Non-Persons

Michael Ignatieff

  • The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace
    Chatto, 230 pp, £10.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2712 0

One question in this strange, riveting story of identical black twins whose career of arson led them to indefinite confinement in Broadmoor is never quite addressed: what makes a person a person? How do we become individuals? These twins never made it into personhood, and their story helps one to realise that becoming a person is not the natural outcome of all childhoods, but an arduous self-invention which can go terribly wrong. Freud says that infants have no project for becoming a self at all. The infant is forced by separation from the breast, exclusion from the mother’s bed, the traumas of Oedipal rejection, to put on the armour of a childhood identity. With the Oedipal debacle comes insertion in language, which makes selfhood reflexive for the first time. It was at this stage that the twins stopped becoming persons. They went silent in their families and remained so for the next 17 years, perfectly able to speak to each other, in a slurred, compressed and speeded-up private dialect of their own, yet denying to each other, by implacable mutual censorship, the chance to use speech to develop a separate identity. Like the anorexic girls who would rather die of starvation than become women, the twins’ refusal to speak shows how unnatural the process of growing up can seem to a lonely frightened child. Terrified of embarking on the voyage to adulthood alone, they forbade each other to take the first step.

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