Book Review: Twins Talk: What Twins Tell Us about Person, Self, and Society

Twins Talk: What Twins Tell Us about Person, Self, and Society. Dona Lee Davis, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014, 321 pp.

Identical twins have long been the focus of scholarly attention, but as Dona Lee Davis argues in Twins Talk: What Twins Tell Us about Person, Self, and Society, these works have seldom focused on the experiences of twins as twins. Instead, twins have been valued as research instruments—tools for deriving general insights about human biology and psychology. At the same time, according to Davis, there has been a tendency in twin research to pathologize twins and the twin relationship. In particular, Davis explains that psychological accounts of twinship often depict identical twins as having a “deviant cultural persona” (p. 6), which she attributes to a more widely held view that identical twins pose challenges to normative Western understandings of autonomous personhood.

Twins Talk is positioned as a corrective to medicalized, stigmatized, or otherwise limited accounts of twins’ experiences and identities. Davis takes a novel approach to the well-trod field of twin studies by making twins themselves—rather than genes and environments or the human psyche and child development—the center of her analysis. Twins Talk, which draws on life histories of identical twins and the author’s own autoethnographic reflections on life as an identical twin, is therefore a valuable and much needed contribution to scholarly work on twins. It suggests intriguing new directions for anthropological research on a topic that has been predominantly explored from biomedical and psychological perspectives.

In many ways, Twins Talk is an unconventional ethnography. The bulk of Davis’s fieldwork took place at three weekend twin festivals—the Twins Day Festival held in Twinsburg, Ohio, and two annual meetings of the International Twin Association. At the Twins Day Festival, she conducted interviews together with her twin sister Dorothy Davis, who is also an anthropologist. The author’s analysis of mainstream twin research is based on two international twin research conferences, where she presented papers, observed sessions, and interacted with other conference attendees. Davis is upfront about the ways that her methodological choices depart from the traditional anthropological tools of ongoing participant observation and long-term fieldwork. As she explains: “[A]lthough they took place over a period of four years, these research events totaled no more than twenty days” (p. 19). However, there is also a strong autoethnographic component to this project. Davis frequently reflects on her upbringing as a twin and her lifelong relationship with her twin sister, and an interview with Davis and her twin is included among the ethnographic data collected at the Twins Day Festival.

Twins festivals, as Davis points out, are events where twins gather to celebrate twinship. Many twins wear matching outfits or costumes, and look-alike contests and photo shoots encourage the sense of festivity and refine the focus on twins’ appearances. Why do twins seek out and participate in this spectacle of twinship? Davis’s analysis highlights the appeal of the performative, carnivalesque atmosphere: “Twins festivals are all about simultaneously performing and challenging popular cultural stereotypes of twins as being identical” (p. 23). If in some sense, identity is always a social performance, twins festivals distill and amplify the performative aspect of twin identity while simultaneously effecting a role reversal: In these spaces, identical twins are the norm rather than the exception. Davis locates the transgressive potential of twins festivals in this sense of temporary social upheaval. Rather than conceding to “Western society’s notions of independence, autonomy, and individuality” (p. 65), at festivals, twins emphasize and revel in the very characteristic—strikingly similar physical appearance—that is otherwise seen as an obstacle to their ability to embody socially valued forms of individualism.

What twins festivals celebrate, twin research conferences obfuscate. Davis relates an experience she had at the International Congress of Twin Studies where a prominent twin researcher corrected her when she self-identified as an identical twin. Instead, the researcher explained, she should use the term “monozygotic twin,” which is commonly used in the scientific literature. For Davis, the researcher’s refusal to allow Davis to define her own identity was emblematic of how, within biomedical research, the social identity of twins, rooted in similar appearance, is eclipsed by a biological identity, rooted in embryonic development and genetics. Instead, Davis calls for greater recognition of the simultaneously biological and social dimensions of twinship, positioning her work in relation to the emerging literature on biocultural and biosocial anthropology.

Davis argues persuasively that twins’ own narratives of identity and experience emphasize “shared place and space” rather than “shared genes” (p. 94), but one wonders if this is particular to twins, or if this might be a more widespread reality in biomedical research. Researchers might have ways of envisioning and describing research subjects that are dramatically different from how those research subjects understand and narrate their own lives, but these divergent visions could very well coexist without necessarily undermining the premises of genomic research. Nevertheless, without Davis’s ethnographic portrait of twins’ senses of self, it would not be possible to make these comparisons or to ask these questions.

Davis’s theoretical approach is grounded in cultural psychology; thus, her primary questions concern identity, self, and personhood as they are embodied, performed, and made meaningful by her twin interlocutors. Given these areas of focus, Twins Talk would be a good fit for undergraduate or graduate courses on psychological anthropology, biosocial or biocultural anthropology, kinship, and personhood. Beyond the classroom, the book also suggests interesting directions for future research on the anthropology of twins. If identical twins are seen as problematic in relation to Western normative values of individualism and independence, then Davis suggests that cross-cultural comparisons may be helpful for demonstrating the variability of selfhood and social relations in many other contexts. This raises additional questions. Even within the United States, how might social distinctions along lines of class, gender, race, and ethnicity map onto identical twins’ experiences and understandings of appropriate relations between self and other? How do twin relationships intersect with other forms of social relations?

Twins Talk provides a foundation for the exploration of these and other questions of intimacy and individuality. With this book, Davis gives a compelling demonstration of the value of studying twins as twins, and shows that twins’ life stories—not just their genomes—are rich with meaning and worthy of analysis.

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