Extreme Virtue 7: My Brother’s Keeper

My Brother’s Keeper

by Randall Auxier

Chang and Eng Bunker were joined at the sternum by a bit of cartilage, and although their livers were fused, they would have functioned independently. Contemporary medicine could have separated them safely, but in 1811 it was too dangerous. So they lived together, making money enough to buy land, and to buy slaves, in North Carolina. They saw that lovely part of the country on tour and decided it was where they wanted to be.

Then as now, that part of the country is known for being, well, “eccentric” isn’t exactly the right word, but shall we say “open to alternatives.” But Chang and Eng wanted a conventional life, and they pretty much got what they wanted. How do conjoined twins get such a thing? The logistics are a challenge, mind boggling, really, but not insurmountable. They married sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Anne Yates, and had eleven and ten children respectively. Marriage in that day was not what it is today, but I can barely imagine the conversation Chang and Eng had with their father. “Mr. Yates, as you imagined the future happiness of your daughters, perhaps this is not what you had in mind, but . . . “

Voltairine de Cleyre, the feminist anarchist writer and social critic of the next generation, argued that marriage, whether it be monogamous, polygamous, or even (gasp!) polyandrous, was on its way out, or ought to be. Where Emma Goldman, her fellow crusader against marriage, had pronounced marriage inimical to love, de Cleyre saw the “mistake of marriage” in a broader light. Her argument was that evolution produces our self-conscious processes just as surely it produces wings and eyes and big brains. For beings whose world is dominated by conscious choice, the subsequent direction of the evolution of their species comes increasingly under the control of their actual choices. In short, human beings are in a position to choose what they shall become, evolutionarily.

Against that backdrop, then, why would anyone choose to be married? Does marriage not dilute, misdirect, and render unfree the very processes evolution has brought to the doorstep of our volition? I once had a friend who said, and I quote, “it’s hard not to evolve.” It’s the sort of change that is underway one way or another, and the only question is whether we use whatever influence we can muster to direct its course, however slightly, or simply get left behind. From this point of view, it matters very little whether the highly varied practices associated with traditional marriage (especially arranged marriage), or those of bourgeois and romantic modern marriage hold the day. The question is why would any intelligent person choose to be bound for life to another person, in the eyes of state, or community, or God.

It was de Cleyre’s last point, about God, that brought to my mind the story of Chang and Eng. I am reasonably certain they would have chosen to be separated if it had been possible. But that led me to think of Abigail and Brittany Hensel, the conjoined twins from Minnesota, now in their early twenties, who cannot possibly be separated, sharing as they do, essentially the same body in most respects, including just one set of perfectly functional reproductive organs. And they want to get married and they want children. Rumor has it that Brittany is engaged, but not Abigail. I do not know whether they aim to marry one fellow or two, or whether the law will try to step in –seems doubtful in Minnesota, but not long ago they were looking at a teaching job in Texas where marriage law has recently undergone an anti-Mormon review, rendering plural marriage a remote prospect.

I wonder what de Cleyre would say to them about the aspirations of self-respecting individuals, since I believe she is thinking of “individual” in a way that the lives of conjoined twins puts to a test. If it is actual that Chang and Eng, and, more poignantly, Abigail and Brittany are different individuals –and one is simply forced to admit that in the most sacred terms, involving the dignity of personality, they are different individuals—what sense can I make of her assumption that no evolved person would choose a life bound to another person, for better or worse? I don’t want to bring my own bias to the question, as someone who has chosen that option, in marriage, because I am aware that my desire to be conventional runs deep enough to disqualify my judgment. I don’t feel like a stunted person on account of being married for over half of my life. But I have to grant that I’m too far in to know what I might be like if I had taken de Cleyre’s course.

But I think the hardest question anyone could ever ask Abigail and Brittany is whether they would choose life apart, if it were possible to have a “normal life” without diminishing the other sister. The question is hypothetical, for them, but the implied loss of intimacy might be unbearable, indeed unimaginable for them. They are together in a way almost none of us can imagine –those who are twins might come a bit closer, but even at that, well, you get my point. Abby and Brittany probably can’t imagine life apart. But I am not prepared to accept that this limit in their imaginations, if it exists, is automatically a sign that meaningful individuality is lacking in Abigail and Brittany.

So, a conventional life is not an option for Abby and Brittany (any more than it was for Chang and Eng Bunker), although I don’t doubt that somewhere out there they might find the right person(s) to spend life with. I know I would be ready to fight Texas (or any other benighted state) for all I am worth if it says those women can’t marry whomever they choose, including a third or fourth woman. So I want Voltairine de Cleyre to rethink her idea of individuality so that it doesn’t depend on (or derive a norm from) the biological situation that is simply the most common. Evolution moves by variation and adaptation, even if most variations are fatal. Abigail and Brittany survived and have already adapted. The question is whether we can.

Chang and Eng eventually had to get different houses and alternate days with their respective families. The standard story blames this on the quarreling of Adelaide and Sarah Anne, but I’ll bet it wasn’t that simple. No new horizon, faced bravely by people who choose to plod toward it, offers its secrets to the traveler in advance. The Bunkers, all 25 of them, tried it one way and then another. They adapted the institution of marriage while supporting the peculiar institution of chattel slavery. They left a good name and now have some 1500 direct descendants. I wonder whether any of those descendants are standing in this bread line.