Abigail and Robin Pogrebin's childhood as identical twins reads like a symmetrical storybook: Robin dressed in red, Abby in blue. They slept near each other in cribs, then bunk beds, shared birthday cakes and ate the same number of Oreos after school. The Pogrebins attended Yale together, graduated, and moved into an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. And when people inquire, "What was it like growing up a twin?" Abby gives her standard answer: "It was great." And it was, she says, but that three-word answer betrays a complicated, nuanced relationship. "I never explain ... that Robin has spent the past five years pulling away from me. Or that I want more of her," Abby writes in her new book, One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular (Doubleday, 2009). Being a twin, Pogrebin explains to me over the phone, "looks idyllic in many ways because so many people idealize it. While I do think a lot of that is true, it comes along with more intensity and complexity than I ever found explored in anything that had been written."
So Pogrebin set out to explore it herself, hoping to understand her relationship with Robin by speaking with other twins and the experts who study them. She spent two years meeting with more than 40 sets, from NFL football players Tiki and Ronde Barber to Holocaust survivors to conceptual artists. "I found that unpacking twinship means exposing the tension between being one and the same," Pogrebin writes near the end of her book. "I've tried to explore what it takes to ultimately forge individuality, but I also set out to examine sameness, because it's integral to every twinship and how its perceived."
As both a twin myself and a journalist who has covered multiples in the past, Pogrebin's words seemed spot on, an honest explanation of how multiples feel about the relationship into which they were born. It's a balancing act between same and different that is both enviable and deplorable. Twins have the rare comfort of going through life with a constant partner. As one tells Pogrebin, "We're all looking for that relationship that twins were born with. Everybody wants to be loved that much." But at the same time there's a competing desire to be recognized for one's own accomplishments and merits rather than your duplicity. Being a twin means vacillating between these two poles, attempting to land at a comfortable place. In that sense, Pogrebin's book is a larger exploration of identity: how we make ourselves unique in a world of millions and establish our singularity when so many of the people we know do the same job as us or come from the same background.
On the morning her book hit the shelves, we talked about the tension of growing up fused, the most interesting twins she met, and how the book has impacted her relationship with Robin.
Up until now, there's really not much in the way of twin memoirs. What got you interested in writing a book about your experience growing up an identical twin?
I had never found anything on the shelf that accurately reflected what it's like to grow up a twin. I think it's an easy relationship to oversimplify. It's become the stand-in metaphor for what we all search for, someone who understands you without saying a word, someone who is your perfect match and other half. I think a lot of that is true. What was missing were the adult twin voices to say, "This is what it feels like, this is why it's emboldening, this is why you feel strengthened, but here are all these reasons why it can muddle your own sense of self."
In talking to so many twins, what did you find out about what it means to be a twin, what that relationship means?
So much of what I discovered is hard to put into words. If you start saying, "We're so close, we talk about everything," peoples' eyes roll over. A lot of twins' relationships are irrational and ineffable. There's a power to it, an obligation, a sense of being truly responsible. Without even really realizing it, Robin is one of the forces that keeps me afloat every day. Or there's Greg Hoffman [who lost his identical twin brother on September 11]. So many people have said to him, "Get over it, you're an adult, you have a family, you have other siblings, it's time to move on." But that will never happen for him because this was his identical twin brother.
What surprised you about twins in writing this book?
I think what was surprising was how the intimacy that can be so uplifting can also in a way be stunting. It can keep you from learning how to do friendship, make you lazy about other relationships and unpracticed. You're so used to a partner and sidekick and a backup that you don't develop those muscles sometimes. I think in a way, for Robin and me, the twinship ended up getting in the way of our friendships. I saw that for a number of twins, where you're growing up alongside someone.
You include a number of really heartbreaking stories about twins, like the man who lost his twin on September 11, and the identical brothers who both lost children to Tay-Sachs. Why did you feel those were important to explore?
Twin loss kept coming up, almost hitting me in the face. This is so fundamental, when a twin loses a twin or when a parent loses one twin. You have people saying, "You have another living healthy baby, you're lucky enough," but they'll always feel like they have twins. The Lords [Charlie and Tim, the brothers who both lost children to Tay-Sachs] always stayed in my mind. It was so unimaginable. But it was so clear talking to them that the twinship was not just integral to why it happened but also to surviving it. It was such a distillation of when twins can hold each other up.
Who were the most interesting twins you talked to?
I think the Lords, partly because of the way they talk in the same room is so effortlessly in sync. They were so comfortable in their intimacy. They're two men, again living very separate lives, but there's something so unabashed and sweet about their love for each other and I envied that. And then Ronde and Tiki Barber, they're almost a cartoonish version of twins. They to me are sort of the paradigm of what twinship should look like. I asked them if they argue. And they looked at me like, "Are you kidding, you guys argue?" You should hear Robin and I, of course we argue. It was something so stripped down, the way we all idealize twins.
Was it difficult to explore your own relationship to your twin sister, Robin, to admit that you want to see her more than she wants to see you?
I think it's still difficult to this moment, now that the book is out. I called Robin early on, when I was steeped in research and panicking, and she said. "You need to start with yourself." I felt like that was a tactical way of saying, "I give you my blessing." But it's still more exposing than I anticipated, and I think Robin has some discomfort with that. Robin has read every word of it, so it's not that I'm ambushing her. On one level, this is a very clumsy way to write a letter to her I've never had courage to write, expressing things about our relationship I've never said.
Near the beginning of the book, you and your sister get a genetic test to confirm that you are monozygotic. You describe your eyes tearing up when you get the results, and they confirm that you came from one egg. Why was that so emotional for you?
There's something about you being kind of invested in the phenomena. It confers something on you. This just happened, you and your brother happened. It confirms, yes this is special and it is still unique. I was tense about that genetic test. We weren't sure we were monozygotic, and that would really be embarrassing to write an entire book and be wrong.
As twins become more common, do you think they'll continue to mystify us?
It's still mystifying in the sense that it's bizarre. Even when I see twins, I take a second look. I confer a certain intimacy on them. The presumptions are still there. What I think is missing is a little bit of the novelty. Robin and I were shaped by that celebrity, where you were special before you opened your mouth. I think you take that away and you're changing the landscape. So I do think that's going to happen. We are saturated. At a certain point it's like, "I've had it with litters of children."