How to Be Multiple: The Philosophy of Twins, by Helena de Bres, illustrated by Julia de Bres

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

When I discovered there was a new collection of essays out about the philosophy of twins, and that it was written by an identical twin, I couldn’t resist. I have an identical twin, and that relationship is the most important one in my life. Of all the things I’m grateful for in my life so far, having the good fortune to be born a twin is right up near the top – I still can’t quite get my head around the idea of having a sibling who is a different age to you. Must be weird, huh?

I’m not sure I’d have raced towards a collection of twin essays written by a singleton, but I had confidence that I’d be in safe hands with another identical twin – and these aren’t objective essays written solely with academic philosophy in mind (though Helena de Bres is a professor of philosophy at Wellesley College, a liberal arts college in America). She draws deeply on her relationship with her own twin sister, Julia, who also illustrates the beginning of each chapter.

But what makes How To Be Multiple so interesting to me is that it goes beyond the twin’s point of view: this is about what twins tell us about identity in general. That comes across in the five chapter titles: ‘Which one are you?’, ‘How many of you are there?’, ‘Are you two in love?’, ‘How free are you?’ and ‘What are you for?’. It’s also about how the singleton’s gaze informs the ways in which twins are perceived and discussed.

So many of our cultural ideas about twins are driven by the perspectives and priorities of singletons. Given the numbers, maybe that’s inevitable, but it’s an unfortunate restriction on humanity’s intellectual resources. […] When twins aren’t treated as indistinguishable, they’re often cast as binary opposites, on one or more axes. One twin’s the Chaos Muppet, for instance, the other the Order Muppet; one’s the empath, the other the narcissist; one’s the tomboy, the other the femme. This tendency to binarize twins is rife in individual families, and in myth, art, and culture across the board.

The first chapter is largely about this binarising, and our broader human desires to define ourselves in opposition to other things – and to understand other people partly by understanding what they are not. The complexity and clever arguing of her chapters is too detailed to reproduce here, so I’m only going to be able to hint at the contents – but de Bres does a brilliant job in this first chapter at demonstrating how many of our anxieties about identity are crystallised in the way we treat twins. And by ‘we’ I mean, of course, ‘you’. Unless you’re a twin.

I’m going to slip little bits of twin autobiography into this post; hope that’s ok. Because I’ve certainly found that people fixate on the personality/interests differences between Colin and me, and make them loom larger than they do – and I’ve done the same thing myself as I’ve grown up. One studied English at university and one studied Maths? One loves football and one hates it? One is vegetarian and one chooses pizzas based on ‘what has the most meat on it’? There are definitely areas where we are miles apart – but far more where we overlap, without comment.

One way to see the widespread tendency to binarize twins, then, is as a panic response, a knee-jerk defense to the social, moral, and existential threat they pose. Twins remind us, consciously or not, of how frail human identity-detectors can be, and therefore how slippery our associates and our own selves might be. Tagging twins as binary opposites is a way of corralling their disturbingly similar bodies and minds into easily distinguishable ends of the psychosocial field. The lack of subtlety is the point.

The differences between me and Col seemed big to me as I was developing and maturing because I wanted to find areas where I could distinguish myself. But the reason they seem significant to singletons is, I think, because singletons expect twins to be exactly the same. When people have the childhood fantasy ‘what if I had a twin?’, I imagine they are thinking of themselves multiplied by two. When they encounter traits that challenge the one-person-doubled hypothesis, this vision is undermined. In order to cope with this disruption of the fantasy, these differences are magnified into opposites. Good twin / evil twin being the nadir of this particular way of thinking.

This persistent tendency to binarize twins is striking, especially in light of the exactly opposite companion tendency to portray twins as highly similar.

Try thinking of the twins you read about in literature – and identical twins feature far more frequently in literature than we do in real life. They probably fit this line adeptly, and only occasionally does someone do it brilliantly. The greatest example is Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, at least from the books I’ve read.

More unsettlingly, it is strange how often authors include ‘twincest’ in their books, and this is something de Bres mentions in the chapter ‘Are you two in love?’ I’ve read some very good novels that include twins having sex, but (a) it doesn’t happen in reality any more often than any other two siblings – which is to say hardly ever at all – and (b) it says so much about the way Western writers conceive of closeness. Two people have a closer relationship than most have experienced? The only paradigm for expressing it is romantic or sexual. It shows a great limitation on the capacity of people to comprehend the wide range of love.

At this point, I’ve realised that all the quotes I noted down are in the first chapter – which perhaps did have the pithiest bits to excerpt, but the other chapters were equally interesting. The second looks at ‘how many of you are there?’ – coming from the idea that identical twins are one egg split in two, so have some claim to being one person. De Bres also looks at the experiences of conjoined twins, and the way that all twins seem to threaten the concept of individuality a little. No, there are no proven examples of twins mind reading (though some conjoined twins can apparently see out of each other’s eyes) – but twins do offer some counterpoint to the idea of people as unique identities.

I was a little sceptical about this chapter at first. One of the very few times that de Bres’s philosophising got a little too abstract and scholarly for a layman like me to understand was when she writes about theorists who believe all humans may externalise some of our mental processing, thus (?) having our brains outside our body in calculators, computers, and even other people. It was getting a bit high-falutin’ for me. Surely nobody thinks two twins are fewer than two people?

But then I thought about last year. More autobiography here. I started getting strange neurological symptoms in my feet and hands. A few months later, Colin started getting the same symptoms. Long waiting lists later, it turns out we are thankfully both ok – but there was a period when we were both quite worried about more serious neurological issues. And I cannot tell you how strange it is to simultaneously worry about yourself and the person you love most, waiting to see if our shared DNA has the same trapdoor in it. It is the nearest I have come to questioning my individuality – when my body and its possible flaws are both me and not-me. (As it happens, Helena and Julia de Bres both have a connective tissue disorder, and much of How To Be Multiple also considers life as a disabled person – as disabled people – and particularly how that identity is partly shaped by other people’s perspectives. It’s also interesting on the ways the disability differently affects Helena and Julia, and what that is like for them.)

I enjoyed the whole collection a great deal, though the final two chapters perhaps a bit less than the others. ‘How free are you?’ looks at the fact that twins separated at birth often find, when reunited, that they have followed similar paths. Reports of such things always highlight curious similarities – they both walk into the sea backwards! they married women with the same name! – but, of course, you could find any two random people and they’d have a handful of odd coincidences. But twins (whether identical or non-identical, raised together or apart) are fodder for nature/nurture debates and always have been. This essay is interesting, but it re-treads familiar ground. If you’ve ever considered free will vs fate, or nature vs nurture, then this chapter isn’t particularly ground-breaking – and certainly felt like it had the least personal content about Helena and Julia’s lives, which is the strong through-line of How To Be Multiple. And I have to admit that the final essay, ‘What are you for?’, felt quite like a miscellany for various other philosophical ideas that Helena de Bres had that didn’t fit into other chapters. The only other criticism I wanted to mention is that de Bres is a bit lazy in her assumption that her readers will all be atheists, or in suggesting (even flippantly) that nobody believes in God anymore. It feels like quite a Western-centric view, ignoring the huge numbers of the Global South who have theistic faith – and, of course, plenty in the Global North too. Indeed, only 15.6% of the world describe themselves as non-religious. Maybe all academic philosophers come from that percentage, but I suspect not.

But I certainly won’t end on a negative note, because I loved this book. I enjoyed feeling chimes of recognition in what de Bres writes. ‘For the first few years of elementary school,’ she writes, ‘Julia and I wore our initials pinned to our clothes’ – snap! Colin and I had ours stitched onto the front of our pullovers for the first few years of primary school. And I had to message Colin my favourite line in the book, which I absolutely agree with: “We had the standard twin view about triplets, quads, and other ‘supertwins’, which is that they take a good idea and overdo it.”

More generally, there are constant touchstones for what it is like to be a twin. I’ve only been an identical twin for about a decade – well, that is to say, I have only known I was an identical twin for about a decade, after almost 30 years believing I was a non-identical twin. It’s an interesting divide, in terms of having slightly different philosophical experiences of twinship and identity. But I’ve never been a singleton, and I feel so seen and understood by How To Be Multiple, as well as realising new things about my experience of the world – and other people’s experience of me as a twin.

De Bres weaves in philosophical understanding so fluidly, and balances autobiography and objective analysis perfectly. It’s quite a fun and funny book, aimed at a non-academic audience more interested in anecdotes than footnotes (though there are plenty of endnotes for people wanting to explore more). I would particularly recommend it to a twin – but, then, I would also particularly recommend it to a singleton. Because you might get a bit more of a glimpse into what twinship is like – and also be a little less likely to ask the same questions that every singleton asks when they discover you’re a twin. I suppose the only people I wouldn’t recommend How To Be Multiple to are triplets. You guys need to calm down.

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Simon is a co-founder and an editor-at-large of Shiny. A version of this review appeared here on his blog, stuckinabook.

Helena and Julia de Bres, How to be Multiple: The Philosophy of Twins (Manchester University Press, 2024). 978-1526179869, 272pp., hardback.

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1 comment

  1. To be honest, non-twin siblings also get given binary labels, especially with two boys or two girls: the good one/the naughty one, the arty one/the academic one, the organised one/the messy one. As for twin telepathy, I rather like the idea. My non-identical aunts-in-law somehow managed to send exactly the same Christmas card and give the same present several times, and often picked up the phone at the same time. They were as surprised as anyone that this happened.

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