Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Jean Garnett, “There I Almost Am: On Envy and Twinship” (non-fiction) from Yale Review #109.1

You may know the feeling of taking proud shelter in a sibling, someone who knows how to assemble and disassemble you, someone with whom you share blood, history, memory. Imagine sharing not only all of that but also hair, skin, iris, nipple, the same winces of pain caused by the same herniation in the same cervical disks, the same laugh sounds and laugh lines, the very same early marks of age; the same face—your face, the signature that proves the youness of you—so that you can look at another person and think, There I am. There I almost am.

One of the most frequent compliments paid to writers is that their work is brave. Maybe it recalls an incident that’s humiliating or shameful, or maybe it reveals honest thoughts that are genuine, not rearranged for a more flattering angle. I often wonder if the word is overused, that it means the reader will think it’s brave but not necessarily that the writer actually had to be brave to put those words on paper. In this case, however, I have to say unequivocally, there is enormous bravery here. Garnett is not just admitting to less flattering moments, but is writing them as a book editor, therefore highly read by others in her professional field. And one of those readers will be her sister, the object of many of those unpleasant moments. 

Garnett tells us some of the good things about having a twin – a permanent friend, someone who gets it, connection – before going into the dark side. Most prevalent is envy. This may be exaggerated because they work in the same field, but it seems to be a feature of twinship. We learn about the ways envy reveals itself from a variety of sources, Socrates to Nietzsche to Melanie Klein, and then discover how it’s fit into Garnett’s life over the years.

I remember how, in our early twenties when my sister was at her thinnest, I was always angling for a view of her, using barback mirrors and public bathrooms and shop windows to catch secret glimpses. I remember how perverted I felt whenever our eyes met in the reflection and she caught me in the act of envy. I am never more disgusted with myself than when I am engaged in this covert looking and assessing, treating her body as a human mirror. But I still do it. I spy on her. She’ll be walking or crying or dancing or getting dressed or trying to tell me something important, and I’ll become aware that my eyes are scanning her as though she were a bar code. You want your identical twin to be beautiful, to confirm that you are beautiful, but you also want her to be ugly, to confirm that she is uglier than you.

She then goes beyond her personal situation, using examples from The Little Mermaid and Amadeus, to show how envy is often about destruction. She gives an example from Twitter: a celebrity posts a beauty pic, and the compliments pour in:

Every so often one of her millions of followers will reply with an “ugh, so gorgeous” or an “I can’t even” or occasionally a friendly “OMG I hate you.” This is the closest we come to discharging the barely contained fury coursing through the comment feed. “ANGEL!” people shout. “PURE WARRIOR GODDESS!” “YASS!” “YOU’RE SO PERFECT!” It’s like we are stoning her with compliments.

I love that image of stoning with compliments, but I’m not sure I agree. Then again, I often see Twitter differently from others. What are followers supposed to do, not comment? How would the celebrity react to that?

A significant part of the essay concerns a relationship with a man who, after their relationship ended, approached the twin sister, which seems not just tacky but odd. This was complicated by the unrequited nature of the relationship.  Been there, done that, didn’t have to bear the twin sister on top of it.

We end with a moment of connection in despair that serves as a reverse reflection of an earlier moment, and discover that the sister sometimes feels the same way: “I feel like you’re leaving me behind.” It shouldn’t be surprising that this happens. After all, they are twins.

* * *      

  • This article is available online at Yale Review
  • The sisters share an Instagram site : @PublishingTwins

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