Conjoined Twins

Chang and Eng Bunker. Born 1811. Thailand.

 

One might wonder how conjoined twins manage to survive – physiologically, mentally, and emotionally – after surgical separation. While some sets of conjoined twins, for medical reasons, cannot be separated, as in the somewhat famous case of Brittany and Abby Hensel, since 1987 several have been successfully separated. In some cases, conjoined twins, who are old enough to make thoughtful choices, have refused to be separated. Lupita and Carmen Andrade, who were expected to live only three days after they were born, not only defied the odds, but are now living together, literally. Both refused the option to be separated. According to the Deccan Chroniclethe twins say “it would be like cutting them in half.”

The decision to surgically separate conjoined twins is not one to be taken lightly. Inevitably, ethics comes into play. The most urgent question of all: What if one twin must be sacrificed? Do we allow one twin to die to save the other? Which twin’s life matters more? The questions are endless, questions I can’t imagine having to face if I were the parent of conjoined twins.

You might be wondering why I’m writing about conjoined twins, why I’m sharing with you this extremely rare and mind-blowing phenomenon. I’m sharing all this with you because I cared for a set of conjoined twins as a neonatal intensive care nurse. Though decades have passed since I held all *fourteen pounds of sweetness in my arms, fed them, changed their diapers, and held my breath as I waited for the then eight-month-old twins to come out of the hours-long surgery, I’m still awestruck. So what does a writer do with all that awe? Naturally, she writes about it. Which is exactly what I have done in my essay, “After,” published today at Intima, a literary Journal dedicated to promoting the theory and practice of Narrative Medicine. Created in 2010 by graduate students in the Master of Science program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, Intima has featured writers in the literary and medical fields from around the world.

Thank you for reading “After,” and feel free to follow-up with thoughts, questions, and, of course, your own awestruck moments.

 

*fourteen pounds is a guesstimate.

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Memoir Dialogue

When writing memoir we’re expected to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, right? Blanket lying to readers is a definite no-no. For instance, I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi, so I can’t (or should not) write about the year I spent (did not spend) in this major cultural and commercial metropolis on coast of the Persian Gulf. But when writing memoir dialogue, it’s impossible to recall, say, the exact conversation you had with your grandmother just hours before she collapsed from a stroke twenty years ago, or precisely what your mother said to you when she dropped you off at school on your first day of kindergarten.

“We alter our memories just by remembering them,” says McGill University psychologist Alain Brunet. The more we recall a piece of dialogue, or event, the more we change it. So how do memoir writers stay as close to the truth as possible when writing dialogue? In every memoir workshop I’ve attended over the past eight years, that question has been the single, most urgent one asked by my writing peers. Dialogue is the brick-wall writers often fear scaling. It’s the aspect of memoir that can easily drive us to say, “Maybe I shouldn’t write this book after all.”

But, wait, if you’re working on a memoir, and considering giving up on it because you can’t seem to find a way over the dialogue wall, I’m here to spot you on your climb upward. This is what I learned about writing dialogue during a recent memoir retreat led by award winning authors Kate Moses and Elizabeth Cohen:

Unless you were blessed with the opportunity to record or write down every last word of the conversation you had with your grandmother twenty years ago, or happen to have had enough savvy as a kindergartner to crayon what I hope were your mother’s encouraging words, then you might want to try what is called the “subjunctive,” or “suggestive,” mode. In this case, you might preface the dialogue with “something like” or “as if.” You can also use “I imagine,” as in “I imagine my mother said, ‘Sweetie, you’ll be okay, I’ll be right here to pick you up …’”

The other option is to employ “representative” dialogue. For example, you might write, “Whenever I was afraid, my mother would assure me, ‘I’m here for you.’” It’s the word “would” which shows readers that your intention is to capture the sentiment of what your mother actually said. The dialogue does not have to be exact, as long as you convey the intended information: maybe it’s how comforted you felt knowing you could rely on your mother to protect you.

Use these strategies judiciously, though. Relying on them too often makes for an unwieldy narrative.

Another alternative is to announce, “I don’t remember what my mother said to me on my first day of kindergarten. All I know is that I was afraid.” Admitting you don’t remember makes you, the author, more credible.

If you’re looking for a good example of how an author recalls dialogue and scene from childhood, Kate and Elizabeth suggest reading Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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