One of my friends and I have a little joke where we call each other “myself” – not because we look alike (indeed, our appearances are complete opposites – she’s fair, I’m darker; she’s slender, whereas my behind is best described as J. Lo. goes to hell, and so on), but because we are similar in our personal philosophies and senses of humor. With mindsets so similar, we reason, it seems only logical that we are separated halves of a whole.
John Rolfe Gardiner takes that idea to a poignant and occasionally terrifying extreme with his thought-provoking novel Double Stitch. Unlike my friend and I, Gardiner’s heroines are a pair of identical twins – Linda and Rebecca Carey, or Linny and Becca. The two orphans come to Drayton, a progressive Pennsylvania orphanage, in 1926 at the age of ten and they’re already bonded to each other. They do things like speak in the third person, or refer to the other twin as “I,” as if they were truly one person. They even share their own language, cobbled together from bits of baby talk.
Though Drayton seems a relatively pleasant place, the girls are too tuned into each other to make real connections with the other girls at first. This causes the orphanage’s director, Eula Kieland, to seek out the services of renowned but controversial therapist Otto Rank, who schools her in the ways of the double identity.
Eventually, Rank tells her, the girls will split into separate individuals. But when the split comes, it has more to do with disagreement about their racial heritage than the natural process of growing up. Their estranged grandmother (whom Eula initially believes to be dead) is black. As teens, Becca identifies as black, while Linny is adamant about being white. The rift settles, but is revisited throughout the novel.
In tracing the tale of the two girls into adulthood, Gardiner has woven a rich story, incorporating fact (Rank and his muse/lover Anais Nin were real people) and fiction. At its core is, of course, the relationship between Becca and Linny. Their relationship is literally a double-edged sword – they love each other compulsively, but their mirror-image looks make it almost impossible for them to ever be alone or cultivate separate identities. This is most telling in the book’s mid-section when Becca, stranded among political extremists in China, treats her reflection like the embodiment of her absent sister. Becca’s ordeal in China leads up to one of the book’s most startling moments and, though we’re set up for it, it is shocking in the way it illustrates the perils of doublehood.
The character of Eula Kieland, based loosely on a real director of a Drayton-like orphanage, also is fascinating. She finds the girls both emotionally seductive and terrifying. She’s compelled to understand them, but knows somehow that she never truly will. Yet she adores them, placing great stock in their opinion of her and almost brazenly favoring them over her other charges.
What’s fascinating about Eula’s relationship with the Careys is that, though she staunchly strives for their inclusion at the traditionally all-white Drayton, she becomes more tentative and evasive when asked if she would change the orphanage policies to admit all people of color. Eula, it seems, feels it’s okay to accept those who are part black like the Careys but, like many people, is less open when it comes to those who are “all” black (to be fair, given the time period we’re talking about, her view was probably almost radical).
Gardiner has created a riveting book about the complexity of personal identities, love and a host of other issues. It’s sure to strike a chord among not just twins, but many people with siblings, with whom we also can have an intertwined identity. Indeed, many, like me, have friends with whom they share these close bonds. But the difference with friends and even most siblings is that, at the end of the day, when you look in the mirror you see you, and they see themselves. Twins don’t have that luxury.