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The Unbearable Likeness of Being

Illustration by Dana Collins

WHEN YOU WAKE UP IN THE MORNING, HOW DO YOU know who you are? The question has derailed philosophers, neuroscientists and artificial-intelligence researchers alike, but for kids on the playground, my sister Christine and I gave concrete urgency to the dilemma. As identical twins, how did we know who we were?

The myth of twindom is rooted in the idea of another being with whom one might be utterly at one, and I guess that's what they saw in us -- two tiny bob-haired girls with the same face and matching frocks bound together in a symbiosis apparently of another world. To most people we were so alike they assessed us as a single unit. But looking the same, sounding the same and dressing the same do not add up to being the same. Subtle differences in body shape and chemistry, slight deviations in personality, compound over the course of two lives to irrevocable difference. To borrow an insight from complexity theory, the human self is a system with "sensitive dependence on initial conditions," and even slight variations at the start inevitably lead to major changes later on. Though conceived in a single egg, two psyches ultimately evolve from one genome.

The gradual distancing of entwined souls is an experience known to all lovers and many siblings, but for identical twins the dawning of this gap strikes at the very core of identity. There is a moment in the life of every twin when you realize that this "other you" -- this clone -- is an alien, not you at all, but a doppelganger with a mind of its own. Flesh of your flesh, beyond your control, a twin haunts the world, an unbidden and alarmingly autonomous pseudo-copy. What is it doing? Where is it going? How is it outside your gaze? The challenge for twins is to let go, to accept this other being as a separate person entitled to its own unique life.

For many twins, however, the trauma of separation proves insurmountable, and they opt instead for the monoculture of a single life, the carbon-copy existence so beloved by evolutionary psychologists. This "Identi-Kit" vision of twindom is on display each August at the annual Twin Festival when thousands of duplicates in obsessively mirrored outfits converge in Twinsburg, Ohio, each pair striving for the most perfect match, as if they are all engaged in a psychotic game of Snap.

Surely there is something pathological about such determined togetherness. Unable to let go of their shared consciousness, Identi-Kit twins devolve into a kind of a microscopic Borg collective, trapping each other in a private cocoon that neither allows anyone in nor anyone out. Psychic meltdown can ensue. Such was the fate of the Gibbons twins, two young women in England who descended into a hermetic hell of pyromania and ended up in Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane. No one has captured the seductively treacherous vortex of Identi-Kit twindom better than David Cronenberg in his cinematic masterpiece Dead Ringers, a chilling portrayal of what can all too easily become the unbearable likeness of being. Increasingly isolated in a spiral of erotically charged self-obsession, Cronenberg's two brothers finally have no way out but joint suicide. Whether cute or deranged (the Olsen twins being proof that the two are not incompatible), identical twins constitute an aberration of the natural order. In many tribal societies they are killed at birth.

THE RECENT CLAIM BY THE UFO-RELIGIOUS CULT the Raelians to have cloned a woman brings to the fore the hitherto hidden pathology of identical twins, for genetically speaking this Raelian clone would have the same relation to its "mother" as a pair of monozygotes to one another. Given the technical hurdles other cloning researchers have faced, few scientists believe the followers of Rael have actually cloned a human. At the same time, few doubt that sooner or later some scientist somewhere will succeed. If sheep and cows and pigs can be duplicated through nucleic transfer, there is no reason to suppose that Homo sapiens cannot also be replicated this way.

Raelians believe that all life on Earth was created by an advanced alien race whose grasp of genetic engineering it is our responsibility to emulate. The ultimate goal of human advancement as they see it is to learn how to duplicate our adult forms so that we can download our minds into a continuing sequence of new bodies and thereby achieve immortality. For Raelians, cloning is a necessary step toward fulfillment of our spiritual destiny. Chief Raelian researcher Dr. Brigitte Boisselier claims the group has more than 1,000 people currently waiting to clone themselves. Raelian scientists are supposedly working on the next generation, which Boisselier says will include clones of people with HIV and AIDS. HIV patients risk passing the virus on to their offspring, and cloning offers a path to disease-free progeny.

Inability to conceive a child for any reason is surely one of life's cruelest tragedies, but, speaking as an unintended multiple, my skin crawls at the thought of deliberate duplication of a pre-existing person. Genetic duality is a difficult enough perversion to cope with even when you are going through it together, but at least twins grow up as equals. A child cloned from an adult would be anything but equal, condemned to live continually in the black hole of someone else's dreams and desires. Most repulsively, a clone would be forced to live in the shadow of someone else's body.

In The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde observes that it is every woman's tragedy to become like her mother. And who of us does not flinch when we catch ourselves mirroring our mother? Even when we love our mother there is a sense of disgust when we find our bodies repeating her gestures, her aging-corporeal failings -- the particular lines of her crow's-feet, the specific topology of her flab. Imagine the horror of being a physiological copy of your mother, to be in effect imprisoned in her body! If, as the Freudians tell us, all children fear parental suffocation, a clone would live in a state of perpetual asphyxiation. For let us be clear: Cloning constitutes a form of possession, a monstrous act of invasion perpetrated on the material substrate of another human being.

I CANNOT IMAGINE THAT ANYONE WHO WOULD PUT a child in that position physiologically would easily let go of it psychologically. Twins who cannot let go face two possible fates: The first is the Identi-Kit life; the second is divorce. There is nothing sadder than a twin who has divorced his or her womb mate, but for some there is no other way to psychic freedom. And for some of those separated twins, divorce is synonymous with death. By mutual consent, June and Jennifer Gibbons had agreed that life together was untenable, and on the very day they were released from the asylum, Jennifer became mortally ill and died -- almost as if she willed it. In order that a clone might be free from the succubus of its parent, divorce or death may well be the only solution.

Defenders of cloning frequently argue that a cloned child would be a loved child. But love is precisely the problem, for in cloning we have the necrotic fruit of self-love. Jeremy Rifkin has famously defined genetic engineering as "cosmic masturbation -- man with his hands down his genes fiddling with himself." An act of genetic manipulation par excellence, cloning is the apotheosis of this masturbatory fantasy. Mating with oneself, cloning constitutes the ultimate act of incest. And not without reason is incest tabooed in almost every culture on Earth.