One and the Same – Abigail Pogrebin (2009)

book237Subtitle: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned about Everyone’s Struggle to be Singular.

I happen to be one half of identical twins, and read this non-fiction earlier this summer, but for various reasons, had not got around to posting a review or thoughts about it. This book was a good combination of both personal experience (the author is an identical twin) and science research on twins and it was fascinating to read about some of the more recent studies in twin research.

However, Pogrebin seems to have had a much harder time of peeling off “being a twin” than my twin and I did, and becoming a “whole” person as she has become older. I’m an identical twin, and we were very close growing up. (We had an older brother, but generally, it was my twin and I who hung out together all the time.) We did the same sports, had mostly the same friends, went to the same school (and had the same classes quite a bit), came to college in the U.S. together, similar majors, and graduated together. In fact, we didn’t live in different area codes (but same town) until we both married and we were 30 when we were split up and she moved to a different state. (We weren’t “weirdo” close, but we were close.)

I was devastated when that happened. It was a combo of being “left behind” and “being separated” and it took me a while to move on. But I have, and I think our twin relationship has been strengthened by it. The move forced us (or perhaps just me) to forge ahead and to be individuals which can be pretty hard to do, surprisingly enough, when you’re a twin. I imagine it’s easier to know who you are as a singleton, but when you are identical twins and people can’t ever tell which one you are, it’s extremely easy to be “the twins” as a package instead of two people. (This is both good and bad.)

Side Note: I wonder if male twins have this issue. It’s not mentioned very much. Well, ever,

So -when you are a pair of female identical swimming* twins from England on a large college campus in West Texas who bike everywhere all the time when most people don’t bike – trust me – you get noticed. (One funny thing was that quite a few people didn’t realize that there were two of us and just thought we were one person who got all over the place all the time and never went home.)

(Another funny aside: being an identical twin usually means that you both sound identical on the phone to *everyone* so no one could tell us apart even in the middle of a phone call when we passed the phone back and forth between us for fun. This could be useful in your younger social days when you’re trying to avoid someone because you could pick up the phone when it rang, the caller asks for you, and you could say you’re “not in right now and can you take a message?” and no one can tell. Not that we actually did that or anything. Nope. All theory. )

And so although I was initially irked by Pogrebin (the author) getting annoyed by her sister wanting to separate both geographically and personally, I’m more sympathetic now. I imagine this split happens to most identical twins at some point in their adult life (if not before), and it’s a natural step to becoming a person, not just “one of the twins”. However, I think problems begin when the separation (for lack of a better word) happens to you both, but at different times so that you are both on different timetables, so to speak. (This is what seemed to be occurring to the author here.)

I’m glad I have the experience of being a twin – it’s a fun place to be, for the most part, as there is a tendency for others to view you (the twins) as a side show or a spectacle of some type and you do tend to get lots of positive attention together. (“Oh goodness gracious, how adorable… They look the same. They must be twins!”)

And I enjoy “being a twin” when I visit my sister or she visits me – we still look alike enough for strangers to comment (although we try not to dress the same which is quite hard as we like the same clothes and what looks good on her will look good on me, so shopping is easy.) In college, we lived in different rooms but the same dorm, and we ended up wearing the same clothes quite a bit accidentally (mostly because we tended to like the same things.) So – the rule was that the person who got up earlier could keep the clothes on and the other one who got up later had to go back to their room and change. Honesty system, but it worked.

Nowadays, I must admit that I do enjoy being “my own person” with my own friends and not being relegated to “one of the English twins”. Twinship is something that you don’t have any choice about – you are one or you’re not and they’re not going to go away for the most part – so you’re lucky when you have a twin you get on with. I’m quite fond of mine. 🙂

Strange but true: we went to a private girls’ school (loved it), and there were five and a half sets of twins in our school year. (The half was fraternal and so the boy went to another school.) Three sets were identical (all girls, bien sur) and then two fraternals (one set of fraternal girls and one boy/girl pair). This was way before the time of IVF so multiples were still quite rare in the general population. The teachers could NEVER get us all sorted out (apart from the fraternals). Fun and annoying in equal quantities at times.

Twins rule.

* The “swimming” bit refers to the fact that my sister and I were both student athletes on the university swimming team. Thus, we usually had one or more of the following most of the time when we biked around: wet hair, hungry, big duffel bags full of gear, going to/from swimming practice, and/or wearing some item of swim team-related clothing (t-shirt etc.).

As Nature Made Him: The Boy who was Raised as a Girl – John Colapinto

A fascinating and sad look at the on-going argument of Nature vs. Nurture with regard to gender identity in children. Sounds hideously dry and textbook-y, but it isn’t. It’s written by Rolling Stone writer Colapinto who obviously took great pains to get the full story of this medical horror story.

For those who are not familiar with the case from the 1960’s in the U.S.:  two infant twins, Brian and Bruce Reimer, went through a fairly normal circumcision surgery, except for Bruce, who had a truly incompetent surgeon who botched the whole thing and led to Bruce getting his penis cut off. Of course, this led to difficult decisions for his young and inexperienced parents: what to do that would be best for the young boy? Talking with a famous psychologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, they are advised to raise Bruce as a girl instead of a boy.

The psychologist, Dr. John Money, believed (and may well still believe) that gender identity is malleable and if you raise the child correctly (according to him), then the child will have no problems being whichever gender has been assigned to them.

However, (and this is a big “however”), this doesn’t work. Bruce (now called Brenda) is treated like a girl and dressed like a girl, but this does not feel right to him. Year after year, Brenda’s parents take her to visit with Dr. Money (who has some questionable therapeutic tactics) and despite Brenda putting up a fight about this, she is still forced to visit him.

As the book continues, and we see Brenda struggle to grow up in the female gender, it gets heart-breaking to read about the well-meant collusion between the various medical authorities involved in her case. I don’t think they meant harm to anyone – they just didn’t know and all the info they had to base their decisions on were from Dr. Money (who was convinced that his theory was right). Treat Brenda as a girl, and she will accept that gender.

It’s not until her mid-teens that Brenda’s concerns are finally heard, and receives “permission” from her psychiatrist to be a boy. She has felt like a boy her whole life and couldn’t understand it as no one had told her of her medical history. (This was recommended by the nutty Dr. Money.)  Brenda (now calling himself David) was much happier but have the years of gender confusion done irreversible damage to him?

Colapinto does not lionize David – he does sound like a difficult person at times – but does a good job of allowing the reader to sympathize with most of the characters in this misery play. Looking back through time, it seems obvious in many ways that it would have been better for all if Brenda had been allowed to stay Bruce regardless of what his body looked like. However, this was before the internet; this was before it was acceptable to research your own medical condition and to question your medical team. Doctors were the Expert Authority, and for this young married couple in Winnipeg, they had no other way to know any differently.

The only clearly wrong character was the psychologist who, using faulty data, managed to ruin four lives from afar without any punishment from anyone.

This book sounds hideously depressing, but it’s not really. It reads like a long investigative journalistic piece (which is not surprising considering that Colapinto is just that). He does a good job of weaving the various threads together to make a coherent whole, and although the book has not been updated with David’s most recent history, a quick internet search shows the conclusion.

It must have been very difficult for David – who could he blame? The surgeon who botched the early operation? His parents who were ill-educated on this issue? A very persuasive psychologist at a well-known hospital who acted as though this was the only thing to be done? I think the buck stopped with Dr. Money, myself, and how he can live with himself for these decisions… I am not sure.

David’s story opened the world’s eyes to the problems associated with surgical gender assignment for children who are born intersexual. What would you have done in his parents’ position?

There is still an ongoing debate about this so it seems that the issue has not been solved yet.

Anyway, an  interesting book on a fascinating subject. Nature or Nurture? It seems that Nature will win.