Dorothy Burlingham’s Twins

The study that explained why it’s not so wonderful to have a look-alike.

Twins dressed in matching outfits

For a long time, it was common for society to treat twins, especially identical twins, not as two separate people but as a single unit. Literature, from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors to Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey, imagined twins as seamlessly interchangeable or as possessing a mysterious preternatural bond. Many people, of course, still treat twins this way. Outsiders delight in their uncanny physical similarities—from the Twinsburg, Ohio, festival that encourages participants to dress alike to the countless movies and TV shows that have fun with twins’ resemblances. Think Marge Simpson’s indistinguishable sisters, Patty and Selma.

But if laypeople still frequently perceive twins as carbon copies, psychologists no longer do. How-to manuals for raising twins stress the need to treat them as individuals, starting with not giving them rhyming names and not dressing them in matching outfits. These are basic steps, but important ones, and they have not been always widely followed. Indeed, any twin who has been spared such embarrassments probably owes a debt to a psychoanalyst who, writing nearly 60 years ago, helped revolutionize the way society thinks about twins: Dorothy Burlingham.

Though little-known outside psychoanalytic circles, Burlingham authored the seminal Twins: A Study of Three Pairs of Identical Twins, With 30 Charts. At the time of its appearance in 1952, “the amount of material available on twinship that can be of practical help to parents of these double-featurettes,” reported the New York Times, unable to resist the urge to cuteness, was “remarkably skimpy.” Twins was immediately hailed by the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott as “probably the most comprehensive work of its kind in existence.”

Born in 1890, Burlingham was the daughter of Charles Tiffany, the famed jeweler. After a divorce, she moved with her children to Vienna, underwent psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, and worked with his daughter Anna to establish a day care with psychoanalytically informed lectures and seminars for teachers. Then in 1938 the Nazis annexed Austria, and she traveled with the Freuds to England. During the Blitz she and Anna Freud set up the Hampstead Nurseries in a comparatively safe neighborhood in North London, where children stayed during the war, separated from but visited occasionally by their mothers. Freud and Burlingham observed the children in their care and collaborated on two influential works, Young Children in Wartimeand Infants Without Families.

A little while later Burlingham followed up with Twins. Over several years, she tracked the development of three sets of identical twins at Hampstead: Bill and Bert, Jessie and Bessie, and Mary and Madge. She carefully documented their growth—including important moments in their relationships with one another—in spare, lucid, unobtrusive, and highly descriptive writing, as well as in detailed color-coded charts in the back of the book.

Looked at one way, Twins is an exercise in debunking. Burlingham starts by discussing the widespread societal fascination with twins, which she suggested may stem from a fantasy that people develop when they’re young and learning to cope with their separateness from their parents. People think it would be wonderful to have someone “just like” themselves—a perfect soul mate capable of deep, intuitive, empathetic understanding. But the truth is more prosaic. “In the fantasy,” Burlingham wrote, “the relationship to the twin is imagined as an untroubled and unchanging one.” In reality, twins struggle with their partners and often balk at being pigeonholed. When at nearly 4 years old Mary told Madge, “Madge, you’re a twin,” Madge replied: “No I’m not, I’m Madge.”

Although Burlingham stressed twins’ need for independence, her picture was anything but simple. She saw, too, that this need coexisted with a fear of separation, and she observed how the tension between those conflicting feelings surfaced at various stages of early life. When very young, each twin expressed (as all children do) a basic wish for self-gratification—for the mother’s attention, or a particular toy, or a dessert. In the case of twins, this wish for gratification inevitably came at the expense of the other twin, since they had to compete with each other for maternal affection—and just about everything else. Slowly, however, this basic wish transformed into a desire to share, and by the age of 2, the twins felt it important to have the same thing at the same time. And yet this desire didn’t erase the earlier competitiveness. A struggle remained, only now focused on the wish to have equal amounts, not more or less—so that Jessie would not have her cocoa with her nurse until she was assured that Bessie was having cocoa, too. “Sharing,” Burlingham noted, “is the continuation of their former competition.”

The portrait of twins’ relationships wasn’t all bleak. Burlingham also saw that functioning as a unit can be beneficial. When, at 2½ years, Bessie showed proficiency at making plasticine ducks, Jessie, rather than trying to learn the skill herself, was happy to ask Bessie to make “me ducky too.” Similarly, when one of the pair was challenged by another child or reproached by an adult, the second twin put aside her rivalry to defend her sister. The protected twin, for her part, was glad to let the other temporarily assume a superior role in the relationship. At such times, feelings of unity overrode feelings of rivalry.

Overall, however, Burlingham saw that it was necessary for a twin to carve out some sense of individual identity . Bessie and Jessie at times supported each other and at other times criticized each other persistently. Each seemed to seek her partner’s approval as a single child asks for praise from a parent; they also seemed to separate more easily from each other when they were happy and enjoying what they were doing. Bert and Bill, by contrast, were so invested in each other, so engaged in copying each other, that they didn’t develop appropriate social skills or a sense of separateness. Years later, psychologists described their fusion as a severe maladaptation.

Despite its subtlety of observation, Twins did not go without criticism. Clearly, children brought up in a group setting at the Hampstead Nurseries—away from their parents all or most of the time—weren’t being raised under typical circumstances. Their mothers’ prolonged absences may have distorted the twin relationship. Burlingham’s work also focused only on the early years of childhood, paying little attention to the stages of development after the child begins elementary school. And then there was the problem that, like other studies that rely on close observation, Burlingham’s small sample size left her open to the charge that her conclusions could not be generally applied.

Nonetheless, her work encouraged others to observe twin development, giving rise to a host of new studies. We now understand better the particular challenges that twins face at critical junctures in their developmental trajectory—and parents, psychologists, and teachers, knowing more about how to treat twins, can better help them enjoy the pleasures of twinship as well.

Burlingham herself offered only two pages of practical advice for parents. It amounted to a plea against extremes: Parents shouldn’t break up their twins completely, she said, but they shouldn’t let them relate primarily to each other, either. Instead she called for “a normal development of the tie to parents.” That advice may seem unremarkable coming from a Freudian psychoanalyst, but any twin who remembers being gussied up in matching sailor suits and put on display probably yearns to have been treated “normally” a little more often.