Guest Post: Confessions of a Clone by Hester Velmans

April 17, 2018

Hester Velmans


In the debate about the wisdom of cloning a beloved dog, as Barbara Streisand recently did, one assumption is that at some point, when the technology has been refined, rich people who can afford it will want to clone themselves, out of a narcissistic desire to see an exact reproduction of themselves. Soon we’ll have swarms of little Bill Gateses, mini-Kardashians, Trumps or Zuckerbergs throwing their combined weight around. Perish the thought!

Speaking as a clone myself, I think that prospect is highly unlikely. I have lived with the same genetic makeup as my identical-twin sister all my life, and though I highly recommend twinship as a guarantee against loneliness (a built-in lifelong friend is a great gift, and I don’t knock it!), I doubt even the most eccentric billionaire would truly be happy being cloned.

Of course the attention my sister and I received was very gratifying when were little. “Oh, look, how cute, twins!” strangers would coo at us in our adorable identical outfits. We were hooked on dressing alike and would burst into tears if by mistake one of us was wearing white socks and the other pink ones. Wearing the same clothes was a comfort and a shield. That way the people who stared didn’t have to ask; they could tell just by looking at us that we were twins.

The downside of it was that we soon began to suspect there was something wrong with us. The word “freak”, though never spoken, hung in the air above our heads like one of the banners Charlotte spins in Charlotte’s Web. Alike as peas in a pod, we were aware of being different—different from our single friends and everyone we knew. Different enough to draw comments. Different enough to make people stare. Different enough to provoke inane questions like, “How do you know you are you and not the other one?”

By the time puberty hit, being twins wasn’t fun anymore. We wanted to be like every other teen, to fit in; yet we wanted to be individuals too—originals, one-of-a-kind. Out went our twin-clothes; now we had to consult each other every morning to make sure our outfits were as dissimilar as possible—within the bounds of what everybody else our age was wearing, of course. The problem was that in our tastes we were still as twinned as ever. Even if we went shopping separately, we’d still come home with the same sweater. The idea that a boy might ask both of us out just to see how alike we were, or to brag about it, struck terror into our teenage hearts. It got harder to be a good sport about being called “Hey, Twin!” when it was clear the kids who called us that couldn’t be bothered to figure out which one was which. I grew convinced that none of our friends liked me; they all liked my sister, and just tolerated me as part of the package. She thought the same thing in reverse. It used to be fun when people couldn’t tell us apart (a great excuse for pranks), but now we wished they wouldn’t ask, “Which of you is smarter? Who’s the best at math? Who’s the laziest, who’s the prettiest, who’s the weirdest, who’s the happiest?”

When I saw photos of the Dionne quintuplets, I felt bad for them. I understood that all the attention they were getting could not always be welcome or comforting. I knew that the urge to become individuals would be trickier and more painful for them than it had been for me.

It’s always bothered me, too, to see middle-aged twins who dress alike and finish each other’s sentences. There is something a bit sinister about the spectacle for me (think Diane Arbus), as if I were somehow responsible for what other people will perceive as an abnormality. My sister and I applied to different colleges, deliberately chose different careers, married men of different nationalities who were not related to each other, took up residence on different continents. Yet we cannot escape the similarities: we got married and had our first child within the same year; we each have two children, a boy and a girl; people say our husbands (each named after an apostle starting with P) are eerily alike; she is a publisher, I am a writer. We still like nothing better than to spend time in each other’s company and are still likely to come home with identical outfits purchased in cities 3000 miles apart. And it’s still embarrassing when perfect strangers stare at us and demand point-blank, “Are you twins?”

One of the thrills of becoming a mother was seeing my children’s individuality assert itself from the moment of birth. It astounded and delighted me that, far from being a cross between my husband and myself, the baby I was cradling in my arms was nothing like either one of us but a whole new being—a unique recombination of DNA, brand-new and different. I can’t really believe that there is anyone, no matter how rich or how pleased with the way he turned out, who would prefer to bring into the world a carbon copy, warts and all, instead of embracing a whole new bundle of astonishing, unpredictable possibilities.

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