Book Review – Twins Talk: What Twins Tell Us about Person, Self, and Society, by Dona Lee Davis

This book review was originally commissioned by American Anthropologist and an edited version will appear in the journal soon.

Herself a twin sibling, Dona Lee Davis has interviewed identicalCover (monozygotic) twin pairs to demonstrate the performed and negotiated quality of twin identities in a society largely organized by, and structured for, singleton expressions of self and sibling experience. With chapters organized around broad themes – ‘Twinscapes’, ‘Talk’, ‘Performance’, ‘Body’, ‘Bond’, ‘Culture’, and ‘Twindividuals’ – Davis weaves her own experience of being a twin and of attending conferences such as the International Congress of Twin Studies into material gathered through her interviews with 23 twin pairs at the annual Twins Festival at Twinsburg, OH. She is open about the pleasurable complications of describing herself a ‘native’ (p. 33) alongside her twin informants, claiming a level of access to her subject that those born without a direct experience of the life-long condition of being a twin would struggle to fabricate. Davis’ affective, autoethnographic proximity to her interviewees is at once an engaging and revealing feature of this book. Consequently, her presentation of twinship is entangled in the desire to supplement an outsider’s with an insider’s perspective: to provide a record of twin personhood that has been collaboratively ‘voiced’ into anthropological significance, alongside the analytic desire to bring coherence to and amplify those voices beyond the economically and politically specific time and space of their festival origins.

Despite aiming to ‘normalize twinship’ (p. 7), the gestationally and experientially exclusive position adopted by Davis is one that serves to extend the long and complex history of phenomenological mystery, exoticism, and categorical indistinction attributed to twinship in canonic works of ethnography (Rivers 1906; Evans-Pritchard 1936; Lévi–Strauss 1964; Turner 1969; Peek 2011) and in broader works of sociology and cultural theory (Schwarz 1996; Stewart 2001; Bacon 2010; Viney 2014). The difference is that while these works are largely concerned with how singletons have defined twins, Twins Talk focuses on how twins co-produce ‘self’ and ‘identity’ within and without the twin dyad. Perhaps it is necessary that Davis locates twins at numerous cultural and psychological ‘faultlines’, with the insider-outsider structure of the author’s analytic position made symmetrical with the ambivalently distributed identities that it brings to light. Davis concludes that she and twins are counterhegemonic subjects, able to refuse dominant notions of body or selfhood determined by Western individualism.

Twins Talk seeks to listen to how pairs talk their way through interpersonal relationships; performing the complex ‘self work’ (p. 8–9) of narrativised becoming that are structurally occluded by biomedical research projects. This contrast finds traction through the selective ways that Davis approaches biomedical twin research as a field replete with what she calls ‘blindspots’ (p. 101, p. 170): the failure to speak about twins in terms that recognize an expanded and expansive sense of autonomy and personhood. She is particularly critical of researchers who use the language of the instrumentation or thingliness of twins, to stress the primacy of genes and genetics to twin identities, for example. By taking the controversial and idiosyncratic work of Thomas J. Bouchard and David Teplica as exemplary, Davis suggests a view of contemporary twin research dominated by a crude scientism that ‘exists above and beyond culture’ (p. 173). This largely ignores the rich culture of dissent that has left a 140 year-old tradition of using twins in medical research no more internally consistent or univocal in content than ‘anthropology.’ Though Davis makes passing reference to the novel, postgenomic epistemologies, technologies and methods that have revolutionized twin research in the last 10 years (Bell and Spector 2011; van Dongen et al 2012), a frustratingly one-sided battle emerges between a malevolently blunt genetic determinism on the one hand and Davis’ benevolently sophisticated conception of culture on the other. We are not told why approximately 1.5 million twins should volunteer to be treated as ‘zombies or performing monkeys’ (p. 37) or for the alienation, misrepresentation, and reductiveness that Davis complains are endemic to twin research in the life sciences. It might be telling that these feelings are scarcely registered among her interviewees. More needs to be understood about why twins volunteer for health research, how molecular and molar relations can or cannot come into the public domain, and why twins continue to be used to explore an incredible range of traits, behaviors, and diseases.

There is no doubt that Twins Talk is an invaluable record of a particularly voluble minority of festival-going twins who are willing, eager, and capable of presenting themselves as talking twins, sympathetic to their biographies being raised to anthropological significance. Davis has worked hard to translate the specificity of her talking partners so that their experience may resonate among those voices that have not been recorded in this study. ‘There is one thing twins know how to do,’ she says, developing a metaphor introduced by one set of her talking partners, ‘it is to interchangeably lead and lean while sharing the stage’ (p. 27). Yet the presumed heroism of transforming silence into speech ought not be at the cost of understanding why some twins prefer not to talk, neither leading nor leaning nor even identifying themselves as “twins” above all else, and before all others.


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van Dongen, Jenny, P. Eline Slagboom, Harmen H. M. Draisma, Nicholas G. Martin and Dorret I. Boomsma 2012 ‘The Continuing Value of Twins in the Omics Era.’ Nature Reviews Genetics 13. 640–653.

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Peek, Philip M. Ed 2011 Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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Turner, Victor 1969; 1997 The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure Piscataway, NJ: AldineTransaction.

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Stewart, Elizabeth A 2003 Exploring Twins: Towards a Social Analysis of Twinship. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Viney, William 2014 ‘Curious Twins.’ Critical Quarterly 53.2. 47–58.