People have always been fascinated by twins, asking questions such as, “Do you feel each other’s pain?” and “Can your parents tell you apart?” But, says Abigail Pogrebin – author of “One And The Same: My Life As An Identical Twin And What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle To Be Singular” – books about twins have tended to miss the “nuances” of twinhood.
“The issue is more complicated than most existing books suggest,” said Pogrebin, who will speak at the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades on Feb. 11.
Focusing on twins’ individual identities, Pogrebin – twin sister of New York Times culture writer Robin Pogrebin – interviewed more than 50 sets of twins, “asking them to tell the truth about what this experience was like, about having a partner from the very beginning” of their lifetime.
Most books about twins are prescriptive, she said. They’re about how to raise twins, addressing such questions as, “Should you separate them in school?”
Emphasizing the complexity of the issue, she said that in researching her book, she spoke with triplets, two of whom were identical.
“The third said he felt left out,” she said. “That’s how complicated it is.”
“It was helpful to listen to the twins themselves,” she said of her research, “to let them tell you how it all works out. There’s wisdom to be gleaned from that.”
That wisdom is universal, she pointed out.
“I think the real takeaway here is the central challenge for all of us to make our mark in the world – to be known separately. Who am I in this very crowded landscape, especially in our society, where standing out gets harder and harder?”
When you have a double, said Pogrebin, “that challenge is ratcheted up tenfold. It’s the same dilemma, but there’s someone to whom you’re being compared, measured against, and often confused with.”
While there’s a built-in intimacy between twins, “there’s also a tension between wanting tremendous intimacy and needing independence. It’s a universal conflict,” she said. “You want a soul mate, but you also want to know you can go it alone.”
If twins are a “gimmick,” she added, they nevertheless reflect such struggles in both the best, and the most difficult, sense.
“That gimmick does get tiresome,” she said. “It becomes a bit of an albatross.”
According to Pogrebin, whose sister developed the need to affirm her separateness about 10 years ago, “separation is a really crucial issue in terms of identity. There’s a moment where you say, ‘I’m going to get some distance now,’ no matter how intimate you’ve been. You need to go your own way for a while, whether geographic or emotional.”
“I thought it was a strange time to need it,” said Pogrebin, pointing out that, at the time, the two sisters “had our own lives and our own kids.” (Interestingly – or attributable to “twin karma,” suggested Pogrebin – the two have children of the same ages.) “I felt we had our own lives, so why did she need to push away in our late 30s, early 40s?”
In researching her book, she discovered the answer. After speaking with experts in the field, she learned that such pulling away, or “needing one’s own turf, is a crucial step in the twin relationship.”
“It seemed so fundamental, I questioned why it didn’t happen sooner,” she said, noting that many of the twins she spoke with did not make that break until later in their lives.
Pogrebin said that when she set out to write her book, she was interested in covering every aspect of twinship, interviewing scientists, psychologists, and clergy. Among those she spoke with was Rabbi David Wolpe, religious leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a frequent writer, speaker, and teacher.
“He taught a class about twins in the Bible,” said Pogrebin, pointing out that there are two Bible stories about twins: one dealing with Jacob and Esau and one featuring Perez and Zerah.
“Both are about the same issue,” she said, “one usurping the other. It’s a perfect metaphor for what people assume about the twin relationship – wanting to be first, or to be better; a constant rivalry.” That assumption, she said, seems to have been present among those who wrote the Bible and exists to this day.
Still, she said, that view is “simplistic. It doesn’t get at the nuances.”
For example, she noted, “Twins are often very protective of one another. I feel ‘egged on’ and motivated by Robin, but there’s no sense of schadenfreude,” she said. “I don’t take pleasure if she stumbles; and I feel a vicarious benefit when she succeeds.”
For her book, Pogrebin interviewed a “wonderful pair of twins” named Pearl and Helen, now in their 80s, who survived Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s experiments.
“There aren’t that many of them left,” she said, calling the elderly sisters “both lovable and formidable.”
“In this case, their twinship was decisive in keeping them alive,” she said, noting the “cruel irony” of their having survived because Mengele needed them for his studies on twins.
As for Pogrebin herself, “twinship has been decisive for my own identity. It gave me a sense of safety in the world. I always had a partner, a backup, an accomplice, a built-in therapist. It gives you strength, emboldens you in your life.”
Indeed, she said, most of the twins she spoke with, especially the identical twins, derived confidence from each other.
Pointing out that there has been an “incredible explosion” of multiple births because of in vitro fertilization, Pogrebin said she has devoted a chapter in her book to fertility treatments. “It’s amazing how many there are,” she said.
She also interviewed a twin who lost his brother on 9/11, experiencing what she called “a very unique kind of grief.”
Pogrebin’s Tenafly presentation, which begins at 8 p.m., is part of the JCC’s Jewish Book Month series. Books will be available for sale and signing. For information, call Esther, (201) 408-1456.