‘More than One and not quite Two’ – Conjoined Twins in Shelley Jackson’s Half Life

Posted by Sonja Zimmermann on October 06, 2015 in Blog, Sonja Zimmermann, Uncategorized tagged with , , , ,

At first glance any major fascination with conjoined twins or, for that matter, so called Freak Shows in general, appears to be very much a ‘thing from the past’; a Victorian fascination with grotesque bodies that has no place in our modern, ‘enlightened’ society. However, if the last thirty years or so are anything to judge by, the topic is still as captivating to us as ever. Museums such as ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’ and the newly opened ‘Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities’ in London, or the ‘Mütter Museum’ in Philadelphia, amongst many others, still successfully display a wide variety of curiosities, including pictures, busts and descriptions of human ‘freaks of nature’. Furthermore, there are countless examples of conjoined twins in modern literature and media. When discussing the topic of my dissertation ‘‘More than One and not quite Two’ The Representation of Conjoined Twins in Contemporary Gothic Fiction’ with friends, their first reaction might well have been along the lines of ‘Oh, I can’t think of any!’ Yet, it only took a couple of slight reminders for them to indeed recall various examples of conjoined twins in contemporary fiction themselves. They appear in bestselling 1novels such as Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (1989), Lori Lansens’ The Girls (2006), Shelley Jackson’s Half Life (2006) and Darin Strauss’s Chang & Eng (2001), as well as in films, such as Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003, based on D2aniel Wallace’s novel of the same title (1998)). From television series like The X Files (‘Humbug’, 1995), Carnivale (2003-2005) or indeed American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014), from only last year, to music, such as the musical project ‘Evelyn Evelyn’ (2007-2012) by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webly, conjoined twins are everywhere and our enticement with them is ongoing.

Using what I deem to be an interesting aspect of each of the chapters of my dissertation, I am going to explore this phenomenon in more detail throughout my next three blog posts. This first one is taken from my chapter on the physicality of conjoined twins and discusses the experience of sharing one’s body with another person in Shelley Jackson’s Half Life.

The physical representation of conjoined twins in contemporary texts is no doubt an ambivalent one, and one can identify a pattern of the twins being portrayed a certain way, almost all of the time: they tend to be young, female and beautiful. For instance: Bette and Dot Tattler, the conjoined twins in American Horror Story: Freak Show are both played3 by the ‘easy on the eye’ actress Sarah Paulson. The conjoined twin sisters in the television series Carnivale have no names and no dialogue. Their sole purpose within the show seems to be an aesthetic one, with the two attractive brunettes being, every now and then, shown to do gymnastics or to carry out every-day tasks in perfect synchronicity. 4Nora, the protagonist of Shelley Jackson’s novel Half Life, describes herself and her conjoined twin sister Blanche as ‘pretty’ several times throughout the novel, while Electra and Iphigenia, known as Elly and Iphy, the conjoined twins in Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love are described as “beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed.” (Dunne, Geek Love, p.9)

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The physicality of conjoined twins is certainly ‘different’ and obscure, yet they are not completely unrecognisable as attractive human beings. The fascination with them does therefore not solely lie in their ‘otherness’, their difference alone which repulses us and makes us feel better about our own normality. Rather, alongside the repulsion, there is also an element of attraction. We are not just looking ‘despite ourselves’, but are, in a way, eroticising what we see. In his study on the so called grotesque, Justin Edwards described these conflicting responses looking at a ‘grotesque’ body, such as that of conjoined twins, evokes within the viewer as follows:

it incites seemingly incompatible emotions through its representations of abjection and possibility, limitations and becomings, compassion and rejection, attraction and repulsion. (Edwards and Graulund, Grotesque p.78 )

This certainly does suggest that, through almost idealised images of beauty on the one hand and an unusual deformity on the other, conjoined twins both attract and repulse the viewers and force them to question their notions of beauty and sexuality. Additionally, however, through their ‘more than one and not quite two’ bodies, conjoined twins also make us redefine our notion of ‘self’ from a purely physical, to a more complex, emotional definition. To strengthen this effect, contemporary texts often resort to presenting their stories from the perspective of the twins themselves. Rather than taking on the role of a voyeur, the modern audience experiences first hand what it is like to share one’s body with another person. This creates empowerment for the women and replaces the onlooker’s curiosity about their grotesque bodies as the primary focus within their representations, in favour of the emotional components of being permanently attached to another person.

6Shelley Jackson’s novel Half Life, for instance, is written from the perspective of Nora. Nora and her conjoined twin sister Blanche, who seems to have spent the last decade or more in a coma, live in a future in which nuclear bomb tests and radioactivity have caused conjoined twins, in particular those with two heads sharing one body, to become increasingly common. In this world conjoined twins are referred to by the use of slang words (‘twofer’ in North America and ‘mushies’, deriving from the cockney rhyming slang ‘mushy peas, Siamese’ in England), have their own festivals, ‘twofer pride’ parades, and cults forming around them. Through this science fiction setting, conjoined twins are given a more prominent role within society, not unlike that of black or gay people in twentieth-century Western societies. This takes away the carnivalesque and performative elements within their representation. Instead the novel focuses purely on the life of a woman who is permanently attached to another person, without the additional experiences created by being viewed as a circus curiosity.

Yet, at the same time, it would arguably be impossible to ignore the grotesque appearance of conjoined twins’ bodies and their effects on the outside world completely. Seldom are conjoined twins in contemporary fiction just two characters who happen to be conjoined. Alice Domurat Dreger argues how a person’s anatomy matters, not only “because it influences the assumptions people make on the basis of our anatomies”, but also “because the senses we possess, the muscles we can control, the resources we require to keep our bodies alive limit and affect what we can experience in any given context.” (Dreger, One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal, p.2) It is futile to present conjoined twin characters as ‘just like us’, with no differences. The way their bodies are shaped informs both their own lives and the way they are perceived by others. Half Life’s Nora wants nothing more than to be separated from her sister and live life as a ‘singleton’. She is longing to have her own identity, to rid herself of Blanche completely, and even her sister being in a coma does not quite satisfy this desire. She does not feel like she can exist as an independent individual while her sister is still attached to her and spends the majority of the novel working towards receiving (illegal) surgery that would remove Blanche’s head from their shared body.

Nora regards Blanche as a parasite – a life form that takes without giving, being kept alive through what Nora views as her own body, and lowering her own quality of life. Desperate to create distance between herself and her sister, despite their shared body, she describes how “being Nora was very largely concerned with, almost synonymous with, not being Blanche.” (Jackson, Half Life, pp.42-43) While Nora is therefore longing to be an individual completely independent from her sister, this drive is so much inspired by the need not to be like her, that it, in turn, shapes who she perceives herself to be. Seemingly blind to this irony however, Nora enjoys the fact that she is in complete control over their body, while Blanche is in a coma. She relates how:

One day, Blanche shut up. […] Her eyes closed, and she fell into a long, long sleep. […] our body was mine. It grew up. I grew up, and Blanche was left behind […]My life really began then. (Jackson, Half Life, p.9)

While sharing her body with her sister, Nora is unable to ‘grow up’, to start a life and form an identity of her own. Blanche is perceived as an invader, a noisy obstacle, and it is only when she finally ‘shuts up’, falls into a coma and appears to lose all control over their shared body, that Nora begins to feel like a fully fleshed person.

In our society a common reaction to ‘freaks’ might be to normalise them, to look for similarities, show pity and a willingness to include them. However, this cannot automatically be assumed to have a positive effect on the lives of conjoined twins and other ‘freaks’. Instead it presents them as disadvantaged and suffering, implying that, unless you ‘fit the norm’, your quality of life must somehow be impaired. (see also Domurat Dreger One of Us for a more in-depth discussion on the topic.) Conjoined twins themselves also, by attempting to fit into the mould of ‘normality’, instead of embracing their individual differences, view themselves as inferior and unfortunate and create unhappiness for themselves. A longing for separation that, depending on their type of conjoinment, cannot necessarily be achieved thus leads to suffering for conjoined twins.

 

References

American Horror Story: Freak Show. Horror Series. Created and produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. Los Angeles: FX, 2014.

Big Fish. Fantasy Film. Directed by Tim Burton. Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures, 2003.

Carnivàle. Dark Fantasy Series. Created by Daniel Knauf. Los Angeles: HBO, 2003 – 2005.

Dreger, Alice Domurat One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2004.

Dunn, Katherine Geek Love. London: Abacus, 2010. [first published 1989]

Edwards, Justin D. and Graulund, Rune Grotesque. London and New York: Routledge, 2013

‘Humbug’, The X Files. Science Fiction Series. Episode written by Darin Morgan and directed by Kim Manners. Los Angeles, 20th Century Fox, 1995.

Jackson, Shelley Half Life. New York: Harper, 2007. [first published 2006]

Palmer, Amanda and Webly, Jason Evelyn Evelyn [CD, 2010] Boston: Eleven Records, 2010.

Strauss, Darin Chang & Eng. London: Allison & Busby Limited, 2001.

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