Debbie Hough

Contributing Columnist

I just finished reading “Chang and Eng.” For the few of you who don’t recognize those names, they are the famous Siamese twins who were born in the 1800’s, connected to each other by a ligament that could not be separated. I believe they were the first noted set of conjoined twins.  

I had assumed when I came across this book that it was a biography but because there is very little information to be found on these two, the author, Darin Strauss, had to imagine a good deal to fill in the empty spots. While I tend to not like historical fiction because it’s too easy to confuse facts from fantasy, I think he did a pretty interesting job. 

The book was told from Eng’s point of view and starts off with him waking up to his now deceased brother and knowing that his end was imminent.  In flashback form he remembers their early days as children and how they didn’t know they were different until they saw other children who were singular, then as teenagers, where they were discovered and boated to America to earn money in a circus, eventually marrying sisters who bore their children.

Throughout it all, Eng wished more than anything to be separated from his brother whereas Chang rarely gave it a thought. One of the reasons for Eng’s unrest, surmised by the author, was that Eng was in love with Chang’s wife (and he could hardly sneak around behind his brother’s back, now could he?)

I must say that after reading this I can truly appreciate being my own person. For me, the free flitting butterfly that I am would find being conjoined suffocating.  

Naturally you think about them just wanting to be free of each other to pursue their own desires but this book helped me realize that it’s so much more than that. They would have had to start the day hoping the other one wanted to get up at the same time, which doesn’t even happen here because the Hubby is often up at 5 a.m. I’d have to slip him a mickey.  

All matters pertaining to the bathroom had to be humiliating, as was getting dressed in front of each other. The twin who didn’t like to read had to sit still while his brother did, and if one of them was sick the other had to lie in bed for days until the other one was well again. That would not fly with me.

What if they chose very different religions and had to take turns going to each other’s churches? And suppose one of them had to go to jail — the other one would have to go there too. Can you say “get me a saw?”

In the book, the author portrayed Chang as having a drinking problem, whereas Eng was a teetotaler who unfortunately felt the effects of the alcohol as it passed through the ligament. This could have been a matter of creative license but I can imagine that it would be annoying. Kind of like my twin eating beans and me getting the gas.

And together they were so wide that they needed a double chair to sit in and they required an ample stairwell to be built into their home so they didn’t have to shuffle down sideways. And speaking of, while it’s a fact that Chang and Eng married sisters and each had their own houses — with the men switching houses every three days, the reason that the author came up with as to why they did this is quite the intriguing explanation.

Still, sisters or not, I don’t get the marital bed situation. I think it’s wonderful that these men found wives and experienced marriage and children, but I personally couldn’t fully trust that the other twin was really putting himself into a trance while I did the hanky-panky with my man. It would have to be lights off and loud music all the way! Actually I would have to put myself in a trance just to forget he was there. 

I have tried to put myself in that position (being conjoined, not hanky-pankying) It had to be so hard being connected to another fully functioning individual that I think I would have lost my mind. There had to be compromising on a minute by minute basis. Every movement, every desire, every need had to be shared and agreed upon. How could you sit back and rest your mind when your other half insisted on chatting or — I don’t know — playing a kazoo? 

I couldn’t do it.

I wouldn’t do it.

I’d get a saw.

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