“Which one are you” and other philosophical questions for twins explored

Three speakers at the front of a room including one on a video screen. All three are laughing.
Image credit: Shannon O'Brien
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
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“A lot of the people writing about twins are not twins—they’re singletons, as we call them,” says Helena de Bres, professor of philosophy at Wellesley and author of How to Be Multiple: The Philosophy of Twins, a new work of narrative nonfiction blending memoir and research. “I wanted to do something about being a twin that was by a twin and for twins.”

At the November 8 launch event for her book on campus at the Newhouse Center, Helena talked with her identical twin, Julia de Bres—who Zoomed in from her home in Wellington, New Zealand, and who illustrated How to Be Multiple—and Tracy Gleason, professor of psychology at Wellesley and the mother of teenage twins.

Many medical and psychological studies have investigated twins, and twins appear in plenty of literary, cinematic, and artistic works. (“Twins are used in horror films all the time!” Helena says, laughing.) As a philosopher, Helena wanted to dig into a different aspect of the twin experience. She decided to focus her research on the questions twins—especially identical twins—are often asked, and what these questions say about ethics, personal identity, and individualism.

Twin or not, “everyone’s sense of self is formed in relation to at least one other person,” explains Helena.

How to Be Multiple is divided into five sections, each inspired by a question Helena and Julia have often been asked. The book opens with the most common one: “Which one are you?”

It’s a question Helena’s student Phoebe Weisiger-Vallas ’24, a philosophy major with a history minor, and Callia Weisiger-Vallas, a history major and history of art minor at Haverford College, have heard many times. They understand why people ask it: “I share 99.99% of my DNA with this person! We were the same thing at one point!” says Phoebe. Still, it can be frustrating: “It’s always about how you look, not about your personality,” says Callia. “People want to know if you’ve always looked this similar or this different. And if they haven’t known you since you were a kid, they want to look at old photos and guess who is who.”

“Our mom works in genetics, so she always made a point to say, ‘They’re not identical, they’re monozygotic,’ which drove everyone nuts,” says Callia. But her goal was to emphasize that though they look alike, Phoebe and Callia are each their own people.

Because of these constant conflations, sometimes twins seek separate paths, which is why Phoebe came to Wellesley and Callia went to Haverford. Helena and Julia did this themselves: They attended graduate school on different continents, Helena at MIT and Julia at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and have lived thousands of miles apart ever since.

As seniors, Phoebe and Callia are used to having individual college lives, while Stephanie Barcenas ’27 and her identical twin, Estrella Barcenas, who goes to Kalamazoo College, are still adjusting after their first semester apart. “I was scared I wouldn’t know who I was without her,” says Stephanie. “It was so hard to say even a temporary goodbye to someone I created myself with.”

When Estrella visited Wellesley for family and friends weekend this fall, Stephanie said it was surreal to show her things they had not experienced together for the first time in their lives. But because the sisters see each other as extensions of themselves, in a way, they feel they each get to experience going to college in both Michigan and Massachusetts. “Even though I love Stephanie so much and wish she was here with me,” says Estrella, “it makes me happy to see her in the place that nourishes her.”

Astrid Wetherall Berger ’94 and Diana Wetherall Gerstel joke that in addition to being identical twins, they attended twin colleges: Diana graduated from Smith in 1994. “It was really hard being apart in our first year,” says Diana. “I actually applied to transfer to Wellesley but decided to stay at Smith.”

“It was nice to not have to deal with the twin thing all the time—to have people see me as me—but it also felt like people didn’t know a piece of me,” says Astrid.

Since leaving their rural New Hampshire hometown for college, Astrid and Diana haven’t lived in the same place. “Most people know us as separate people, so when they see us together it is magical to them,” says Diana. The sisters find it funny that their friends quickly become comfortable around the other twin, even if they’ve just met. “There’s an assumption you will be able to talk to Diana, because you’re comfortable talking to me,” says Astrid.

At the Newhouse event, Helena and Julia spoke of how people perceive them differently when they are together or apart. The de Bres sisters see Helena as introverted and Julia as outgoing, but many members of the Wellesley community, who only know Helena, were shocked to hear this, in light of Helena’s charismatic leadership of the philosophy department and her funny and personable teaching style.

“We all get put in these roles, but we’re all so much more complex than that,” says Julia.

When any set of twins is together, whether they are identical or fraternal, it seems non-twins can’t help but compare them. Gleason’s fraternal twins, a daughter and son, are now teenagers, and she gets fiercely protective when people want to know who is more intelligent, more athletic, more outgoing, more quiet. “The concern with twins is always competition,” she says, explaining that the ways the twins act “really depends on the context, and it changes over time.”

Gleason doesn’t even like to share which twin was born first: “People think there is something meaningful about being born first or second, and I firmly believe there is nothing meaningful about that,” says Gleason, whose expertise is in child development. She planned to tell her kids the answer to this question when they turned 18, but her mom accidentally spilled the beans when they were 10. When Gleason’s daughter learned she had been born second, she cried for an hour: “She kept saying, ‘But everyone thinks I’m more grown up, so I must have been born first.’ And I said that just because you act a certain way doesn’t mean you had to be born first—clearly it doesn’t.”

In addition to Helena and Julia, three twins attended the Newhouse event: Phoebe (without her sister), and Wellesley music librarian Carol Lubkowski and her twin, Stefanie Lubkowski (who happened to be celebrating their birthday that day).

Wellesley has had many sets of twins as students, including in recent years Kendra Coleman ’17 and Ashtyn Coleman ’17, Caroline MacVicar ’23 and Kate MacVicar ’23, and Luca Quintana ’25 and Jaime Quintana ’25. Each pair ended up at Wellesley for a variety of reasons. Kendra and Ashtyn were softball recruits. Caroline and Kate looked at different colleges initially, but in the end both felt Wellesley was the right place. Luca and Jaime wrote in their early decision applications to Wellesley that the College should accept both or neither of them, because they would only attend together.

The Colemans and the MacVicars say they sought ways to create their own spaces at Wellesley: Caroline and Kate lived in different dorms for three of their four years, while Kendra and Ashtyn studied abroad on opposite sides of the planet—Kendra in Denmark and Ashtyn in New Zealand.

Luca and Jamie, on the other hand, are roommates in Pomeroy and plan to room together next year as well, even though they’d qualify for singles as seniors. “As a twin you have a built-in best friend. Why wouldn’t you want to live together?” says Luca.

While Jaime and Luca acknowledge that their career paths will probably take them different places after graduation, their goal is to live together or near each other eventually. “Our parents are from Colombia, which is a more family-oriented culture,” says Jaime. “America is more individualistic,” adds Luca. “But I love sharing the beauty and the glory of a life with someone else, which most people can probably only imagine doing through marriage.”

Despite the miles between them, Helena and Julia remain close. Helena says the idea of writing about twinship came to her during COVID: “The project began as a way to spend time with my sister that didn’t involve being in the same country.” Julia jokes that she is constantly seeking out “replacement twins”—she has several friends who resemble Helena in appearance or in personality and temperament.

Perhaps Helena’s dedication in How to Be Multiple sums up her relationship with her twin best: “For Julia, my second and my first.” At the Newhouse event, Helena explained that “second” has two meanings: Julia was born four minutes after Helena, and in a duel, someone’s “second” is their most trusted representative.

“And she’s my first, says Helena, “because she was my first friend and has been my most important person ever since.”