The Dionne sisters, born in Canada in 1934, were the first quintuplets to survive infancy. In their matching white dresses, the five identical girls quickly became a fairy tale for a Depression-weary world. But the plot soon turned grim. The sisters were put on display by the Ontario government, where they spent nine years at a nursery turned amusement park that came to be known as "Quintland." Every day, more than 6,000 visitors came to watch the girls play. Later, after they returned to their family, the sisters accused their father of sexual abuse. Two died young. The three remaining lived together (two of them had divorced), and in 1998 The New York Times described them as "broke and bitter." When an American family, the McCaugheys, gave birth to septuplets in 1997, the remaining Dionnes penned them a letter of advice. "We hope your children receive more respect than we did. Their fate should be no different from that of other children. Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products," they wrote. "Our lives have been ruined by the exploitation we suffered..."
That's the sort of soap opera we've come to expect from multiples: an overdose of early publicity warps their psyches, ruins their families and condemns them to a miserable future. Or, if they survive all the public pressure, the financial hardship of caring for that many kids sends them spinning into bankruptcy—or worse. (The father of the Kienast quintuplets, seemingly overcome by financial worries, committed suicide just after his children's 14th birthday.) So in the wake of the Octomom frenzy this spring, I set out to see how some of today's adult multiples were faring. What was it like growing up in the public eye? And how were they different from any other large family?
I expected dysfunction at every turn. Instead, I met the Pisners. The four boys and one girl—who celebrate their 26th birthday this week—are leading the wave of multiples conceived with the help of the first fertility drugs. On a Friday night in April, at a rare family reunion in their parents' house in suburban Maryland, the Pisner quints seemed just like any other group of close siblings, barbecuing hotdogs and packing up the SUV for a weekend camping trip. I'd spent the week fretting about how I would tell the boys apart, but in person it was effortless. Shira, the lone female, was clearly in charge, directing her brothers to introduce themselves. Elliot, who stands at least a foot taller than his sister, dutifully followed her orders with good humor, laughter and, every now and then, a playful shove. Devin constantly volunteered stories, while Ian was more reserved and soft-spoken. Michael seemed the least interested in the interview; he spent most of the night at the side of his pregnant wife, Angie, trying to feel their baby kick. Parents Dan and Pam were beaming over—and, admittedly, a little bit baffled by—how well their kids get along. I was baffled too, secretly expecting to see some tension or rivalry emerge. That never happened. The quints collectively fawned over the table decorations for Shira's wedding and Angie's ultrasounds. They engaged in a lengthy debate with their father over how noise-canceling headphones work. "It's hard to figure out what about us exactly is interesting," Michael told me over coleslaw. He's got a point: although I'd planned to chronicle the ways in which the Pisners were different, what actually struck me most was their normalcy.
And that made me wonder why we're so obsessed with multiples in the first place. It was understandable back in the Dionne days, when multiple births were a genetic fluke. The natural birth rate for twins is 1 in 90; for quints it's around 1 in 65 million. But even as fertility treatments have made multiples much more common (there were 67 births of quints or higher in 2006 alone), our fascination has only seemed to grow. When Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets in February, 23 percent of Americans followed the story "very closely," according to the Pew Research Center (only the stimulus debate and unemployment had a more devoted following that week). And now the sextuplet reality show "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" has turned the most mundane tasks of child-rearing into an engrossing spectacle that regularly draws more than a million viewers.
The Pisners never starred in their own reality show. But they were hardly cloistered either. From the moment of their birth—when news trucks staked out their house and The Washington Post ran their photos on the front page—they'd been in the public eye. They appeared on the cover of Life magazine, in a Barbara Walters special, in an article in The New York Times and in a regular series with Washingtonian Magazine. As Dan and Pam learned the logistics of caring for five babies—they were going through 30 bottles of formula and 50 diaper changes daily—they were also taking a crash course in brand management, saying yes to Good Morning America, no to National Inquirer. The appearances continued through high school, when the quints spent three days filming a commercial for the Kia Sephia, which helped foot their college-tuition bills. Dan and Pam didn't want to exploit their children but, at the same time, knew that public exposure could help financially. "It's like this tough edge," Dan says. "What was nagging at us was, if we weren't out there at all, we wouldn't get anything in the way of help."
But our multiple mania isn't just a matter of publicity. In a way, what the Dionnes endured now seems quaint. What newborn doesn't have his grimacing mug blasted around the Internet within hours of his birth? (One singleton dad even posted detailed graphs of his daughter's every nap, diaper change and feeding for the first years of her life.) In a world where many of us tweet our breakfast choices and let friends track our locations over Google maps, what is privacy anyway?
Our fascination with multiples is ancient and it is deep, perhaps because most of us can't imagine sharing so much of ourselves. Multiples have the rare comfort of going through life with at least one constant companion, someone with whom they have occupied the most personal of spaces: the womb. The bond is different, and maybe more intimate, than that between siblings or even spouses. The Pisner quints sometimes seemed to have their own brand of communication, having learned to function as a single unit. "They're sort of like an ant colony," says Dan. "They figured things out like, if we work together, we can break out of this playpen." (Of course, people exaggerate this connection too: a college friend once suddenly punched Ian, wanting to know whether one of his brothers could feel it.)
Yet being a multiple also means giving up individuality others take for granted, taking turns at a mother's breast and dividing every birthday cake. Single births, after all, set humans apart from many other mammals. Multiples are a departure from that natural order and, even before the rise of fertility drugs, many cultures viewed them as abnormal, even animal. (Mythological twins Romulus and Remus were supposedly suckled by a she-wolf before Romulus killed his brother in a struggle over who would rule Rome.) They "disturb the idea that same and different are in completely separate categories," says Juliana de Nooy, author of Twins in Contemporary Literature and Culture.
Fertility drugs only seem to heighten the sense of messing with Mother Nature. The Pisners had been high-school sweethearts and, when they married in their early 20s, they were just hoping for one baby. After several years of trying to get pregnant, they turned to Pergonal, an injectable medication that stimulates egg production. Fertility treatment was a relative novelty (and an inexact science) back in 1982. But Pam did get pregnant, and her first sonogram, at 11 weeks, showed not one fetus but five. "No, no, it can't be—that's a litter," Pam remembers telling her fertility doctor. "To be honest, at first we didn't know what to do."
The couple was overjoyed that Pam was finally pregnant, but incredibly frightened. Their fertility doctor had never seen a pregnancy larger than triplets, and the health risks, for both mother and babies, were serious. They considered terminating. If selective abortion—reducing the pregnancy to twins or triplets—had been an option in 1982, there's a good chance they would have done it. But after two weeks of deliberation, the Pisners decided to go through with the pregnancy. It was, after all, a version of what they'd been dreaming of for years. "You go along with it—you figure it's meant to be for some reason," says Dan. "And thank God we did. But it wasn't a decision taken lightly."
Sometimes Pam and Dan were stunned by their newfound celebrity. Crowds recognized the Pisners just about anywhere, tipped off by the two double strollers and baby backpack. When Pam took all five to the National Zoo, the crowd's focus quickly shifted from a pair of pandas, newly arrived from China, to her children. ("Do they all have names?" one admirer wanted to know.)
Today the quints are pushing the bounds of individuality further than they ever have before. Two are married (one is expecting a child), another is engaged and two are living with their long-term girlfriends. At Shira's wedding over Memorial Day weekend, the bride finally found herself alone in the spotlight. It was "the first day I've ever had to myself," she says. And last year, at age 25, Elliot had his first solo birthday party; his fiancée, Becky, organized a small dinner without his siblings. "I wasn't used to being the focus of attention during a birthday thing," says Elliot. "But I enjoyed it. It was a little more special."
But if there's a pull to become separate, there's an equal and opposite tug to remain the same, to stay "the quints." While other large multiple families turned down NEWSWEEK for this story, uncomfortable reentering the public eye, the Pisners had no hesitation. Complete strangers still recognize and address them by name. When a photographer directed the quints to line up for a picture, Shira asked if she'd like them arranged in birth order. In another moment, Shira became slightly protective of their quint status. One Saturday morning in April, I tagged along with Shira and Pam as they ran errands for the wedding. Shira introduced me to her hairstylists and explained I was writing a story about her family because they're quints. The stylist seemed interested but not particularly impressed. "Oh, like Octomom or Jon and Kate," she said. "It was much more rare when we were born," Shira told her.
Now that they're no longer such a rarity, perhaps multiples will lose some of their circus-act quality. (It's hard to imagine every family with quadruplets or more landing its own reality show. Until someone manages to have nonuplets, that is.) As with any big family, it's up to beleaguered parents to manage the delicate and difficult balancing act of raising so many kids at once. For the Pisners, being quints is the only reality they've ever known. "It's just how we grew up," says Shira. "We don't know any different." The competing drives of privacy versus publicity, sameness versus individuality, continue to pull at them. But the Pisners seem to have made their peace with their choices. And that's a happy ending the next generation of multiples will be eager to hear.