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.

Becoming a person is one of those austere Western initiation rituals which seem barbarous when seen through non-Western eyes. Anthropologists do not always find the word ‘person’ in the lexicons of their primitive peoples. Tribal individuals have an identity defined by kinship relations, by a place in the cycle of generations, by positioning in a habitat. They are bearers – of skills, wisdom and a history – but they are not persons: they are not burdened with the Western narrative convention that their life is theirs to make, that it is a property to redeem or ruin. The twins’ story makes one feel how heavy this Western burden is. In some tribal societies they would have been regarded only as innocuously bewitched inventions of the spirits, like two-headed cabbages or four-leaf clovers. But in Haverfordwest, that forlorn corner of Western civilisation where, in 1963, they had the misfortune to be born, the sight of two identically-dressed black girls, sloping along the bleak back-streets, in lock-step march, with their heads down, never speaking, was a standing affront to every criterion of normality, to everything a ‘person’ ought to be.

Personhood – what selves are, how they are made – has been a battleground in Western political theory since Hobbes made the individual the primary unit of the science of politics. The self implied in the moment when sovereign individuals contracted to form a government in Hobbesian and Rousseauian theory always strained sociological credulity. From Hume through Marx philosophers have satirised the contract of classical liberal theory for positing a fully autonomous, unencumbered self utterly at odds with the heavily encumbered historical selves most of us actually are. Men, said Hume, are mirrors to each other: they take their sense of themselves, and their obligations, from gazing into their neighbours’ eyes, and from a reasoned judgment of what obligations social life makes necessary. They do not reason from the fiction of an unencumbered self: they start from the social. Yet if the ‘social’ theorists of selfhood have always had sociological plausibility on their side, the liberal theorists of the freely contracting individual have moral attractiveness on theirs. We are not altogether pleased with the idea that we are mirrors to each other: we are drawn to an image of ourselves as sovereign moral judges with a freely chosen inner rule to guide our relations with ourselves and others. In this we are all Protestants now, no matter how deeply we feel the strain of what Weber called the ‘iron cage’ of this disembodied individuality.

These twins would think it another of their doctors’ bizarre ideas if they were told that they are the poignant heirs of all this heavy European moral tradition, yet each of them struggled desperately to shoulder its burden. They might have chosen to be stones, and in their moments of catatonia, they seem to have been strongly tempted. They might have chosen to be ciphers: in their own family, their mother had been forced – by a patriarchal Caribbean husband and by the silent despotism of the twins themselves – to bend herself into nothingness. Instead, these two wildly imaginative girls embarked on three great Western ways of making themselves individuals: they tried writing, they tried sex, and they tried crime.

Utterly unreached by schooling, they holed up in their bedrooms, month after month, pouring forth diaries, stories, fantasies and even a novel: one of these, The Pepsi Cola Kid, they even paid a firm to publish. Writing is the great Western ritual of self-individuation and each of the twins, scarcely a foot apart on their bunk beds, filled their diaries with a second-by-second account of life in that tiny bedroom, until, as Marjorie Wallace puts it in a nice phrase, ‘reality lay somewhere exhausted between their furious perceptions.’ In these frenzied imaginings, they tried to write themselves into existence as separate selves. They were like a schizoid Robinson Crusoe, their island a cramped upstairs bedroom in a North Wales semi.

When, like Crusoe, they discovered the self needed its Friday, they began stalking the American boys at the nearby airbase, eventually offering up their virginities to a loathsome American narcissist, the glue-sniffing Carl. Each twin hoped to cross the sexual divide between childhood and adolescence first, and to usher herself into autonomous adulthood before the other, but the price to be paid was murderous jealousy from the twin left behind. Moreover the selfhood which sex had to offer them, as Marjorie Wallace shows from the twins’ diaries, was sustained almost entirely on self-delusion. Each twin willed herself to see the loathsome Carl as the emancipating Lothario, but neither was strong enough alone to become the person which sexual initiation made possible.

After both writing and sex had failed, there remained only the romance of crime: the pleasure of burning up your own school. They hoped arson would make them famous and in becoming famous they sought to gain some of the marks of selfhood which the attentions of the state can confer. They were duly arrested, made into criminals, separately confined, and ultimately sentenced to indefinite confinement in Broadmoor. Yet even then, huddled together in the dock, they were still not persons enough to accomplish the juridical subject’s basic task, which is to plead. Their barristers had to get them to repeat the word ‘Guilty’ again and again until their whispers were loud enough for the judge to hear. They embraced the law’s judgment, hoping that judgment would make them into persons. Yet in the sad final paragraphs of the book, we learn that in Broadmoor treatment has only managed to dull the struggling individuality they had fought to achieve. They no longer write: the drugs have seen to that.

The twins’ predicament recalls the case reported in Oliver Sacks’s The man who mistook his wife for a hat of a woman who, as a result of a spinal encephalitis, had suffered total extinction of her proprioceptive system, the sixth sense which relates the other five senses to each other, and which gives us that integrated image of our bodies as being our own. The poor woman did not know that her hand was her hand, her leg her leg: disconnected from her body, she was disembodied from her self. The moral of her tale seems to be that the self is this neuronal conviction that all of our sensory impressions converge upon a continuous site which interprets the world out there as other and the body as one’s own. This suggests that these twins suffer from a catastrophic doubt as to the integrity of their body image. From birth they have seen their own body mirrored with hallucinatory exactitude in the body of another. Although they seem to be able to distinguish each other as personalities, as temperaments – indeed, they hate each other’s fledgling identities – they may not be able to distinguish each other as separate physical entities. What Hume said of all of us – that we are mirrors to each other – was true for them, but with a bizarre inflection: where for us the gaze of the other confers on us our sense of difference, for them the mirror gaze of the other offers up only the confusing image of the same. Our culture’s instinct with twins – that they must be separated – builds on a conviction that the self can only constitute itself in an encounter with alienation, otherness. But each of these twins can only manage to see the other as other by projecting upon her the malign part of herself. At first bound together by dependence in a loveless world, their twinship became a poignant parable of schizophrenia. Each saw the other as the bad fragment of their self, made real in a haunting, unshakable double. Thanks to Marjorie Wallace, thanks to the twins’ incorrigible brilliance, we now have some idea of what it is like to stand in front of the dark mirror, to live with a reflection who is also unbearably, imprisoningly real.