This short essay was written in 2010, and was commissioned by East Street Arts for ‘Over Yonder’, their 2010 project that explored the historical context of town/region twinning. I was given free rein to interpret the idea of ‘twinning’ however I wished.
‘…and thus did nature balance one freak by another, and restore her universal equilibrium…’ Punch Magazine 1843
BuyLibriumOnline! ‘Librium: this medicine is used to treat anxiety… side effects include confusion…’ Spam email received October 2010
On October 25th 2006 the craniopagus twins Tatiana and Krista Hogan were born. Conjoined, backward facing at the head, they clearly share bone, veins and arteries. Their neurologist states that they also share a cerebral cortex – the part of the brain that is believed to play a central role in memory, language and perception. Thus, Tatiana and Krista, whilst never being able to meet each other’s eye, may share a portion of a psychic existence: ambiguously separated physical selves inhabiting ambiguously connected interior minds. The uncanny mirror of this proposition is a single physical self internally fractured by a disruptive other.
The myth of the healthy self sets up an impossible ideal of a fully integrated psyche, of an emotionally, socially and morally balanced existence that enables us to travel progressively through a life of forward looking, harmonious and meditative reflection in which we unflinchingly meet our own gaze. An industry of ‘self help’ purports to assist us in journeying towards a state where internal conflicts are seen and resolved, and a spectral subconscious of intrusive visitations and unnaturally dark desires and drives is exorcised by the light of self awareness. The contemporary use of the term ‘freak’ to describe a seemingly psychically odd individual reflects the language used to comment on the ‘sideshows of monstrosities’ of the nineteenth century. An account from 1847 informs us that ‘there seems to be a sort of fascination in the horrible; and we can only hope, as the mania has now reached its extreme, a healthy admiration for the “true and the beautiful,” as the novelists call it, will immediately begin to show itself.’
The cultural myth of the twin allows us to both explore and distance ourselves from the unsettling reality of our internal conflict, and is rich with the contradictions that feed our anxieties about the unbalanced mind. The uncanny clone-like telepathy of The Midwich Cuckoos, (John Wydham Lewis 1957), threatens the annihilation of our singular existence through the proposition of a monstrous collective psyche. In the good / evil dyad of the Hammer Horror film Twins of Evil (1971), the externally identical Maria and Frieda manifest both the pure and virtuous mind, and its perverse and libidinous opponent. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson 1886) is centered upon anxieties about the double self to the extent that the actual physiology of the subject alters to mirror its psychic state.
Much media representation of Tatiana and Krista, and other conjoined twins provide us with a dehumanised ‘spectacle’ that is profoundly unsettling and irresistibly fascinating precisely because it visually reflects both the vicious doctrine of the ‘healthy mind and healthy body’, (arguably in itself a Victorian inverse of the freak show aesthetic), and more importantly the psychic blurring of the boundaries between the healthy self and the pathological other that the concepts of the ‘normal’ and the ‘ideal’ resist. Most coverage of these twins gives us no narrative of a complex and continuing existence, and refutes any experience of an ordinarily rich life. The adult lives of these individuals are rarely portrayed, except where a ‘freakish’ gift can be posed as a melodramatic or sentimental counterpoint to their tragic disability. Lori and Reba Schappell, the most widely described adult craniopagics, are defined almost exclusively by Reba’s career as a country and western singer. The National Fairground Archive comments that in the freak shows of the nineteenth century, ‘the most popular attractions were oddities with extraordinary talents’.
The intersection at which these lives come under scrutiny, at which our viscerally anxious fascination is revealed, is at the tortuously extended moment of their dangerous surgical separation. In the case of back or side facing craniopagics this is the imagined perilous point at which they will turn and face and stare, in which each other’s eyes, the supposed windows of their souls, will either be successfully penetrated or irrevocably shattered. The ambivalence of such procedures, paradoxically posed as both vital and life threatening, reflects our own uncertainty about our wish to see ourselves, secretly fearful that the act of seeing may force us to lose a darkness for which we dare not admit our yearning. This seemingly healthy act of a psychically eugenic form of self-examination, is designed to light the path of a life without conflict, to eradicate a troublesome interior darkness in which we sometimes stumble disorientated and dreamlike: it is a cruelly lit mirror that allows the beauty of existence to have no flaws, and whose glaring shine harshly and irrevocably splits off that which intrudes upon our ideal.
A softer light upon a reflective surface might not exclude a positive and progressive psyche, but allow for fluid exchange between ourselves and our dark other that is only possible across a boundary blurred, a mirror become a mist. The clarity of a single path, which conceptually purports to steer us ever onwards through a life which begins with a hopeful birth, and ends with a satisfactorily peaceful death, in which we congratulate ourselves upon a fulfilled potential seemingly untainted by uncertainty and doubt, is in fact a narrow and prosaic road which allows for none of the creative and poetic blunders and diversions which truly illuminate our rich potential. In reality, a life defined by a cold cycle of an impenetrable rock orbiting slavishly through the vacuum of a bleak prescriptive space offers no richness. Nor does the pitiless light and the sterilising heat of a merciless sun allow for a sensual organic growth of our psychic selves. Without the blackness of night, or the liminal grey of dawn and dusk, the contemplative, creative, and conflicted luminescence of the day would not exist. The mind that does not struggle cannot prevail and the heart that does not break cannot feel love.
In August 2007, it was declared that Tatiana and Krista could not be separated, due to the likelihood of the surgery killing or paralysing one or both the girls. However, doctors stated that they are doing well in terms of health issues, and it is reported that when in distress, the soothing of one of the sisters will cause the other to cease her crying, and that when one is tickled, the other also laughs.
“Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare!” Alice Through The Looking Glass. Lewis Carroll 1871.