Nancy L. Segal Ph.D.


Twin Research and the Arts: How Are They Connected?

Twin research can inspire art, but the reverse is also true

Posted Dec 10, 2016

The substantial rise in the rate of twinning in western nations—from 1/60 births in 1980 to 1/30 births in 2014—has captured both professional and public attention. It is of great interest that it has also engaged the imagination of writers and artists. An intriguing question is: which comes first—the scientific study or the creative work? I believe it is possible to find examples of both.

My first book, Entwined Lives (Segal, 2000), discussed the first mention of twins reared apart from birth. After surveying the literature, it was surprising to discover that this very informative research design did not originate with Sir Francis Galton (the Father of Twin Studies). Instead, it was first used in psychological research by Paul Popenoe in a case study of separated identical twins, Bessie and Jessie, published in 1922. However, it turned out that the Roman comic dramatist, Plautus (254-184 B.C.) should really be credited for the first mention of reared-apart twins, that featured in his play, Menachemi. This was another great surprise—because the noted playwright William Shakespeare was the father of male-female twins, Hamnet and Judith, making him a more likely choice. Shakespeare did, in fact, write two plays involving separated twins: Comedy of Errors (1594) and Twelfth Night (1623). However, the themes he wove throughout Comedy of Errors, namely twins’ separation, confusion and reunion, have been variously attributed to Plautus’s plays, Menachemi and Amphitruo. Additional fascinating information on this topic can be found in a 1940 article, “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Twins and Twinning,” published in the journal Southern Medicine and Surgery, April 1940, pp. 173-176.

Other relations between twin research and the arts include dramatic works on human reproductive cloning. Examples of plays I have seen are Slide Glide the Slippery Slope by Kia Corthron (2001), A Number by Caryl Churchill (2014) and Replica by identical twins Janna and Julie Cardia (2014). Replica was especially memorable because the Cardia twins played the parts of the cloned individual and the “original.” The life story of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton was the subject of the musical Side Show (1997), which enjoyed a 2014 Broadway revival.

Twins have also been featured in the visual arts. A 2000 article in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics discusses the conjoined male-female twins of Löwen—a sketch of these twins were featured on a handbill, not an unusual occurrence back in the 16th century. At that time artists often painted or drew conjoined twins, working from descriptions rather than actual human models. Of course, the possibility that a male-female pair was etched in error has been raised, but not resolved because it is believed that virtually all conjoined twins are identical. 

A final example of the link between scientific work on twins and artistic creation is Boy, a play by Anna Ziegler. The play is based on the true story of identical Canadian twin David Reimer and his brother Brian who, as young infants in 1966, underwent circumcision to treat a urinary problem. David (then Bruce) suffered a tragic medical mistake, i.e., ablation of his genitals, due to malfunctioning of the surgical equipment. His parents turned to Johns Hopkins University physician, Dr. John Money for help, given the work he was doing with intersex babies. Money, believing that gender identity could be altered up to a certain age, advised the family to surgically change Bruce’s sex from male to female. Bruce, therefore, became Brenda until the truth was revealed at age fourteen, at which time Brenda immediately changed back to being a male named David. Bruce and Brian presented an ideal case for assessing the success of such treatment, given the genetic control presented by Brian.  

Interested individuals should consult the 2006 book As Nature Made Him, by John Colapinto, for an in-depth treatment of David Reimer’s life and the terrible turmoil he and his family experienced. Another excellent source is a 1997 article by Milton Diamond and Keith Sigmundson on the status of the twins’ treatment and outcome, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Many of these issues are also addressed in my forthcoming book, Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables and Facts About Twins (April 2017, Elsevier). The material in this article was adapted from a longer piece that appeared in Twin Research and Human Genetics, 2016.

About the Author

Nancy L. Segal, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and the Director of the Twin Studies Center, at California State University, Fullerton.

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