of life, which is that things are not fair. That’s a cliché’ but it has a different resonance with twins. Robin and I didn’t develop the muscle for disappointment, for the sense that things don’t always work out your way. Parents have to help their kids feel disappointment, to be in it and to get through it. It’s one of the great challenges of parenting. You want to fix things, you want to right things. Robin and I had wonderful parents who loved us and had that impulse. When Becky Greenberg invited Robin to the Halloween party and not me in seventh grade, my father said, “Give her a call. Talk to Becky. Ask her why.” I now see that was wrong advice instead of his saying, “You have some friends that you’re closer to and Robin has some friends that she’s closer to. We know this isn’t a great moment but we know that you’ll be fine.” I didn’t get that message. And I don’t think Robin got it either. When disappointments are bigger later in life and you haven’t really known what that feels like or that you can survive it, it’s just heartache.
There’s also this investment in twin perfection. You really want your relationship to be as ideal as everyone thinks it could be. There is this mythology about twins—much of it based in truth—that you have this soul mate; that you have your other half, that you are miraculously, effortlessly understood. When things aren’t perfect, and you’re really invested in the perfection, sometimes you don’t know how to handle it. I’m not saying that twins don’t have conflict but sometimes there’s more pressure to have everything be OK.
Question: The chapter “Risky Business: The Shoals of Birthing Twins” paints a very sobering picture of multiple births. Most books on preparing for multiple births out there address the risks but in a very upbeat way, offering hope and possible solutions to getting around the inevitable complications. Why did you feel it was important to include this chapter and why did you choose to lay out the facts without sugarcoating them?
Answer: Frankly, I was so startled by how sobering the facts were. I would never dare say, “Don’t do this,” but I think the full picture had been underplayed. And I talked to a lot of parents who wished there had been more honesty about what was at stake and what could be ahead. The facts are the facts and that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t go ahead and try to get pregnant. The hope in the chapter is realizing that Single Embryo Transfer (SET) is really effective and much safer. If that could be the new world and it could be covered by insurance. It was also written as a nudge to say, “Hey, let’s help these parents make this right.” So they’re not taking this risk by jumping in it and not going bankrupt trying.
Question: You also explore the concept of competition between twins in your book. You use this great phrase, “The Tension of Twinship.” It’s really a paradox where the twin pair wants to be treated equally by their parents but at the same time they want to be treated differently in order to distinguish themselves. Can you explain the struggle from a twin’s point of view?
Answer: There’s this pull for equality. A parent may have expectations that the twins should have the same of everything—gifts, the same activities. But then the twins can begin to lose themselves in the muddiness of this system. It’s hard to imagine when you see young twins that there is anything that’s not wonderful about having this built-in play date, soul mate, all the things that twins offer each other. Many of the twin experts told me that twins end up not knowing how to distinguish themselves unless they figured out a way to do it early. Instinctively they had to have their own thing that was just theirs. That they weren’t stepping on each other’s toes every day. Especially with identical twins where the genetics are the same leading you to choose the same things.
Question: In the chapter, “And Then There Was One,” dealing with the loss of twin, you write, “The world of twin loss—and it feels like a whole universe once you enter it—extends powerfully to parents who have lost a twin.” I gather that this was a subject that went far beyond what you expected.
Answer: I really had no idea. While researching, I kept coming up against it. I tried to open up the whole canvas of twins while doing my research but this kept coming up. I didn’t seek it out. I wasn’t thinking now I have to look at what happens when you lose a twin or when a parent loses a twin, and I certainly didn’t know this whole world of in utero twin loss.
Question: What about early twin loss? Specifically Althea Hayton and her belief that in utero twin loss has a psychological effect on the survivor. I found it riveting but a little odd as often the loss occurs in the first trimester of pregnancy. I couldn’t get a read on your opinion though. You didn’t take sides, in fact you seemed open to the idea.
Answer: I always try to let people speak for themselves and let readers decide for themselves. With this in utero twin loss I felt like I would lay this out there. I’m not sure what I think and let’s see what others think. This was really new territory as there’s no science at all to support a hunch that if you started as a twin pregnancy and ended up as a singleton that it’s going to have some kind of psychological impact somewhere down the line. But there is, and thanks to Althea Hayton it’s much more organized now, this body of anecdotal testimony from people. There’s no way to quantify whether they’re affected by it. There are a number of people in my life that say, how can you trace this? At the same time, it’s this ineffable intimacy that you have with your twin. You can’t quite describe that closeness. There are people like the Barber twins, the athletes, who absolutely believe that the act of being in the womb together is significant. So if it’s significant for the twins in their later life, then maybe it’s significant for a twin who ends up coming out alone. Let’s just say it’s possible.