San Diego On December 26, 1997, Janna and Nancy Sipes thought they were going to die. The two San Diego sisters were trapped through the night 18,500 feet up on Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro in a howling, freezing gale.
"That night was the longest of our 40 years," they wrote later. "We spent it oscillating between prayer and panic. Janna lay awake all night, unable to stop shivering. Unthinkable thoughts crept in. She began to think she wouldn't live until morning. Nancy too was entertaining thoughts of death, and she was already ill.
"Though it seems surreal to us now, even when we believed we might die on Kilimanjaro, we drew strength from each other. Dying without the other would have been a horror neither of us could bear, but we could face anything as long as we were together."
Living or dying together counted for more to Janna and Nancy than most siblings. They are identical twins, sisters who are the result of a single fertilized egg in their mother's womb that split in two. Unlike fraternal twins, who result from two sperm fertilizing two eggs, identical twins are genetically the same.
The two sisters, with doctorates in law and biology, had decided to climb the mountain to mark their 40th birthday. They survived the night and made it to the summit the next day, but their thoughts at that moment of crisis illuminated a truth they say belongs to all twins: no matter how the world tries to pull them apart, they are part of each other for life.
Now the two want the world to learn this too.
They have written a book about it called Dancing Naked in Front of the Fridge, and Other Lessons from Twins (published two weeks ago by FairWinds Press).
What the book shows is that twinship is at the same time wonderful and very tough, both on the twins and others who love them.
They draw the lessons largely from their own lives. The dream time, the ideal time for Nancy and Janna was when they were kids. They had been born four minutes apart. For their first years, they were never that long apart again. It was an idyllic intimacy. They were so close they often talked to each other in what they call "twinspeak," nonverbal exchanges. They experienced "twincidence," independently having the same thoughts at the same time, or literally feeling pain when the other was hurt. They were a sufficient universe unto themselves, even though they had two older sisters. "Once we got settled into our spots at bedtime -- we each had our own side of the bed -- we would entrust our treasured secrets and fanciful dreams to one another," they write. "Those innocent conversations would often turn into gales of laughter, causing a knock on the wall from our parents' adjoining room with a warning to go to sleep. This command usually resulted in our laughing even harder, forcing us to dig ourselves deeper under the covers in an attempt to muffle our giggles. For twins, every night is a slumber party!"
Then, with their introduction to school, they suffered a trauma that has largely steered the rest of their lives.
"In 1963, our parents were told that we would have to be in separate classrooms in the first grade," they write. "We had not spent more than a few moments apart in all six years of our lives. Now, suddenly and shockingly, we were separated. And we did not know why. What had we done to deserve this punishment?
"Our fear at being separated from each other during those early weeks of the first grade was indescribable. It was magnified only by our feelings of emptiness and loss. Even though we were surrounded by other children, deep inside, we still felt completely alone because we did not have each other.
"You can only imagine the horror for us every day in the lunchroom as we saw each other across the room, but were not allowed to sit together."
"Nancy was crying in what seemed to be slow motion," writes Janna. "I sat in my seat screaming in agony on the inside."
"School officials said that [together] we wouldn't learn to socialize and develop as individuals," Janna says when we meet at Nancy's Clairemont house. "Total bullshit! It was totally wrong. We think it was very traumatic on us because they did that. Some twins are ready [to separate] by the first grade. We were not. We were extremely close. We'd go to bed every night holding hands and touching noses and sleep that way. We couldn't separate. Then to hear, 'You're going over here, and you're going over here,' it just raised a bunch of abandonment issues."
The twins grew up and went to school in Texas. But it's no coincidence that after 40 years, the two live ten minutes apart here in Clairemont. Nancy's house, hidden behind a riot of purple Morning Glories, is filled with African and Asian masks, paintings, posters, and a fridge-load of bon mots. "No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings (William Blake)." "A man's reach should always exceed his grasp (Robert Browning)." "To thine own self be true..." sits on a magnet on the fridge beside a wine rack full of bottles of Moët & Chandon champagne. "Life may not always be the party we hoped for, but while we're here, we should dance!"
"This is Nancy's house," says Janna. "She was always the untidy one."
Nancy is married, Janna's not. While Nancy's husband Stu is away at work, the two spend the day together, working on projects such as the book and a column for Twins magazine. I have to make a mental note that Nancy is the one with the triangular-shaped earrings on, though in the end it doesn't matter much. The two of them start and end each other's sentences and thoughts seamlessly.
"I was the dominant twin in the twinship," says Janna, who, you start to notice, does most of the talking. "I made the decisions from when we were little kids up through adolescence. 'Nancy, we need to leave at eight o'clock in order to get to school... Nancy, you need to do this, you need to do that.' Someone had to make the decisions. And it just fell out that I was the decision-maker for the twins. A twinship is going to be very chaotic, unless someone takes the lead. Though we would have these tremendous battles. Fisticuffs, fights, some hair-pulling. But we had to figure out a way to make the twinship work. And one way to make it work is you get mad real fast and you get glad real fast too. Because you spend literally 24 hours together, every day. It's part of the relationship tools. Just like in a marriage, you settle into roles."