What pulled crowds off carnival midways to see conjoined twins on display? Not the acrobatic tricks. Not the double pianos played by four hands and one body. Sexual curiosity. People wondered, as many do now, whether one twin felt what the other did—if an orgasm shuddered through both bodies, how agile they were, and of what coital contortions they were capable.
Sexual curiosity, however, masks a question about identity. If conjoined twins are a single living organism, are they two separate people? Twin Falls Idaho, last year’s film about one twin finding love as his brother nears death, confirmed a general assumption rooted in contemporary Western notions of privacy and bodily sanctity: Such people’s dearest wish would be to separate. Life spent joined at the hip must be hell.
Now two new books about conjoined twins—a biography and a novel—offer portraits of lives jointly led, pushing us to consider how much our concept of identity is limited by our reverence for individuality. Joanne Martell’s nonfiction Millie-Christine is a straightforward life story. Millie and Christine McKay shared a pelvis when they were born into slavery in 1851. Sold for display and billed as the “Two-Headed Nightingale,” they toured Europe and the North before returning voluntarily to America’s South to be reunited with their family. Their owner then exhibited them for years, and when they were set free they earned enough money on the freak show circuit to become wealthy landowners.
Martell’s approach is simplistic. She takes sideshow propaganda at all but face value, leaving the complicated relationship between Millie, Christine, and their apparently beloved owners uninterrogated. “If Millie and Christine sometimes regretted their joined bodies and considered an operation, they never admitted it publicly,” she writes. “Indeed, what they wrote in their History [a promotional pamphlet] may be the simple truth: ‘We are contented with our lot, and are happy as the day is long.’ ”
Millie and Christine were very often “Millie-Christine,” functioning as a single entity. Martell flips easily from “they” to “she,” and even the twins’ own mother referred to her babies as “my child.” In fact, almost the only conflict Martell documents is Millie’s insistence that the twins cease submitting to the invasive gynecological examinations that had been a regular part of their arrival in any new town. Among countless cheerful publicity photos, the book includes a single evocative picture of the women, seminude. Millie glowers at the camera. The more accommodating Christine bows her head in shame.
Although these repeated examinations testify to the sexual curiosity of both doctors and the viewing public, Martell neither documents nor speculates about Millie-Christine’s erotic life, even though her sources invite further investigation: Millie suffered an unusual vaginal abscess, and promoters played up the women’s attractiveness, even suggesting they had fallen in love with the same man. Certainly Martell should not be putting words in her subjects’ mouths, but the sexualized presentation of twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (both of whom were repeatedly and publicly engaged and later married) has been admirably dissected by several different scholars, and some of that intellectual rigor could have been fruitfully applied here.
On the other hand, Darin Strauss’s ambitious first novel, Chang and Eng, leaves little to the sexual imagination, partly because it takes poetic license with its subject, and partly because its true-life heroes were prolific propagators. The book is based on the men for whom the term “Siamese twins” was coined: Chang and Eng Bunker were giants of the showman’s boards in the mid 19th century.
The boys are joined by an inoperable ligament at the chest. After escaping superstitious execution in their native Thailand by doing tumbling tricks for the king, they are smuggled to America, where they rise to fame, take over their own management, and go into semiretirement at a young age, marrying a pair of Southern sisters and fathering 21 children between them. While Millie-Christine presents twinship as a blessed state that created great opportunities for women born into slavery, Chang and Eng reveals jealousy, disgust, frustration, and the deep, abiding love that a truly shared life can create.
Eng, the narrator, is tight, intellectual, and determined to forge an identity separate from Chang. As he reflects on his life from his death-bed, his already deceased brother lying beside him, Eng speaks with brutal honesty of his “life full of leering faces, slander, and unlikely love.” Ultimately, however, the book’s protagonist is Chang. Masturbator, showman, hopeful romantic, and drunkard, Chang lives passionately. He pursues caustic, playful Adelaide with faith in the impossible idea of winning her love. On the day before their brides arrive at their new home, Eng reflects: “It is odd that we could have needed something so badly and not known it.” “I know it all along,” says Chang. “I know it all along.”
The twins plan to keep their sexual lives simple by each going into a meditative trance while the other one copulates, but Eng soon finds himself disdaining bland, sickly Sarah and longing for Adelaide. This clandestine affection pulls the brothers apart. Chang becomes an alcoholic as his love affair slips away from him.
Drunk and drooling, he lies in a stupor as Eng and Adelaide finally consummate their love: “Chang moaned in his sleep, his breath ruffled the hair on my chest. Addie leaned against her husband to lift my head, and she kissed me. I had never felt this before, a woman insatiate, and grasping. . . . Her fleshy cheek rested against my slumbering brother’s ear.”
The idea of performing sex acts, sleeping, and excreting in perpetual physical contact with one’s sibling is pretty upsetting to most people. Conjoined twins threaten the values we place on privacy and individuality, and in fact Martell’s weak book may threaten them more than Strauss’s excellent one, because of Millie-Christine’s single identity. She must have been angry, frustrated, exploited, we think. Yet she apparently felt herself lucky to be one of God’s wonders.
Chang and Eng imaginatively projects us into a prison of a body so tangible that we come away with a sense of sideshow curiosities satisfied and a deeper understanding of the perversities of human affection. It also confirms our preconception that the conjoined life is one of limitation and misery.