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First Person Plural
By ANDREW W.M. BEIERLE
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Andrew W.M. Beierle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy twin brother, Porter, and I have been inseparable since birth. That's not merely an observation. It's a diagnosis. We are conjoined twins. The technical term for our particular physiognomy is dicephalus, which for all its Latinate camouflage is most frequently translated as "two-headed," a term both Porter and I find distasteful, if accurate. We live cheek-by-jowl in what most people would consider one body: we have two heads, attached to two necks, and a single torso with separate spines fused at the pelvis. Within our single rib cage are three lungs, two gall bladders, two stomachs, and two hearts. An important distinction: two very different hearts.
We are a little broader at the shoulders than the average man, but otherwise, from the neck down, we look pretty normal. Porter is to my left and controls the left side of our body, including the movement of our left arm and leg. I control the right. Tickle us on the left side and Porter laughs; prick us with a pin on the right and I flinch. We alternated childhood vaccinations, although Porter frequently insisted it was my turn to get the shot when it was actually his, and I have endured more than my share of pain.
We are arelatively rare breed. Although dicephali account for roughly ten percent of all conjoined twins at birth, their survival rate is significantly lower than those of less extreme configurations. And because of the almost unfathomable horror we strike in parents and medical professionals alike, mercy killings of dicephali were not uncommon as late as the 1960s, just a decade before Porter and I were born. The medical texts contain reports of fewer than a half dozen sets of conjoined twins like us who survived into adulthood. In other times and other places, when the world was less enlightened and life less valued, we might have been forsaken by our mother and father, left in the woods for wolves to devour or deposited on the steps of an orphanage or insane asylum. No one could blame them. To do otherwise under certain circumstances-say, in a small central European village in the Dark Ages or in Spain during the Inquisition-was to invite further heartbreak. They might have been shunned for producing such a monstrosity, an abomination, a "crime against nature." Or they might have been forced to leave their village, might even have been stoned on the way out or been pelted with spoiled vegetables and human waste.
But times have changed. Our parents are educated and financially secure, and we have led, if not a sheltered life, then one as close to normal as possible. Although most people are uncomfortable in our presence, at least initially, and our childhood was not free of taunts and hurtful comments from strangers, intentional or not, the zeitgeist of political correctness has spared us the pain and humiliation we otherwise might have suffered at the hands of the cruel and the curious.
Still, it has not been easy. From the beginning, our parents faced a series of difficult and increasingly complex ethical and logistical questions, including the advisability of euthanasia for both of us, the morality of sacrificial separation of either Porter or me from our body, and the pros and cons of institutionalization. In each instance, they chose the option they believed the most merciful and life affirming for us, even though it might be the most difficult, costly, and emotionally demanding one for them.
There is simply not enough meat between us to make two men. Had our parents chosen to sacrifice one of us, the procedure would have been complicated, the physical devastation traumatic, the long-term outlook for the surviving twin bleak. Instead of being strong and athletic, swift and graceful, as we are together, the one who remained would be hobbled, immobile, confined to a wheelchair. Instead of being healthy-robust-he would be shrunken, shriveled, particularly prone to infection and illness, or worse. But together ... together we thrived.
Porter and I are about as well adjusted as we could possibly be, given our circumstances. I can't imagine any parents doing a better job. Beyond Mom and Dad, however, I don't think any of our relatives ever wholeheartedly embraced us. People think kids don't notice things-little things-about the way they are treated, but they do. At least I did. I could tell that hugs from either of my grandmothers were more reserved, more tentative, than those we received from our mother. Even when we were well past the age at which we wore diapers, it was as if we were always soiled and they were afraid of getting close enough to smell our shit. Other relatives were even worse. Our aunts and uncles offered smiles that were ambiguous at best, vaguely threatening at worst: quick flashes of teeth that just as easily could have been some primal warning for us to stay away. When we arrived at their homes for holiday celebrations or birthday parties, no one ever picked us up or hugged us. They were always too busy taking our mother's and father's coats, or they were occupied with carrying things-cocktails, or a stack of newspapers they suddenly noticed on the floor, or one of their own children. I don't think there was ever a time we showed up at Aunt Susan's for Thanksgiving that she didn't spend the first fifteen minutes after our arrival walking around the house carrying the turkey in a big roasting pan like a hostess on The Price Is Right, smiling, chattering away with my mother-her sister-acknowledging Porter and me with a nod, but always carrying around that big old bird so she had an excuse not to touch us. And our cousins-our poor cousins! They had to be cajoled into playing with us, constantly being nudged toward us and then inching away, just to be shooed toward us again, back and forth, as if we were on the deck of a ship rolling through heavy seas.
Early on, Mom and Dad determined that Porter and I should be a part of the world, not apart from it. They decided, in the language of educators, to "mainstream" us: to introduce us to the world and to prepare us to live in it; to protect us as much as possible from life's inherent cruelties but not to pretend they did not exist.
With Porter's consent-and mine-our parents made the very deliberate decision to allow Time magazine to write about us extensively at the ages of six, ten, and sixteen, and to permit PBS to broadcast a two-hour documentary on the occasion of our twenty-first birthday in 1996, the year in which we carried the Olympic flame on one leg of its journey to Atlanta, our hometown. This public relations campaign was the brainchild of my mother, a professor of marketing at the Druid Hills University School of Business, who thought a gradual, limited, and carefully controlled introduction to the world at large would make our inevitable emergence into public life easier. My father, who holds an endowed chair in cognitive psychology at Druid Hills, agreed, and for the most part they were right. Millions of people were introduced to us at arm's length. The squeamish could turn the page or change the channel; the remainder became aware of our existence and acclimated to our appearance. In the process, we became celebrities of a sort. Having watched us grow up in print and on television, people think they know us, and that has engendered respect, even admiration.
Our parents structured our private lives with extraordinary care, fending off curiosity seekers and the more lurid media, nurturing self-esteem, encouraging individuality. We did not become the property of the public, as the Dionne quintuplets had a half century earlier, nor did we suffer the fate of the most famous pair of dicephali, the Italian brothers Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci, whose parents grew rich exhibiting them in Europe and America in the late nineteenth century. At their peak they earned a thousand dollars a week, a princely sum for the time, though they frequently were forced to share the limelight with lesser acts, such as Jo-Jo the Russian dog-faced boy, a boxing kangaroo, and Mademoiselle Vallette and her dancing goats. In 1897, at the age of twenty, they used their earnings to retire to a villa near Venice, where they lived in isolation for more than forty years. Their seclusion was disturbed only once, in 1904, when each brother married a different woman, an event that aroused interest in them anew and prompted a Frenchman, Dr. A. P. de Liptay, to publish a book that speculated about their peculiar intimacies titled La Vie Sexuelle des Monstres, "The Sex Life of Monsters."
As infants and toddlers, Porter and I were given separate toys, usually the same items but in different colors. As we grew up, we were taught that some things belonged to each of us individually and some we had to share, usually big-ticket items like our bicycle (there was really no point in buying two, since we could ride only one at a time). We played regularly with a small group of kids from our Ansley Park neighborhood whose parents, like ours, were well heeled and well educated and taught their children not to fear Porter and me, to treat us as individuals, and never-never under any circumstances-to ask us why we had two heads.
Personally, I am fascinated by the question of why. Conjoined twins are always monozygotic, the product of one egg and one sperm, so there was a time when Porter and I were one, truly one-undivided. There was no me, no him, only us, but a singular us, an I, not a we. Our singularity lasted no more than two weeks, since the division of identical twins typically takes place during the first fourteen days of a pregnancy, when the tiny fertilized egg is little more than a collection of cells, a microscopic dollop of genetic caviar. In our case, the process of division also came to an end during this time. The parts that were there continued to develop normally, but the die was cast: we were destined to have two heads, like a double-struck penny.
My mother refuses to talk about her pregnancy-not just to me but to anyone-or at least to talk about it in a way that reflects on the fact that it was different from anyone else's pregnancy or that her "issue" was in any way unusual. So I have never been able to ask her the questions I have always wanted to ask: What happened during those first two weeks? Was there ever a time she felt as if something unusual were taking place? Did she notice the moment when one began the journey toward two-or the moment when the process stopped?
Of course, I know the answers to those questions: "I don't know." "No, no, no." No woman knows-really knows-she is pregnant during those first two weeks. But I've always felt that given the circumstances, she ought to have known, that it should have been revealed to her, that there should have been some sign, that suddenly everywhere she looked she should have seen the number two or noticed things in pairs. Later, when we stopped dividing, she should have taken particular notice of the letter Y, split at the top, joined at the bottom; should have driven past the YMCA on Highland Avenue and observed that the neon Y was burned out or was the only letter illuminated. But apparently she didn't.
Just as I am fascinated by the process that brought Porter and me into being, other people are intrigued by us. Unless they are medical professionals accustomed to dealing with conjoined twins and the other horrors of which nature is capable, they probably have never seen anything as strange as us. Alas, their inability to grasp the complexities inherent in the situation, their lack of insight, is appalling. They repeatedly ask the same unimaginative, unanswerable questions. "How did you learn to walk?" is a favorite. ("Do you remember how you learned to walk?" I respond.) The more audacious among them muster the courage to ask about our excretory functions. Only a discussion of sex would be more titillating, but that seems too personal a subject to broach. The meek or less imaginative settle for, "When did you first realize you were special?" God, I hate that word.
The fact is, I can't recall the exact moment at which I understood that Porter and I were different from other children, or rather that they were different from us, which is how I first saw it. My memory of such things is clouded, if it is a memory at all and not a subsequent fabrication, some family folklore, but I have often heard the story of how my mother first addressed the subject. I was a precocious child and learned to read early-nearly a year before Porter. I was reading a book in which a young blond boy, a farmer's child with rosy cheeks and bib overalls, was described as "tow-headed," and I asked Mom why the drawing of the boy showed only one head. I suppose I thought it was a typographical error, that the author meant "two-headed." My mother likes to say that after explaining to me that "tow-headed" meant blond-Porter and I were tow-headed as well as two-headed-she worried that on top of everything else I was dyslexic.
For some time as a child, I believed Porter and I were normal, that being half of a pair was the natural order of things. I'm not sure how I rationalized the fact that all the adults around me had only one head. I know for a while I thought Porter and I might continue to divide, that as we grew up we also would grow apart. When I realized such a metamorphosis was unlikely, a terrible new fear took its place. I was afraid one of our heads, finally recognized by our body as superfluous, might dry up and flake off like a scab. As far as I know, I never verbalized that apprehension, but my parents sensed it might have occurred to us and years later told us that, like African American parents who bought their daughters only dark-skinned Barbie dolls, they briefly flirted with the idea of enhancing our self-esteem by having our toys custom-made for us. A two-headed G.I. Joe was fleetingly considered, but the potential trauma of having the supplementary head fall off was too great a risk, and they abandoned the concept altogether.
Mom told me I went absolutely nuts the first time I saw a cartoon about Noah's ark, and thereafter I insisted on collecting anything that depicted the beasts of the world boarding the big, windowless boat two by two: storybooks, puzzles, pajamas, LEGO sets. I squealed with delight every time a Doublemint gum commercial aired, driving everyone to distraction by singing the jingle endlessly, and every time I saw two people kiss on TV, I turned my head and kissed Porter, who usually started to cry and eventually responded by hitting me. My mother has since told me she never knew what to make of all this, but I'm convinced I converted all those things into a positive self-image, which has helped me survive despite the gradual realizations that existence is a solitary thing in our world; that although the animals boarded the ark in pairs, they were actually separate, a male and a female of the species; and that while lovers may look a lot like Porter and me when they kiss, they inevitably part.
Chapter TwoPorter and I have been blessed as well as cursed. On the one hand, we are what we are: a freak of nature, an oddity, a monster. On the other, we have the faces of angels-and a heavenly body. A writer for Vanity Fair who was perhaps a little too enamored of her own prose suggested Porter and I were so beautiful that we were, literally, cursed by the gods-conjoined as punishment for such a hubristic affront. If you ask me, she'd been reading a little too much Edith Hamilton.
As children, we were positively cherubic. I've seen the pictures: two boys, sweetly sleeping, Porter's head lolled just a bit to the right, mine a bit to the left, so we looked as if we were two normal twins cradled together. The casual observer could not imagine the horror and heartbreak swaddled in that blanket. Dad always cropped in close when taking our picture, so our faces usually filled the frame or extended beyond it (many were out of focus because the focal length was insufficient) and our body was rarely seen. I've always meant to ask him if he did that on purpose or if, like a lot of fathers, he was just a lousy photographer.
Excerpted from First Person Plural by ANDREW W.M. BEIERLE Copyright © 2007 by Andrew W.M. Beierle. Excerpted by permission.
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