Victoria White


It’s time news stories about twins followed freak shows into dustbin

Isn’t it time news stories about multiples starting school and expressions like “set of twins” and “identical twins” followed freak shows into the dustbin of history, asks Victoria White

It’s time news stories about twins followed freak shows into dustbin

Isn’t it time news stories about multiples starting school and expressions like “set of twins” and “identical twins” followed freak shows into the dustbin of history, asks Victoria White

‘CORK school sees seven sets of twins start first year!” screamed this newspaper’s headline last week.

“Back to school is a one-in-10,000 year event for one Cork secondary school this Tuesday,” continued the story, “as seven sets of twins begin in first year for the second year in-a-row.” Glamire Community College’s twins were made headlines in most of the national newspapers.

Pictures of the seven “sets of twins” went all over the shop. Elsewhere it was reported that eight “sets of twins” started as junior infants in Bunscoil Mhuire, Youghal, and the question was asked, “Is this a record?”

What in the name of God is a “set of twins”? How could anyone, least of all writers and editors working for our quality newspapers, describe two beautiful youngsters as a “set”? How would you feel if you were described as half of a “set” as if you were a mitten or a sock?

This has to stop.

Regular readers of this column know I’m not much of a one for political correctness.

I will never call a mother a “pregnant person”. But I just can’t understand how we have allowed ourselves to continue denominating people born in multiple births as fractions of a whole.

It’s reductive and demeaning.

People who shared a womb with a brother or sister — even those who shared a womb with several siblings — are not any different.

They were just born in slightly different circumstances.

It’s true that people born in multiples do tend to prematurity and low birth weight with all their attendant dangers.

This year newspapers have also been heralding the two “sets of quads” who have started school. Proud mother Grace Slattery spoke movingly of watching her gorgeous four children head out to Caherline National School, Co Limerick.

Their infancy was so difficult that one little lady was not expected to survive. “To see them all going off now is just amazing,” said their mother. “They are a real miracle.” They are. All babies are a miracle and a baby who battles and survives, or battles and does not, just brings it home to us how precious they all are.

It can’t be assumed that people born in multiples will have special needs, much less special abilities, of any kind, however.

You would think from the reporting from Glanmire Community College last week, that children born in multiples presented completely different challenges as compared with children born singly: “Teachers at Glanmire Community College (GCC) are no strangers to teaching twins; seven sets of twins beginning first year this Tuesday will be joining the 27 sets of twins, and one set of triplets, already in the school,” continued this newspaper’s report.

Aren’t those teachers great? How do they tell those twins apart, let alone the triplets?

For the record, two thirds of twins are “fraternal”, in other words no more genetically similar than any siblings.

What about the “identical” twins, though? They’re the weird ones, aren’t they?

It’s presumably these so-called “identicals” which are referred to in The Irish Times’s headline on the Glanmire Community College story: “School does double-take as seven sets of twins begin first year.” It’s a favoured headline for the annual multiples start school story; used it a couple of years ago when seven “sets of twins” started secondary school in Cashel.

Given that the vast majority of twins are not “identical” it’s a stupid assumption that twins will look alike but when our twins were born, one dark and black-haired, the other pale and blonde, some people asked, “How do you tell them apart?” My husband’s response was, “I hope you’re not driving home.” I know parents of boy and girl twins who have been asked, “Are they identical?” That not what’s wrong, though.

What’s wrong is the word “identical” itself, which is grossly insulting to two people who happened to be born from one egg, not two.

They are never “identical”.

They may have differences accrued since the egg split, perhaps relating to their experience in the womb and at birth.

Then their life experience makes them different.

Anyone who saw Tim Wardle’s recent documentary, Three Identical Strangers, which told the story of triplets born in 1961 who were separated at birth and raised in households with different economic circumstances in a scientific experiment will know the result: nurture trumps nature.

By a fluke, the triplets found each other, when two turned up at the same college. But the resulting circus was too much for one of them, who lost his life to depression.

It’s as easy to point the finger at the doctor involved, Peter B. Neubauer, as it is to point the finger at Hitler’s Mengele. The fact is that the circus was as cruel as the experiment itself.

The most notorious example of the multiples’ circus in modern times is surely that of Canada’s Dionne Quintuplets.

Their story has fascinated me since the day my mother pointed out doll-sized “Dionne Quints” in a toy museum in Dublin, showing their fame reached the rural Donegal of her 1940s childhood.

The sisters were born to a young mother who already had five children in a poverty-stricken cabin in Ontario in 1934.

The Ontario government removed them from their family when they learned that the girls’ father had signed a contract to exhibit them at the Chicago World’s Fair. They were housed in a specially built hospital where they could be viewed by visitors through two-way mirrors.

Nearly 3m visitors viewed them over the next nine years, as “Quintland” became a more popular Canadian tourist attraction than the Niagara Falls.

The girls’ “cuteness” eventually declined and their father won them back but they had by now no real relationship with their birth family and the result was horrific.

In 1998 they won a settlement of $4m from the government to compensate them for their mistreatment. One of the two surviving women has been swindled again and has been left dependent on the state in a nursing home.

Nowadays we would not dream of separating children from their parents because they were multiples.

We would not put them on display, even through two-way mirrors. There is still a relic of a freak show. However, in our excitement over so-called “sets of twins”, especially if they are “identical”, and this has not diminished despite the 80% rise in the incidence of twin births since 1985 which is mostly due to IVF.

Can we not marshall to some useful purpose the things we have learned from political correctness about the importance of avoiding stereotypes and the rights of each individual child?

Isn’t it time news stories about multiples starting school and expressions like “set of twins” and “identical twins” followed freak shows into the dustbin of history?

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