When I wrote my book The Twins, I was inspired by my own identical twin daughters, and the contradictions and complexities inside their intense and exclusive pairing. Wondering if the bonds between twins could ever be broken, I set out to explore the fictional possibilities inside that question, creating a premise where tragedy and guilt drive a pair of twins apart.
Twins have long been an inspiration for writers, artists, filmmakers and photographers. Identical twins hold a particular fascination; the idea that two people were once one person is an extraordinary thought: the halving of a whole entity into two new individuals seems magical and mysterious. The image of twins is immediately arresting, one mirroring the other, yet with tiny and all-important differences. Poets have always written about the human longing for twin souls. We yearn to find our other ‘half’, maintaining the dream of being known and loved completely by another human being. All of this is realised inside the world of identical twins where, despite competition and jealousy, twins have an unspoken understanding and an extraordinary bond. Visually and emotionally engaging, twins offer rich creative territory – it’s no wonder that there are so many stories and art works portraying twins. Here are a few of my favourites.
The Girls by Lori Lansens
Conjoined twins, Rose and Ruby Darlen, known as ‘The Girls’ in their small town, struggle to live a normal life – but how normal can that be when they are joined at the head, and are already, in their twenties, the world’s longest surviving craniopagus twins? Rose, thoughtful and literary, keeps a journal. She asks Ruby to keep a diary too. Ruby has a completely different character and her outgoing personality shines through. We have alternating chapters from both girls’ perspectives, giving an insight into their painful, entwined world. But the book is never maudlin. It never feels voyeuristic. Beautifully written, utterly believable, I was moved by this powerful story.
Wise Children by Angela Carter
A witty, carnivalesque novel narrated by aging Dora, one half of ‘the Chance sisters’ who are twins from a complicated, theatrical family bursting with other twins. Dora speaks directly to the reader, taking us straight into her world from the very first breezy, “Good morning!” The novel packs in countless references to literature (especially Shakespeare) classical theatre, vaudeville and Hollywood. Unusually for a book about twins, we only hear Dora’s voice, and she points out early on in the book that she and her sister don’t share a room, respecting each other’s privacy. This book is less concerned with the psychology of twins, and more a playful exploration of twinning, doubling, double-acts, performance and mirroring. An irreverent read, told in colloquial language; it is full of joy and wisdom.
The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace
Another set of identical girls – but this book is fact, not fiction. Journalist Marjorie Wallace tells the tragic and troubling true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons. The girls began to shut down communications with the outside world when they were three. Intelligent, talented but tormented by their ties to each other, they were unable to exist in society and retreated into a silent world. After a spree of frustrated vandalism they were sentenced to a twelve-year stay in Broadmoor where they made a tragic pact. The writer spent a lot of time with the twins and tells their story vividly and with empathy. This is a frightening example of what can go wrong when identical twins can’t distinguish between where one ends and another begins.
Lisa and Lottie by Erich Kästner
This German children’s book, written in 1949, began life as a film scenario, but became a bestselling novel instead. The premise has two nine-year-old girls meeting for the first time at a summer camp on Lake Bohren. Lisa from Vienna is a rude and confident tomboy with curly hair; Lottie from Munich is sweet and shy and wears her hair in plaits. But apart from these differences, they look exactly alike. The pair work out that they’re separated identical twins. Each parent took one child each when they divorced. The girls decide to swap identities and return to the wrong home to get to know the parent that they’ve missed out on growing up with. And so the adventure begins. The book was made into a film, The Parent Trap, in 1961, and remade in 1998.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
When two people look exactly the same there are wonderful comedic possibilities. Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity uses costume as a device to play up the preconceived ideas we have about appearance. What seems to be one thing turns out to be another. Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are torn apart when they are shipwrecked on a strange shore. Viola dresses as a boy for protection and finds employment with the beautiful Olivia. The Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia. But Olivia falls for her servant, Viola, believing her to be a boy. Meanwhile, Viola falls for Orsino. With a sub-plot between the servants running consecutively, the plot is breathless and hilarious, but holds an underlying sadness at the passing of time voiced by the clown. (I named one of my real twin daughters Olivia, and one of my fictional twins Viola.)
Castor and Pollux by Jean-Philippe Rameau
Based on the mythological twins found in both Greek and Roman legends. The boys were the sons of Leda, but each child had a different father. Castor, son of the King of Sparta, was a mortal child; but Pollux was the result of his mother being raped by the god Zeus (Jupiter in Roman myth) and therefore immortal. When Castor is killed, his brother is prepared to give up his own immortality to save his twin. Zeus takes pity on them and rewards their love by making them both immortal. They become the constellation that is known as Gemini. Rameau’s French Baroque opera, first heard in 1737, is set in ancient Sparta, with the action ranging down to the gates of Hell and up into Heaven. One of Rameau’s best known and best loved operas; it’s a rich and passionate work.
Adaptation (2002) directed by Spike Jonze, screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
A complex, multilayered film with a surreal premise in which Charlie Kaufman is struggling to write the film that you are actually watching. Nicholas Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman, a repressed, neurotic, awkward scriptwriter, and his twin brother Donald: loud, confident, brash and a hit with women. While Charlie fails at his relationship with his girlfriend, and agonises over his adaptation of the book The Orchid Thief, his twin moves in with him, takes up scriptwriting and bangs out a clichéd thriller. The thriller gets snapped up for a seven-figure sum while Charlie is still suffering from writer’s block and developing a crush on Susan Orlean, writer of The Orchid Thief. This offbeat comedy then spirals into violence and tragedy before reaching its conclusion. A story that spins reality into fiction and back again. I love this film; it leaves you thinking.
Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 by Diane Arbus
“For me the subject of a picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated.”
This black-and-white photograph of seven-year-old girls has become an iconic image. The girls are dressed in identical clothes. Stark white collars and white hairbands frame their faces. They mirror each other’s body language exactly, standing shoulder to shoulder, with arms and hands touching. Both girls have large, pale eyes that confront the viewer with a direct stare. One girl gives a slight smile; the other doesn’t. Their expressions are closed and private. Although they stand facing straight on, hands by their sides, there is no sense of either vulnerability or sharing with the viewer. Instead we feel shut out of their exclusive world. This is an eerie, mysterious portrait that seems to underline what is often thought about twins – that they are different from the rest of us.
See the photograph and read more at Fine Art Photography Masters.
A Thing or Two About Twins by Martin Schoeller for National Geographic, 2011/2012
This is a series of colour portraits of identical twins where each twin stares directly into the camera without smiling. Schoeller has photographed them separately and then placed the pictures next to each other. In this way, we are offered a fascinating experiment in comparison. Each set of portraits gives a first impression of ‘sameness’ because the colouring of the twins is exactly the same: skin, eyes and hair. But a second look reveals minute differences in the features, with noses, lips, cheeks, wrinkles and brows having slightly different proportions and shapes. But it is the expression inside the eyes that is startling. Each twin from each set expresses something individual in their gaze: we find eyes that regard us with warmth or coolness; some distant, others full of humour; some seem lit from within, while the other twin’s eyes might be blank. The portraits make compelling and intriguing viewing.
View the gallery at National Geographic.
The giant panda
Giant pandas are very likely to have twins. According to an article in National Geographic a giant panda mother, whether in the wild or in captivity, will give birth to twins fifty per cent of the time. But because giant panda clubs are born at between three and five months, they are extremely premature: tiny, blind, hairless and helpless, they are unable to move on their own for the first eighty days. Therefore, the poor giant panda mother will find it almost impossible to successfully rear both her cubs, and is often forced to choose one of her cubs to save, leaving the other to die. And this reminds me, oddly and probably inappropriately, of the book Sophie’s Choice.
Saskia Sarginson was awarded a distinction in her MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway after a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University and a BA in Fashion Design & Communications. Before becoming a full-time author, her writing experience included being a health and beauty editor on women’s magazines, a ghostwriter for the BBC and Harper Collins and copywriting and script editing.
The Twins is about identical twins Isolte and Viola. Inseparable as children, they’ve grown into very different adults. Isolte is a successful fashion editor, but Viola is desperately unhappy and struggling with an eating disorder. As children they lived in a cottage in a forest with their hippy mother, running wild with a set of identical twin boys. At the heart of the book is the summer that triggered a tragedy that changed everything and drove the girls apart.
The Twins is published by Piatkus in paperback and eBook. Read more.