How do we make sense of conjoined twins?
It’s still a question, whether Eng had to die that night. They had an agreement, he and Chang, and theirs was a bond that would not break easily. They were linked physically from birth; they depended on each other come what may. If Chang drank, Eng got drunk. If Chang loved, Eng found love, too. When Chang suffered a stroke that left the otherwise healthy Eng dragging about an invalid, doom was in the air. No one was sure how the cards would play out, but they both knew the backup plan. Not long before, during one of Chang’s frequent drunken rages, he pointed a knife at his dear brother and promised, “I’m going to cut your gut out!” after which Eng pulled Chang to the doctor and insisted they be cut apart at once. The doctor refused, but assured the twins he would perform an emergency operation when one twin did die. So, for Eng, the January night in 1874 when Chang lay dead beside him was the denouement to the unresolved dilemma of his life. After years of suffering Chang’s crotchety drunks, after the détentes, the compromises, the promises — that January night, Eng knew that if he weren’t divorced immediately from Chang, he too would die. “Then I am going,” Eng told his family. And go he did.
We can’t think of Chang and Eng Bunker as separate any more than they could. These were the original twins from Siam after all who, born 200 years ago in 1811, gave all conjoined twins their euphemism. We can’t think of them apart, but neither can we think of them as one without being seized with dread. We think, no way in hell could I have lived my life that way. Perhaps we would have chosen early death. Suffice it to say, a life in which the most basic bodily functions are shared — walking, defecating, having sex with your wife — is so inconceivable to the unjoined person, one might as well imagine living in a two-dimensional universe. It seems impossible that Eng and Chang Bunker managed to construct real lives out of their impossible situation. That each brother would fall in love and marry. That, between them, they would father 21 children, run separate households, become gentlemen farmers. That they had distinct personalities, distinct interests and cares and still carried on as one. And so, because they lived and thrived, the remarkable tale of the Siamese twins gets told again and again.
Chang and Eng underwent countless medical examinations over the course of their lives, always with the purpose of trying to figure out just how connected they were. Most doctors came up with the same conclusion: If they separated, Chang and Eng would likely have died. More serious, separation might have left only one survivor. This last possibility, no matter the unintentionally shared drunks and illnesses, was unthinkable for the Bunker brothers. Theirs was a life shared, independent but together, and that was that. To separate would have meant to completely rethink that life. To separate, Eng and Chang Bunker would have had to believe that the only thing holding them together was some cartilage and skin at the torso (skin and two complete livers that were fused — one can visit this esteemed double liver at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia). Some say Eng died of fright, but who can say what scared him the most? Death, surely. Maybe he thought he would be lonely without Chang, or feared the operation that would remove his dead brother from him like an old bunion. But maybe he feared that, even if he survived, he would not be Eng without Chang.
In the presence of twins we lose our mental footing. How is it that two people can exist from what was to be a single person? It’s not without reason that twins are characters in all our mythologies and many of our horror stories: Castor and Pollux, the Mayan Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh, Romulus and Remus, Lava and Kusha, those weird little girls in The Shining. Twins are a symbolic externalization of what we have decided is our dualistic nature. One twin is always good, one is bad. One is beautiful and the other ugly. One is mortal, the other divine. One is destruction and the other creation. Even so, twins are always a team. They may be in conflict, but the goodness of one twin is inextricable from the evil of the other. How often is it that twins are more familiar to us by their “collective” name: the Gemini, the Ashvins? The tales of twins are there to remind us how good and evil both reside inside us, impossibly scrambled — not to mention (more often than not) beyond our control, and that we humans are just the breakfast plates upon which our scrambled values are served.
And if we are made tipsy by the sight of twins, the sight of conjoined twins bowls us over. We look at Chang and Eng — at all conjoined twins — and think, no, it cannot be that way. There they are, two human beings sharing a heart, a leg, a head! We think of monsters, deformity, depravity, and the terrifying chaos of Nature’s whim. Twins make us question what is right and natural for an autonomous individual human being. Conjoined twins make us afraid for a reason far deeper and far more personal: They make us question our very status as autonomous individual human beings. For as much as we wrangle around inside our postmodern jargon, debating what constitutes a good body or a functional body or a defective body, we all agree on this: our body must be our own, it must belong only to us. When we look at Chang and Eng, we wonder, at what point could own our individuality dissolve into another’s? If we shared an arm? A leg? A brain? A heart? A life?
We take it for granted, then, that Siamese twins would separate if they could choose, especially now that 21st-century medical advances make it possible. In a 2000 BBC documentary, South African surgeon Heinz Röde — a leading specialist in the division of conjoined twins — summed up their condition as such: “My own philosophy,” he said, “ is that twins are born to be separated.” Which is to say, he believes people are born to be separate. In separating conjoined twins, we feel that we are saying to them, “You have a right to be alone, to be individuals alone, in your own body alone, determining your own destiny, alone.” Isn’t this the very definition of a free self, the knowledge that you can always extract yourself from another? Yet, if you ask conjoined twins, most seem quite comfortable with their shared bond. “We’d never agree to an operation,” Dasha Krivoshlyapova told the BBC. “We just don’t need it.” “Even when we were little we didn’t want one,” said Masha Krivoshlyapova. “We are a little collective.”
This last sentiment is simultaneously adorable and horrifying. For what would it mean to turn our lives into a “little collective,” to permanently, inextricably attach our fate to another’s and always experience our lives in terms of another? Would it not make us unsure where our own “self” began and ended, unsure that we were the tellers of our own jokes, the designers of our own hopes, the caretakers of our own needs? How could we accept thinking of “me” as “us,” accept being unfree? In other words, what we see, and fear, in Chang and Eng is love.
In 2006, conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel decided to share their 16th birthdays with the world in a special for the Learning Channel. Far more dramatic in appearance than Chang and Eng, Abby and Brittany look like one grand body with two heads. Their well-coordinated walk is something of an acrobatic miracle. In the TLC documentary, the mother of these blond, cheery, all-American twins describes encountering her daughters’ recent exploration of their body/bodies. She found them one day, she says, running their hands over each other’s flesh, trying to find out how their bodies worked together, asking, Do you feel that? Do you feel that? Do you feel that? This delicate, awkward manipulating struck me as a very 16-year-old endeavor. Unlike the solitary childhood discovery of the body, where everything is fresh and strange, the teenage version is a re-imagining of the flesh, done in the company of another. The thrill of fingers running over arms and legs, the wondering whose body is whose, which parts of your body belong to you, which feel more complete when given over. Do you feel that? Do you feel that? Do you feel that? It is experiencing the line of demarcation between my pleasure and yours as a hazy border drawn in sand. “The telescopic sensation of coming into contact with the cellular infinity of another body’s existence,” as Joseph Brodsky wrote. It is the realization that the qualities we think of as uniquely ours, perhaps our best qualities, might be shaped with the hands of another, and go spiraling toward infinity with every touch.
The last thing Eng did in his final hour was to put his arms around Chang. I’ve read that, in his shocked state, he asked once or twice for Chang to be moved closer to him. It’s not clear whether his request was met, or how Chang could have been much closer. • 27 April 2011
Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the art collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at email@example.com.