Sunday, September 16, 2007

First Person Plural

When I was a youngster growing up in Hurst, Texas, I came across a book about Chang and Eng Bunker, the “Original Siamese Twins,” in the library of Hurst Hills Elementary School. I read it several times, and I have always been intrigued with the idea of: a) having a twin, and b) that person being attached to me physically. Part of me is still convinced that my twin is walking around out there somewhere, but fortunately for me, the latter was never an issue, as I’ve found that I like a fair amount of “alone time.”

Then, a few years ago, I became aware of a pair of conjoined twins, Abigail and Brittany Hensel, who are dicephalic conjoined twins. That’s the sort of conjoined twins who appear to be one person with two heads. It’s much more complicated than simply having two heads, as each twin has control of half of the body and they are fused at the base of the spine. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia entry on them and a nice bit of YouTube vide,o if you are interested.

Then I was contacted by Andrew W.M. Beierle, the author of a new book entitled First Personal Plural. I was really excited to read it as it appeared (you can read the first chapter online) that it would go into a lot more detail about the every day lives of conjoined twins, which the book on Cheng and Eng didn’t do and which, the Wikipedia entry on the Hensel twins doesn’t do.

First Person Plural is about Owen and Porter Jamison who are conjoined “inhabiting one body with two heads, one torso, and two very different hearts.” That’s the kind of synopsis that has me running to the bookstore.

To say that the appeal in reading First Person Plural stops at the minutia of the every day lives of Owen and Porter is to really gloss over the beauty of the book. The book absolutely contains a fair amount about the intricacies of being conjoined, but there’s much, much more. Beierle is a wonderful writer with a gripping style and a great vocabulary. He writes about historical conjoined twins and about life in Atlanta, Georgia. And he introduces us to a cast of characters who are all very real and most of them very well filled out. I had to pace myself so that I wouldn’t read the book straight through. I wanted to savor it.

No only is the book about the complications of having someone next to you for every moment of your life, but Beierle also writes about the familial relationships (the differing relationships they have with their parents, and the reactions of extended relatives) and how they go about dating (and they do) and having very different interests in many areas. He also writes about how they go about having “alone time” and what happens when they have sex. It’s amazing. To complicate matters, one of the twins, Owen, happens to be gay. How this affects his coming out, how his brother, Porter, feels about it, and how they go about managing their lives is a great story.

I kept having the urge to look them up on the Internet. I wanted to see pictures of them, read the articles that their mother parsed out to the media throughout their early lives. I wanted to hear their music. (They’re musicians.) It was so real that at times it seemed impossible that someone had just made them up and that at some point I wouldn’t be able to get as much of them as I felt like I wanted. (Thank goodness for Abigail and Brittany.)

For me, one of the most memorable, and most frustrating characters, is Faith, the woman who Porter marries about half way through the book. One review I read mentions her and some of the decisions she makes, saying that they came out of nowhere. The thing is, I’ve known people like her, so I felt like she was absolutely real, and I felt like her reactions and her behavior is completely believable knowing where she was raised and what her belief system is.

Similarly, Owen and Porter’s mother is a wonderfully drawn character who obviously has a favorite son, the fabulous Porter, who is athletic and popular. The book is written from the point of view of Owen, the more thoughtful, quiet son. Mrs. Jamison is a well-educated woman with two very unconventional sons, but who has some very conventional ideas.

First Person Plural is a book worth seeking out. It’s got a lot of important things to say. It’s not just about the gay thing. It’s about much larger issues. It’s about having to consider someone else in every decision, and about dealing with people who we are connected to and the decisions they make. But it’s not an “issue book.” It’s just really great read, one I had a hard time putting down and one that I will read again.


Tim said...

Thanks for telling me about this book. I went to the bookstore the other day to pick this up based on your recommendation. I'm only a couple of chapters in, but it looks interesting!

Matt said...

Wow. That adds one more to my reading list. I've always had a bit of a soft spot for fiction and non-fiction dealing seriously with multiple personality disorder, but I'd not really considered the physical analog. That does present some twists. And if it's set in Atlanta, I'll have to pick it up. That's my childhood home. Thanks!