Twin Life

Twin Life, subtitled Sharing Mind and Body, is a documentary about 7 year old female Siamese twins (or, since ethnic-based terms for disabilities or illnesses are now frowned upon, “conjoined” twins) Tatiana and Krista Hogan. A little background reading reveals it originally aired on the CBC in Canada, part of a series called Doc Zone (“doc” as in “documentary”). It’s 43 minutes long (so it fit into an hour slot with commercials).

There are things to like about the girls, about the people in their life, and about the film, but I have to confess I felt my contrarian nature getting stirred up by the unrelenting positive messaging of the film, the way it hits you over the head from start to finish with how perfect these kids are and how inspirational their story is. A feel-good film that lays it on this thick ends up not feeling all that good to me.

It’s OK. Boring and saccharine at times, but OK.

For a decent portion of it, I found my mind wandering to related topics.

Like the fact that for much of history, if people like this survived beyond infancy at all they likely would have ended up as freaks in a sideshow, or whatever the equivalent of that was in a given society.

And by the way, is that what this documentary is, the modern day equivalent of a circus freak show? The filmmakers I’m sure would insist otherwise, that circus freak shows invite attention to people like this in an inherently cruel way, while they’re inviting attention to these girls for all the noblest of reasons. But the bottom line is, we want to stare at human oddities because we’re naturally curious about such things, and you can make money off that by selling sideshow tickets or by selling advertising minutes on your TV network.

Is it bad, by the way, for people to be fascinated by those who are so different, so “freakishly” different from the norm? I understand why it’s potentially objectionable, the way it can cause people to objectify such a person as something less than human, as something to ridicule, be scared of, be grossed out by, or find amusing or entertaining, because they’re so focused on whatever it is that makes the person an oddity.

When you so emphasize what makes someone different, you lose sight of how similar we really are to each other.

But I’m not convinced that it’s impossible to be curious about freaks and find freaks interesting, while also understanding that they’re people just like everybody else. Actually that’s kind of the theme of the cult classic Tod Browning movie Freaks. The circus freaks are put on display in all their oddity—the guy with no arms and legs, the guy cut off with basically nothing below roughly his waste, the pinheads, etc.—but the whole story is about how they have normal feelings, normal strengths and weaknesses, and how it’s just as wrong to be cruel or disrespectful toward them as toward anyone else. The audience, in effect, is invited to find them entertaining as freaks, while also appreciating their humanity.

Just like it’s possible—and I’m not saying that everybody does it, or that the majority or even close to the majority of people do it—to thoroughly enjoy looking at a woman in a strip club or in a pornographic video and find her sexually desirable, while at the same time being fully aware that she’s a human being just as likely to be interesting and valuable in non-sexual, non-physical ways as anyone else, just as worthy of being respected and treated well as anyone else.

So I don’t think you have to feel guilty if the reason you are drawn to a story about these conjoined twins and you can’t turn away is that it’s fucking weird to be joined at the head. I don’t think you have to pretend, “Oh, I barely even notice that! I just appreciate what precious little girls they are with such unconquerable spirits and such loving hearts!” No, you’re watching this—at least in part—because it’s so freaky the way they’re running around with their heads permanently fused together, and that’s OK.

But another thing it’s hard not to think about watching this is how they experience life. You know, what’s it like to be a conjoined twin, joined at the head?

At first you’d think it must be incredibly frustrating to never have any privacy, to never be alone. To never be able to go to the bathroom without another person beside you, or have a private phone conversation, or—if they survive to adulthood—to never have a sex partner without your sister being right there with you.

What about the lack of autonomy, the fact that you can’t run laps, go to McDonald’s, or get on an airplane unless this other person cooperates? Nothing’s up to you as an individual; all decisions have to be joint decisions.

And wouldn’t you have horrible, debilitating neck pain when you’re head and neck have to be at that sharp angle all the time? I cringe just looking at them.

I guess the simple answer is that, no, that stuff wouldn’t bother you, you wouldn’t be frustrated by missing out on these things, because the way you are is the way you’ve always been and you know nothing else.

I remember when I used to volunteer in a prison, one day I asked some of the guys some questions about what life is like in there. I remarked that to me one of the things that would likely most bother me is how you’re never alone. Everything seems so congested, everyone is being constantly watched. One of the young guys responded that it had never even occurred to him to be bothered by anything like that. He had lived his whole life in a heavily urban environment, in poverty, in a small house with something like seven or eight siblings. He had never experienced privacy, isolation, the opportunity to be alone with one’s thoughts, so he didn’t miss them.

These girls have never known any other life besides being attached to each other 24 hours a day. It’s not like as they go through their day, they’re thinking, “Oh, I can’t wait to get home and go up to my room and shut the door and be alone. I’m going to—Oh shit, I just remembered. I won’t be alone; I’ll still be attached to my sister. How frustrating!”

They don’t think that way, any more than I spend a lot of time disappointed at my inability to fly, or frustrated by the fact that I don’t have three hands. They’re used to being the way they are because they’ve always been that way.

Still, the analogy doesn’t fully apply. I don’t live in a world where 99.999% of the population can fly, or have one more hand than I do. These girls live every day of their life surrounded by people who can easily be alone to masturbate, play singles at ping pong rather than always having to play doubles, and go hang out in a different part of the house when their sister is being particularly annoying.

So I would guess the truth lies somewhere in the middle. They’re nowhere near as frustrated at having to live as conjoined twins as you or I would be if we suddenly woke up one morning to find that during the night we had been anesthetized and someone had been surgically attached to us in a way that could never be undone. On the other hand I’m sure they’re bothered at least occasionally by the realization that there are countless things that are completely unavailable to them in life that virtually everyone else can have whenever they want and takes for granted.

In any case it’s striking how perpetually happy and bubbly they seem to be. They certainly don’t seem upset by being conjoined twins or by anything else.

Then again, some of that may be diminished mental capacity. It’s clear from early in the film that there’s something “off” about them mentally. The issue is tiptoed around as long as possible, but eventually the narrator does acknowledge that they’re about two years behind the average person their age in their mental development. I might have guessed even a little more, but at that age two years is quite a bit.

So, yeah, maybe they just have wonderful attitudes and they’re awesome kids and all that, but part of why they’re constantly smiling and giggling and babbling semi-coherently may be because they’re, you know, nitwits.

The film also makes some interesting points about how their bodies are somewhat shared. Like, each has at least some awareness what’s going on inside the other. For example, if you give food to one that the other finds disgusting, the person who is not eating it will still taste it to some extent and be grossed out by it.

It’s like the body that is directly attached to the Tatiana head functions 80%-90% like it’s Tatiana’s body and 10%-20% like it’s Krista’s body, and the body that is directly attached to the Krista head functions 80%-90% like it’s Krista’s body and 10%-20% like it’s Tatiana’s body. That raises plenty of interesting philosophical questions about personal identity, the mind-body connection, etc.

Then there’s the matter—which in the spirit of this happy talk documentary I’m sure you’re not supposed to mention or even think about—of whether these kids should have been born at all.

That is, if it were you, if you were the parent, and you found out early enough to abort that you were going to give birth to twins conjoined at the head, wouldn’t you terminate the pregnancy?

I’m almost sure I would. I don’t think it would even be a close call. On top of everything else—though the film doesn’t dwell on this—they’re damaged beyond just the obvious issue of being stuck together. Besides the aforementioned mental deficits, it sounds like they have a lot of health issues, and are at constant risk of major, even fatal, such issues. Most conjoined twins like them don’t live very long at all. Do you really want to bring someone into the world who will have to deal with—which you’ll have to deal with as a parent as well—having such a limited life?

Or if abortion isn’t an option for you because you oppose it across the board, because you think once conception has happened then morally it’s too late to do anything other than bring the pregnancy to term, think of it in terms of if you knew you had some rare genetic condition such that if you were to conceive, it would inevitably be conjoined twins. Wouldn’t you skip the whole childbearing thing, maybe adopt instead?

I’m sure the response of the filmmakers, and the overwhelming majority of viewers, would be, “To even ask that question you have to have missed the whole point of the film.” For Twin Life is all about what awesome, perfect kids these two are, what a great blessing they are to everyone in their family, etc.

Uh huh. But of course you’re going to talk that way about them now, and see the good in them and their being alive as much as possible now, because they’re already here, they’ve already been born. So you have to make the most of it.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I still say, if it comes down to whether I want to raise conjoined twins—or anyone with that magnitude disability—I’m in the “Yeah, I’m gonna have to give that one a pass” camp.

There’s also a societal element to the decision. These folks, who have a bunch of other kids by the way, are only able to support their family and raise Tatiana and Krista with all their medical problems because they get massive amounts of government aid.

I mean, again, I don’t have a problem with that now that they’re actually here. I’m not in favor of just letting them die if the parents can’t afford to take care of them. But are parents, or potential parents, under any kind of ethical obligation not to bring into the world children that they do not have the wherewithal to take care of?

I’m wary of going too far in that direction, because then you’ll basically be saying that poor people are obligated to not participate in the crucially human experience of having children, at least not until they’ve somehow pulled themselves out of poverty. But it’s worth thinking about. Maybe knowing that the taxpayers are going to have to pay for raising your child should be given some weight in determining your best choice ethically, even if by itself it isn’t the deciding factor.

Anyway, I mostly wasn’t that much into Twin Life. But it did lead to various questions and speculations in my mind.

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