One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I've Learned About Everyone's Struggle to Be Singularby Abigail Pogrebin
Journalist Abigail Pogrebin is many things—wife, mother, New Yorker—but the one that has defined her most profoundly is “identical twin.” As children, she and her sister, Robin, were inseparable. But when Robin began to pull away as an adult, Abigail was left to wonder not only why, but also about the very nature of twinship. What does it… See more details below
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Journalist Abigail Pogrebin is many things—wife, mother, New Yorker—but the one that has defined her most profoundly is “identical twin.” As children, she and her sister, Robin, were inseparable. But when Robin began to pull away as an adult, Abigail was left to wonder not only why, but also about the very nature of twinship. What does it mean to have a mirror image? How can you be unique when somebody shares your DNA?
In One and the Same, Abigail sets off on a quest to understand how genetics shape us, crisscrossing the country to explore the varied relationships between twins, which range from passionate to bitterly resentful. She speaks to the experts and tries to answer the question parents ask most—is it better to encourage their separateness or closeness? And she paints a riveting portrait of twin life, yielding fascinating truths about how we become who we are.
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A year after my first book was published, my editors called me in to talk about ideas for my next project. I remember they asked me what I found myself thinking most about, which subject had always preoccupied me. I blurted out, “Twins.”
And then I immediately regretted it. Because writing about twins felt like I was volunteering to do a public striptease. Because being a twin goes to the core of who I am and I was wary of examining that. Because I knew that my twin sister, Robin, would be both supportive and hesitant; not only is she more private than I am but she writes for the New York Times and always wants to maintain a reporter’s remove. Because I knew that as exhilarating as our twinship was growing up, its impact on Robin’s sense of self was more complicated than mine. Because I knew that for me to be honest about my twinship and ask others to be honest about theirs was not to tell the perfect quaint story of how we all dressed alike, tricked people, or swapped boyfriends.
Being an identical twin—I can’t speak for fraternals—is intense. It’s all the clichés: feeling like you have an unwavering partner in life, knowing exactly what another person feels, wanting to tell her a story before anyone else, confiding with unrestrained—sometimes shocking—candor, valuing her opinion above anyone else’s, taking on someone else’s pain to the point of vicarious depression, being incapacitated by any minor dispute.
To say that someone’s “always been there for me” was never meant so literally. Robin was there while I was taking shape in the dark muck of our mother’s belly, before I took my first breath of air, when I was lolling in the crib, learning to grab and chew, teetering on two feet. I have never been alone in the world. I’ve always had someone to tell, someone checking in. Though I’m our parents’ firstborn, I’ve never been an only child. I arrived as a package—the kind that’s self-contained and comes with its own handy playmate, sidekick, advocate, therapist, fan, mentor, and accomplice.
I can’t count the number of people who have asked us, “What was it like growing up as a twin?” The question lost its meaning over the years because we heard it so much and answered so often automatically: “It was great.” “It was great.”
I never mention that my twinship helped me meet people when I wasn’t bold, kept me from ever feeling idle or rootless, confirmed I was deeply known when others misunderstood me, allowed me to dive into theater because I had an automatic “sister act”, and to bypass the normal freshman-year anxiety in college because Robin was in a dorm across the street. It’s hard to explain to people that we never felt competitive, though we constantly compared ourselves; that we couldn’t hate each other, though we could argue bitterly; that we tacitly forbid anyone else to criticize one of us, even though we can be ruthlessly critical of each other; how it is that we never lusted after each other’s boyfriends, though we adopted them affectionately; that we always want to talk to each other, though we don’t always make time to see each other; that we love each other’s children, though not as our own; that we admire each other’s work, yet would never want to switch places.
I never explain that we tell each other everything but that there are things we don’t say.
Or that Robin has spent the last five years pulling away from me.
Or that I want more of her.
I don’t talk about how perfect our twinship was in childhood, why it isn’t perfect anymore, yet that I still believe it’s the best twinship I know.
Though Robin’s and my story is not the focus of this book, it is, undeniably, its spine. It’s the prism through which I listened to every other twin’s experience, the test case with which I tried to deconstruct the elements of individuality, the emotional puzzle I set about taking apart and piecing together.
Our facts, bare bones, are these:
We were born May 17, 1965, at Doctor’s Hospital in New York City. Robin had a lot of hair; I had none.
My mother recalls the names my father was mulling before we arrived: Troilus and Cressida, Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius and Ethel. I was named after my father’s father, Abraham, who was a hat blocker. Robin was named after my father’s cousin, Robert, who died in a car crash at twenty-two.
I came out one minute ahead, but only because we were delivered by C-section—Robin would have exited first in a normal birth, and she constantly reminds me of that fact.
I stood, crawled, and walked ahead of Robin; I don’t constantly remind her of that fact.
We spent our first five years living on the ground floor of a Greenwich Village brownstone; each of us had our own crib; then we shared a bunk bed (Robin was on top and once rolled out, thudding to the floor). Later we moved to the Upper West Side and got our own bedrooms at age fourteen.
Mom dressed Robin in red (like the bird) and me in blue so that people not constantly ask “Which is which?” But we still often ended up in the same outfit—fluffy winter coats, yellow slickers, and OshKosh B’Gosh overalls.
Both of us were instantly outgoing, cheerful, and hammy. We performed constantly, without prompting. No one can say why; my parents weren’t theatrical. They were exuberant, yes (Dad, a labor lawyer, is funny at dinner parties; Mom, a writer, is politically impassioned), but they weren’t performers.
Robin and I had more dress-up clothes than real clothes and our main activity—with friends or more often just with each other—was to dress up and “act.” We used British accents and a lot of flea-market costume jewelry.
We sang and choreographed by ourselves, almost daily. We were each other’s taskmasters, quick to chastise when one of us missed a step or flubbed a lyric.
Our parents were summoned night after night to “buy” tickets to our makeshift show, and in front of the scratchy green blanket we hung between closets, we belted out our latest numbers.
We choreographed a “ballet” routine to Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, complete with pantomimed lassos; we wrote a medley for our annual family Hanukkah party, with lyrics set to Broadway show tunes. (For example, “Don’t cry for me Antiochus; the truth is I burned the latkes!”)
For the annual Labor Day Show on Fire Island, where we spent childhood summers, Robin and I painted on too much red lipstick (the photographs are almost clownish, and I can’t believe no adult saved us from ourselves) and sang duets like “Downtown.” We fronted for the cute Weber brothers, who played guitar and drums while Robin and I slapped tambourines against our nonexistent hips.
When we were nine, we were interviewed by Marlo Thomas on the TV version of Free To Be . . . You and Me, because our mom was an editorial consultant on the project. I got more air time. At one point on-camera, I tell Marlo that I love being a twin because when you have a lot of feelings, “It’s good that I can have somebody to bring it out to—who’s my age.”
When we were ten, we auditioned together in polka-dot shirts for the role of an orphan in the original production of Annie. The casting directors said they would take one of us; we had to choose which. Neither of us took the role.
That same year, a producer chose us to be in a TV show called Call It Macaroni, which filmed kids learning an interesting profession. Robin and I were taken to Tucson, Arizona, to watch how a movie is made, and the camera made much of our likeness. I was surprised, when I recently dredged up my diary from that trip, to discover that Robin and I had chosen to sleep in the same bed in our hotel room, leaving the other bed empty. On my crude diagram of room 112 at the Desert Inn, I scrawled on one of the double beds, “Robin and I slept in this one together.”
When we were thirteen, we were asked by Channel 13 to shoot a promo for something with Erik Estrada—I can’t remember what. We were dressed alike, and the gambit was that Robin punched herself in the arm and I yelled, “Ouch!”
We wanted to do more professional acting, but our parents didn’t like the idea; they wanted us to have a normal childhood.
Robin and I always shared birthday parties. My mother created elaborate themes—a French party with berets and paper Eiffel Towers, a baseball party with personalized jerseys, et cetera. We always shared one cake.
We made sure we ate the same number of Oreos after school.
We always got the same cavities in the same teeth.
Our brother, David, was born when we were almost three. We were loving to him and cast him in the role of the dog or passenger in our skits, but we also left him out. My aunt tells me we were mean to him. I don’t remember it that way and neither does he, but it’s possible. Today David and I are close: We take an annual ski trip together (he’s divorced), I’ll stop in at whichever restaurant he’s currently managing just to say hello, and I adore his two boys, Zev and Arlo. But we don’t speak a fraction as often as Robin and I do, nor do we rely on each other as much.
Robin and I didn’t think we wanted to go to the same college, but we ended up liking Yale best, and were fortunate enough to get in. We requested to room in separate residential colleges, and made separate friends. We often met for lunch or dinner in each other’s dining halls and spoke on the phone every day (no e-mail back then).
We lived together after graduation in a two-room apartment with a shaky spiral staircase on West Eighty-sixth Street; we alternated who got the bed in the basement and who slept in the living room upstairs.
Both of us ended up choosing journalism. Robin went to the New York Times, then the New York Observer, then back to the Times. I produced television—for Fred Friendly, Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, and then for Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes. One year Robin decided to try television too and left the Times to produce for
Peter Jennings’s documentary unit at ABC News. She pined for the daily deadlines and returned to the paper. I switched to print journalism when I had my first child, and started writing for magazines. Robin asked that I not seek an assignment for the Times, so we could keep that territory separate. I said I understood.
We’re physically similar except that Robin is half an inch taller, wears her hair shorter, and prefers more sedate colors. My voice is permanently hoarse and I can no longer sing because I developed cysts inside my vocal cords at age thirty-seven, which, my throat doctor tells me, were probably caused by “vocal abuse”—a nice way of saying
I talk too much and too forcefully. Robin’s voice is still intact (she’s less voluble) and I sometimes make her sing to remind me of what I used to sound like.
Robin dated Edward for four years and then married him in January 1993.
I dated David for eight months and then married him in December 1993.
Robin gave birth to Ethan in February 1997.
I gave birth to Benjamin in April 1997.
We shared a baby-sitter for the infant boys until we discovered she was taking them to McDonald’s instead of to the playground.
Robin had Maya in December 1998.
I had Molly in July 1999.
We live exactly twenty blocks—one mile—apart on the Upper West Side.
It’s difficult to describe the depth and distance of this friendship. We have been adjacent for so long, there’s a fluency to our coupling, an elemental delight we don’t necessarily let others see. When we’re across a dinner table alone, we never have enough time to cover everything we want to talk about. When we’re on the subway together, I don’t want to get off at my stop. When we’re sitting side by side at a Broadway show and one song swells in a particular way, we know exactly when the other feels moved. She’s vitality to me; I have never in forty-three years been bored by her.
We are in constant communication; not a day passes without a phone call (or four), and too many e-mails and text messages. We’ll impart the tiniest news—a TV episode we insist the other should watch, a newspaper photograph that made us cry, a dessert we regret, a great book we just finished, a clothing purchase we need the other to assess, something hilarious one of our children said. We’re stirred by the same things, annoyed by the same people, tempted by the same vices.
I admire her from a distance—as a journalist, a parent, a wife, a hostess, as someone who, when she does confide, does so with a frankness and intelligence that feels rare to me. She is the person with whom I laugh the hardest: it sometimes escalates to the point where we can’t breathe or utter a sound, and only we know exactly what’s so funny. I look forward to our lunch dates as if they were parties; we dress up for each other, compliment excessively. I seek her advice before most major decisions, before I submit any piece of writing to an editor. Her approval matters because I just think she’s smart and I trust her.
The fact that our kids are buddies seems too good to be true. She’ll take mine for a weekend; I’ll take hers. There’s a private thrill when we see the four of them put on a show together, when our husbands play a good tennis match, when our families sit down to a big summer meal. The three years that we all went on Christmas vacation together felt idyllic to me.
Why do I love Robin so fiercely? Because on some level, we’re fused; because I take enormous pride in her; because she listens, lifts, and surprises me even now; because I have a certainty that she wants the best for me; because, at the risk of cliché, we’d do anything for each other; because of the enormity of our history; because we know each other to the bone. And for all those reasons, I miss her now, the way we used to be together.
I wanted to try to write the twins book I couldn’t find on any shelf: one that strips bare what it’s really like to grow up as a matched set. I knew that meant I would have to unpack my private memories as truthfully as I could, but also to listen closely to other twins in my life and some I hadn’t met before. So I tracked down the Langner twins, whom Robin and I were friends with in fifth grade and haven’t seen since. And the Lord twins, one of whom went to college with us.
I interviewed the debonair Barber twins, football stars Tiki and Ronde, who exemplify twin symbiosis, and former Baywatch regular Alexandra Paul, who grew up competing athletically with her identical twin, Caroline, who ultimately became a firefighter.
I spoke to virtually all the twins thrown in my path, embracing the “I know a twin” approach. If someone heard I was writing a book on the subject and proffered a pair, I usually interviewed them, on the grounds that every set would shed some light. If they were willing to excavate their personal twin psyche, it would tell me something about twinship. It would help explain my own experience to me. It would answer the widespread curiosity—and prevailing fantasies—about growing up with a doppelganger. It would instruct the countless new parents of twins about what to avoid or aspire to when raising their pairs—or at least offer an insight into how “the twin thing” (as many of us call it) plays out over a lifetime.
I wanted, above all, to explore identity: how it’s forged or hamstrung in the face of doubleness; how you go about finding singularity when you are both unique and alike, your own person and someone’s other half. I believed before I started—and now that I’m finished, I believe it even more strongly—that twins put into high relief the central challenge for all of us: self-definition. How do we each plant our stake in the ground, decide how sensitive, callous, ambitious, conciliatory, or cautious we want to be every day? Do we even get to decide those traits? Are we actually at the mercy of our genetic predispositions to be combative, shy, addictive, antsy, or intelligent? Twins come with a built-in constant comparison, but defining oneself against one’s twin is just an amped-up version of every person’s lifelong challenge: to individuate—to create a distinctive persona in the world.
In addition to meeting twins, I also sought out “the experts”—the eclectic roster of psychologists, geneticists, obstetricians, behavioralists, social workers, artists, and philosophers who make twins their life’s work. They include the ponytailed obstetrician who, with his brother—an army veteran—created the first Center for the Study of
Multiple Birth; the plastic surgeon who believes he started life as a twin and who takes photographs of naked identical twins to home in on their parallel anatomy; the cultural historian who wrote a five-hundred-plus-page book about copies; the lactation nurse who, after having her own IVF twins, decided to specialize in preparing parents—bluntly and bossily—for twins chaos; the fertility specialist trying to reduce the number of multiples he creates; the biologist trying to determine if homosexuality is imprinted in utero; and the woman who lost one of her twins at birth and created a national resource for grieving parents of twins.
In September 2007, I was working on my laptop when an e-mail popped up in my AOL account from Proactive Genetics, a California lab that provides DNA testing for two hundred dollars a pop. My heart leaped. “The results,” I whispered to myself. “The moment of truth.”
I had asked Robin, a few months before, to swab her inner cheek with a Q-tip, as I had done, and then mailed in our DNA samples so we could finally know for sure if we were identical. People had always assumed so—most couldn’t tell us apart—but there was no biological proof: Mom’s obstetrician had died, his medical records were lost, and since we were a C-section birth and delivered in an emergency “Get these babies out now” situation, no one seemed to have noticed placenta differentiation (the mark of two eggs).
I thought I should know, before I started this book, my official twin status. The dirty little secret of identicals is that we all feel slightly superior to the fraternal brand. We’re the gold standard: rarer, more identifiable, more mysterious. We happen only by accident. We are exact DNA replicas of each other—facsimiles, clones. I have always felt that my closeness to Robin is authenticated by our sameness. I didn’t want it to be otherwise. And I also worried that after a lifetime of presenting ourselves as the genuine article, we’d be exposed as a fake.
“We are pleased to report to you the results of the twin zygosity test that you requested. Analysis of the DNA indicates that Abigail Sara Pogrebin and Robin Jennifer Pogrebin are monozygotic, or more commonly referred to as identical twins.”
Staring at my computer, tears filled my eyes. How ridiculous. To be moved by an answer you already knew. Yet I was. Something about seeing our two full names there side by side—as they appeared on our birth certificates, the two Pogrebin babies, born on May 17, 1965, in a dead heat, one minute apart: 6:18 p.m. (me), 6:19 p.m. (Robin)—
reminded me of what a run we’ve had side by side. After four decades,it was nice to have our intimacy confirmed. What a relief, I thought. We’re the same. I didn’t want to be sort of the same; I wanted to be fully the same. Because it represented a communion I’d already claimed and boasted of. Because it was how we’d been perceived. Because I didn’t want our connection to be just emotional; I wanted it to be factual. Psychology professor (and fraternal twin) Dr. Nancy Segal states plainly in her book, Entwined Lives, what all of us identical twins already know: We’re more connected. “Fraternal twins are not as close, nor are their lives as intimately entwined.”
Whom is this book for? Anyone who is a twin, has a twin, might have twins, married a twin, knows a twin, or is simply curious to get deep inside this extreme intimacy. It’s for anyone who wants to understand why twins serve as scientists’ ultimate petri dish, why twins’ infancy can be so uniquely demanding, why their quest for individuality can be thwarted by the person closest to them. It’s for anyone—all of us—trying to hammer out a separate, clear sense of self.
I think I started this book to get inside my own twinship. Or maybe to get outside of it—to approach it as a reporter, trying to untangle all the intricacies of being born two. I spoke to twins who cherish each other, resent each other, advise, prod, and protect each other; I spoke to parents who wanted twins, fertility doctors who make them, obstetricians who birth them, artists who photograph or are inspired by them, psychiatrists who study and counsel them, scientists who deconstruct them, coaches who prepare for them.
What did I come away with? Confirmation that twins, despite their recent ubiquity, still fascinate and confound. Evidence that twins will always play a key role in decoding what differentiates all of us—emotionally, temperamentally, and physically.
I envied some pairs and judged others. I met twins who had let go of each other, others who hold on, twins who exult in their twinship, others who wouldn’t wish it on their own children. Along the way, I listened for the recipe for healthy twinship—to guide not just me but also the countless parents now raising two. Why do some twins end up feeling confined by doubleness, while others wear it like a medal? How does one start as a set and end up successfully single? Not just single meaning solo but single meaning singular: differentiated, distinct, particular, confident in one’s separateness. How had Robin and I each become One when we started out as the Same?
From the Hardcover edition.
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