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Ladan and Laleh

Why twins repel and fascinate us



Little in day-to-day life disorients us as quickly as the sight of identical twins. Those of us who are not twins shudder to imagine having to face a living identical image of the self, an albatross with our own likeness. You can avoid a mirror, but you cannot easily elude a sibling who is a mirror bound to you by blood.

Even more awe-striking are conjoined or so-called Siamese twins. Recently the world was captivated by Ladan and Laleh Bijani, the 29-year-old Iranian sisters who died during an unsuccessful 50-hour surgery to separate them. Joined at the head, the sisters had been given, at best, 50-50 odds of surviving.

The twins explained their decision to the BBC. "We are two completely separate individuals who are stuck to each other," said Ladan, the more extroverted of the sisters. "We have different lifestyles. We think very differently about issues."

The avalanche of commentary about the drama has mainly focused on the human drive to individuate. Less focus has been placed on the fact that doctors also told the sisters that only one of them might survive. Thus, whatever differences between them made such a high risk irresistible, their love of one another made self-sacrifice on behalf of the other worthy, too.

And yet, if you read news reports closely, you also learned after the failed surgery that one sister was more adamant than the other. According to their father's angry reports, Laleh tried to back out of the surgery at the last minute. So, the sisters were joined, they wanted to be separate, they were willing in the end to sacrifice their lives for separation -- to be together in death if necessary. And yet the truth may be that one was more powerful than the other, and one was less willing to die. They wanted to be separate. They wanted to be one.

Does this come with the twin? I'm a Gemini, whose sign is the twins Castor and Pollux, offspring of Zeus after he raped the mortal Leda in his form as a swan. The twins were inseparable warriors, Argonauts, with a taste for philandering, according to some legends. As it happens, Zeus had granted Pollux immortality, making him, like Ladan, the stronger twin. Castor was killed in an enterprise sometimes described as ignoble. Pollux was seized by such grief that he asked Zeus to let him spend every other day with his brother in the underworld. Zeus, moved by the intensity of the brothers' love and grief, granted Pollux's request and, in later tellings, eventually set the two together in the sky forever as the constellation Gemini.

I think this story -- and many of the world's mythologies share the same basic narrative about heroic but unequal twins -- in part explains our fascination with them. There is something at once repelling and attractive in the notion of doubleness. I became aware of this personally a few months ago when total strangers began approaching me regularly to thank me for curing their back problems. Apparently I closely resemble a chiropractor in town.

I have asked his name probably half a dozen times and manage never to remember it. Something in me wants to see him, but something apparently stronger does not want to. Actually, I had the same experience almost 20 years ago, and when I did meet my double, I recoiled. But as I did then, I now find myself occasionally looking over my shoulder, aware that I don't exclusively belong to myself.

The German romantics had a name for the double -- the "doppelganger" -- and they linked him to the notion of "sehnsucht," which, like the Greeks' "pothos," signifies a yearning for our origins. We are here, wishing we were there. James Hillman, in his essay Pothos, makes the point that twins remind us of this pervasive double nature of existence. We are never just this or that. We are both philandering and heroic, like Castor. We are both animal and god, like his father, Zeus. We are one and we are two. We are always in search, too, of the missing other, the part of ourselves that seems to have been subtracted from our whole. Wandering is the condition of a conscious life.

The solution is not an uncanny wholeness -- a bonding together with the image of the missing self. That is, psychologically, the tragedy of the Siamese twin (and it is also the misguided objective of much psychotherapy). In the twin, the horror of being "one" with the missing part becomes concrete and literal, inescapable. She, like a therapy client entrapped in a notion of holistic integration, cannot wander. Hillman paraphrases Carl Jung: "Onesidedness [is] the widest definition of neurosis."

Instead, one must be aware of doubleness, to appreciate that one is never equal to oneself and as a consequence fated to wander in search of something that, as Hillman writes, is attainable only through the imagination. We know this already. It's why the story of Laden and Laleh fires our imaginations with such mythic depth. Our souls do not want to be bound to anything.

Cliff Bostock's website is

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