Real Answers To Questions You've Always Had About Conjoined Twins
Throughout history, conjoined twins have fascinated people around the world. Mainly, people want to know what it's like being joined to someone else their entire life. Most people can't imagine what it's like to be attached to your sibling day in and day out. Most of us can barely stand being around our brothers and sisters for long stretches of time, so how do these extraordinary individuals live their entire lives literally attached at the hip, waist, or head?
While conjoined twins were introduced to pop culture mostly through "freak shows," conjoined twins today lead relatively normal lives. In the interest of respectful discourse, we've looked into what this condition can mean for someone's physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Read on to learn more.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Term 'Siamese Twins' Comes From The Real-Life Bunker Brothers
The term “Siamese twins” is not considered an acceptable way to describe conjoined twins nowadays, but it was the go-to phrase for nearly 200 years.
The term traces back to two of the most famous conjoined twins in history. Eng and Chang Bunker were born in Siam (present-day Thailand) in 1811. They were attached at the chest and shared a liver. The term "Siamese twins" is a direct reference to the Bunker brothers, who rose to fame in the United States as a stand-alone attraction while being exploited by two American businessmen.
The twins later negotiated their freedom, married two sisters, settled in North Carolina, and garnered their own wealth.
There Are Many Different Types Of Conjoined Twins
There are over a dozen classifications for conjoined twins based on where the siblings are connected. One of the most common forms of conjoined twins are thoracopagus twins. These twins are joined in the upper chest and share a heart, which makes separation nearly impossible.
Another common conjoined twin type is omphalopagus. These twins are connected from the middle of the chest to the belly button area, but do not share a heart. They often share a liver and even genitalia.
Together, thoracopagus and omphalopagus twins make up about 75% of all conjoined twins.
Craniopagus twins, conjoined at the skull, represent one of the rarest types of conjoined twinning.
One Pair Of Conjoined Twins Can See Out Of Each Other's Eyes
While conjoined twins may share some organs, they can rarely feel what the other twin is feeling. In the case of sharing a stomach, they may both experience the effects of what the other ate, but that’s about as far as it goes. Yet, there is one pair of very unique craniopagus twins who can presumedly read each other’s minds and even see through each other’s eyes. Tatiana and Krista Hogan of Canada are attached at the head in a way that makes separation impossible.
Doctors have determined they are attached at the thalamus through a "thalamic bridge." The thalamus is the part of the brain that transmits sensory information, regulates consciousness, and controls motor function. Tatiana can see out of both of Krista’s eyes, while Krista can only see out of one of Tatiana’s eyes. The girls also say they can carry on conversations in their heads.
Brittany And Abby Hensel Each Control One Side Of Their Body
Mobility can be a problem when you’re physically attached to your sibling. Yet, Abby and Brittany Hensel, a set of omalaphagus twins, get around just fine.
The twins appear to share one body but each has her own heart, spine, lungs, and stomach. They control the limbs on their side of the body, and they’ve gotten very good at coordinating. Abby controls everything on the right, while Brittany controls everything on the left. They're so good at this balance, they can both drive a car - though they have two separate licenses.
- Photo: Sheila Dee / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
Physical Intimacy Can Get Complicated
After Abby and Brittany Hensel’s TLC special came out in August 2012, curiosity got the best of many viewers. Lots of people became fascinated with the twins' sex life, or lives. After all, Abby and Brittany Hensel share their sexual and reproductive organs. In the show, the twins are in their 20s, but there isn't any talk of significant others. However, the women do mention they hope to get married and have kids one day.
The original “Siamese twins,” Eng and Chang Bunker, were married and had 22 kids between them. Their sex life supposedly “shocked the moral sense of the community.” Other twins throughout history expressed some reservations when it came to sex. "Physically, there are no serious objections, but morally there was a most decided one,” said 19th-century conjoined twins Millie and Christina McCoy.
Modern-day twins are more open to sex. Conjoined twin Lori Schappell, who is attached at the head to her twin George, said she lost her virginity at 23 years old. She said George would just read a book when she was being intimate with her boyfriend.
Unfortunately, even if both twins consent to sexual activities, it can be difficult for conjoined twins to find a partner. Some professionals believe the constant physical connection to someone else may also lessen the physical need for a partner. According to Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University:
From my studies, I would postulate that conjoined twins probably end up having less sex than average people, and that is not only because sex partners are harder to find when you're conjoined. Conjoined twins simply may not need sex-romance partners as much as the rest of us do. Throughout time and space, they have described their condition as something like being attached to a soul mate.
- Photo: Wellcome Collection / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Marriage Can Be Difficult For Conjoined Twins
Throughout the history of conjoined twins, marriage and everything it entails have been fraught with challenges. The Bunker brothers married two sisters in 1843 in North Carolina. Their wives’ father disapproved of the marriage not because of the Bunker brothers' conjoined status but because of their Asian descent. There is a history of conjoined twins being refused marriage licenses because of what their condition implies about their sex lives.
Violet and Daisy Hilton were conjoined twins born in 1908. They tried to get marriage licenses several times but were denied. In 1941, Daisy’s marriage to Harold Estep was finally legalized. According to Daisy:
Mentally we have found a way to live separate and private lives, but it’s almost impossible to convince other people of that. We were denied marriage licenses in 27 different states because they saw it as bigamy. All our lives we’ve had to bury every normal emotion. I’m not a machine; I’m a woman. I should have the right to live like one.