Essays

There I Almost Am

On envy and twinship

Jean Garnett
The author with her sister in childhood.
The author and her sister on vacation in York Harbor, Maine, 1989. Courtesy Jean Garnett. Photo illustration by Bianca Ibarlucea.

Recently, I walked into a small grocery store near my house and the owner, a shy but sociable man, looked up at me and said, “Are you you, or the other one?”

“i always wanted a twin,” some singletons say, and I believe them. To be a twin is glorious. We get lots of attention. Sometimes it’s an insulting kind—a man on a boat once said, “Don’t even bother telling me which is which; I won’t remember”—but attention is attention, and it feels good. Plus, we have each other, which is no small thing to have.

not long ago, stepping out of the rain into a crowded vestibule, there she was, my own face among strangers. Relief. We pressed our dripping cheeks together and instantly became, if not one body, then a kind of puppet that takes two operators, me fishing chapstick out of her bag, her biting into the energy bar I had in my pocket.

Up the stairs, surrounded by intimidating young people, we held our ground as though by forcefield, whispering and laughing, not needing anyone else. I thought, I have brought my second to this duel. You may know the feeling of taking proud shelter in a sibling, someone who knows how to assemble and disassemble you, someone with whom you share blood, history, memory. Imagine sharing not only all of that but also hair, skin, iris, nipple, the same winces of pain caused by the same herniation in the same cervical disks, the same laugh sounds and laugh lines, the very same early marks of age; the same face—your face, the signature that proves the youness of you—so that you can look at another person and think, There I am. There I almost am.

This was a work event: My sister and I are in the same business; in fact we have the exact same editorial position at different publishing companies and are in direct competition with each other, sometimes even bidding against each other in auctions. I started out in publishing a few years before she did, and at first I enjoyed playing mentor, offering advice on agents and office politics and author care; sometimes she would even ask me to read something to verify her opinion. I can be a very generous sister—maternal, even—as long as I am winning. Now, just as I feel my own career stalling, overtaken by domestic sprawl and motherhood, my sister’s seems to be taking off, her ambition suddenly asserting itself as though filling the vacuum left by mine. I have stopped going to work events—I never liked them, and with a small child I have an excellent excuse not to attend them—while she makes a point of showing up to everything. When I skip a big literary benefit or agent mixer, I am almost certain to hear from a colleague the next day, “I waved to you across the room last night, but you didn’t see me,” or, “Wait, yesterday you had a different haircut.”

What do you do with two people who share a face? The old way was to lean into the curiosity of doppelgangerdom, have some fun with it.

It causes me a strange mix of pride and panic to hear about my sister from people in my own sphere. For us, meeting people has always involved a sort of flag planting. The system goes like this: If you meet me first, I have planted my flag in you; even if we are not friends and never will be, I expect a certain loyalty from you—meaning, I guess, that I expect you to see me as being more real than my sister. If she meets you first, ok, she has planted her flag, and I am resigned to being “the other one.” These days, I find myself feeling more and more like the other one—not the right one, not the looked-­for one, not “the one.” This feeling is nothing new (though to some extent it is in keeping with the sense of ceding ground that, I am discovering, comes with parenthood). It is, and always has been, a part of the natural twin cycle. She is having her turn.

My sister has had a good year. At the event, people kept coming up to her. “You’ve had a good year!” they’d say, and I would smile and nod and say, “She really has.” After one congratulator walked away my sister leaned close to me and whispered, “What am I supposed to say to them? ‘Thanks, errrr, you haven’t!’” I laughed. The room went quiet as a reader took the stage and we stood together, shoulder to shoulder, arms slung around waists, self-­conjoining. As usual, her nearness flooded me with, first, a profound sense of peace and well-­being and, second, anxiety about my comparative worth. I was, for example, aware of being the shorter twin. No one can say when this one-­inch difference pried its way between us; we didn’t start to notice it until we were almost thirty. Maybe she did more yoga, elongating herself. Maybe certain chapters stunted my growth. Maybe I’ve been shrinking.

A few minutes into the reading, suddenly, without warning, her body shifted away from mine, leaving me physically lonely and cold, as though she had been sheltering me from a breeze or had removed my clothes by un-­touching me. She pulled ahead, stepping softly through the quiet room of listeners, over to a cluster of people sitting on the floor near the stage. I watched her lean down toward them, exchange warm smiles and whispers of greeting, and then, turning her back to me, fold her long legs and sink down until all but the part in her brand-­new haircut disappeared.

not long after that, standing in line for the bathroom at a poetry reading, I strike up a conversation with an acquaintance of my sister’s, a young man named Daniel. He expresses surprise that she and I are both book editors, and I tell him that it’s actually pretty common for identical twins to have the same job, something I learned from a National Geographic documentary. “I guess that makes sense,” says Daniel, and then he tells me about a pair of identical twins he knows who are both poets. “Which one is better?” I ask him, as a joke. Without missing a beat he nods and says, “That comes up a lot.” And then he gives me an unequivocal answer.

“twins are the same because they are twins,” the psychologist (and twin) Barbara Klein writes in Alone in the Mirror: Twins in Therapy, her 2012 book on the struggles of twins in a singleton world. In many ways my compound identity with my sister is home. I would like to stay home, in Klein’s cozy tautology, but she immediately about-­faces and spoils it: “At the same time, twins have the right to be different and to create their own sense of themselves.” As an adolescent I was eager to exercise this right. Now I worry that, no matter what happens, I am unfinished, synecdoche, half the apple.

What do you do with two people who share a face? The old way was to lean into the curiosity of doppelgangerdom, have some fun with it. Parents might dress their twins in matching outfits, maybe even christen them alliteratively. By the 1980s, this model had become suspect (a symptom of Cold War distrust of sameness, maybe?); now each twin was required to be an individual. In America, “How are you different?” and “How are you special?” are the same question. We must all be equal, but also different and special, and so with twins, who are the same but different, a dizzying, ever-­vigilant accounting is necessary. Red overalls and a blue shirt for one; blue overalls and a red shirt for the other. The exact same number of presents on birthdays and Christmas, but not the same presents. A box of colored pencils for one and a beading kit for the other, wrapped identically as a kind of coding for us (apparent duplicates reveal distinct interiors!).

Adults don’t compare and contrast my sister and me aloud like some kids and family members used to, but they do stare. Sometimes a new acquaintance (usually a man) will stand there looking back and forth between us, and then say, “Yes, I see the difference.” And because I’m vain and frightened I always want to ask, “What is it? What is the difference?”

to the twin, motherhood holds out the promise of a final, elevating inequality. For this one person, my child, I am singular, irreplaceable. I have no equal.

I have never felt like more of a singleton than during the first few months after my child was born. She wailed when my sister took her, missing my smell. Now that she is older, it’s my sister’s neck she clings to while I try to pull her away, and I can hear the false cheer in my voice as I coax her.

Even as I go through the motions of building my own life, in many ways my sister still holds the key to its meaning. For example, I believe I am happily married. My husband and I have been together for many years, and if some of the passion and desire we once felt for each other has been muffled by routine, familiarity, and the stress of parenthood, that is no tragedy; it happens to lots of marriages. But if my sister, whose current relationship is similar to mine in being well-­worn, were tomorrow to go out and fall madly in love with some new man, embarking on a thrilling, terrifying romantic adventure, the character of my marriage would be transformed. Outwardly, nothing in my life would have changed, but the story of my happiness would be undone.


one twin is always better looking than the other. One is always “doing better.” Happier. Healthier. Thinner. Time acts upon us. Food and drink. Cigarettes. Anxiety. Childbirth. I used to privately note that my tits were perkier; now that I have nursed this is no longer true. I think her teeth might be slightly whiter. My nose is pointier. Her lips are fuller. I could go on.

Envy. Francis Bacon called it “the vilest affection, and the most depraved.” To Socrates it was “the ulcer of the soul.” It is, the critic Sianne Ngai tells us, an ugly feeling, meaning that it is non-­cathartic, arising from a “situation of obstructed agency.” You can do nothing to stop it, nothing to control it, nothing to bring it to any conclusion. It will have its interminable way with you. Unlike the grander passions—rage, despair—it endures while offering “no satisfactions of virtue…nor any therapeutic or purifying release.”

Not surprisingly, both Nietzsche and Ayn Rand dismissed it as the province of petulant losers: “the vengefulness of the impotent” (Nietzsche), “the hallmark of a second rater” (Rand). According to Melanie Klein, it is “operative from the beginning of life” and “affects the earliest relation of all.” It occurs, says the Austrian sociologist Helmut Schoeck, “as soon as two individuals become capable of mutual comparison.”


i remember how,
in our early twenties when my sister was at her thinnest, I was always angling for a view of her, using barback mirrors and public bathrooms and shop windows to catch secret glimpses. I remember how perverted I felt whenever our eyes met in the reflection and she caught me in the act of envy. I am never more disgusted with myself than when I am engaged in this covert looking and assessing, treating her body as a human mirror. But I still do it. I spy on her. She’ll be walking or crying or dancing or getting dressed or trying to tell me something important, and I’ll become aware that my eyes are scanning her as though she were a bar code. You want your identical twin to be beautiful, to confirm that you are beautiful, but you also want her to be ugly, to confirm that she is uglier than you.

Aristotle put it like this: “We envy those who are near us in time, place, age, or reputation…those whose possession of or success in a thing is a reproach to us: these are our neighbors and equals; for it is clear that it is our own fault we have missed the good thing in question.” Missed is the knife-­twisting word here, so much of envy having to do with the feeling of a near miss, an almost.

when does envy begin? In her essay “Envy and Gratitude,” Melanie Klein traces it to the body of the mother. I find her writing difficult to understand, and so, recently, when I found myself sitting next to a psychoanalyst at a dinner party, I asked if he could break it down for me. He said, “Think of the breast from the infant’s point of view: I am suffering, I am wanting, I am alone. And then, as if by magic, a nurturing object appears and quenches every thirst, removes every anxiety, wraps me in a cocoon of safety and love.”

A therapist would say I was looking to re-­create the closeness of the twin bond and was doomed to disappointment, and yes, I behaved with A as though we shared one body.

While he was talking the server came up behind us and poured red wine into the heavy bowl of his glass (perched on its slender, feminine stem, very breast-­like), and I was thinking how I wanted some and how easily I could ask for it and take a warm, acid sip and break four years of sobriety that came about not because I hit any rock bottom but simply because I am bottomlessly thirsty.

“So,” continued the analyst, “Mother has the thing that will end all discomfort. But she doesn’t always give it up, at least not fast enough, which must mean she’s keeping some for herself. That produces envy.”

“Wanting what someone else has,” I said.

“Wanting to destroy what you want that someone else has.”

“Fling poop at the breast,” I said.

His owlish face broke into a smile. “Exactly.”

A desire that seeks to destroy: that is one definition of envy. “The professional thief is less tormented, less motivated by envy, than is the arsonist,” writes Schoeck.

Klein talks about breastfeeding as restoring, to some extent, the “lost prenatal unity with the mother.” My sister and I were never breastfed; we were too small and weak to suck strongly enough. But with twins it is never just fetus and mother; there is always triangulation. We are not only dependent on our mother to nourish, but on each other to share rather than steal. Each of us withholds from the other—each of us constitutes, for the other—the thing that would end all discomfort by conferring wholeness.

i first recognized it in the cartoon villains of our youth. Wicked stepmothers, illegitimate kings, lonely sorceresses. Of these, I particularly identified with Ursula, the sea witch in The Little Mermaid. With her crystal ball spying, her glowing eyes (envy looks), and her yearning for Triton’s three-­pronged golden schlong, she was dripping with envy’s signifiers. At one point, a pair of enormous, pea-­green hands come steaming out of her and hover winglike for a second before caressing their way toward Ariel’s face, like a bad smell that makes you horny. Ariel throws her head back as the hands penetrate her, deep throat, no gag reflex, her eyes closed, her neck engorged.

Even as a young child I knew what those hands meant, and that if I was not careful my own would be visible.

a book my sister edited is on the New York Times list of the ten best books of the year, a career milestone I’ve never achieved. I text her: “OMGGGGG! CONGRATULATIONS!!!” I am screaming in her face. I use my baby name for her, at the very moment of her adult and individual success. I am aware that I am asking her for something. An apology? A disavowal? Reassurance? Or maybe I am warning her, emitting a shrill alarm. Mind the gap between us. One victory is permissible, but take care.

I call my mother and break the news of my sister’s triumph, making it mine this way. Isn’t it exciting? Aren’t we so proud? I don’t have to pretend to be excited and proud; I am excited and proud, just also miserable and empty. My mother is overjoyed. “Wow,” she says, “that’s—” and she pauses for a split second before concluding, “you two are really something.”

i remember us, face-­to-­face across the kitchen table after school eating identical snacks—two fruit roll-­ups, a bowl of cheese puffs apiece—watching each other chew with excruciating slowness. The goal was to finish last, to be left with something when the other had nothing. Sometimes I would seem to finish first, and she would gloat briefly over her remaining treasure, and then, once she had swallowed every last crumb, I would bring out the morsel I had hidden in my lap and make a show of savoring it.

Years later, the goal was to push the still full plate away, another kind of not finishing. When, at eighteen, she came back from several months abroad, our first sustained physical separation, she had lost a lot of weight. I tried restricting, and managed to starve myself down about twenty pounds, but sooner or later deprivation always gave way to a gorge. I ended up in an in-­patient facility where the rooms and halls and lawns were bursting with barely suppressed envy.

The bulimics coveted the willpower of the anorexics; the anorexics wished they could let loose like us. (It’s hard to think of a more destructive “cure” than bringing a bunch of eating disordered girls and women together under one roof so that they can go on a manic comparison spree, but that’s what this facility did, and our parents paid them for it.) It strikes me now that restriction, bingeing, and purging are, among other things, attempts to get the ugliness of envy, the ugliness of desire under control, by starving it, or sating it, or releasing it once and for all.

My roommate was a fifty-­year-­old suburban housewife so tentative in her existence that her eyeballs seemed to tremble in their sockets. At home she consumed exactly one cup of grapes per day; at the facility she had to chew and swallow her meals under surveillance like the rest of us.

One walleyed dirty blonde had been driven deranged by her basement treadmill. I never heard her complete a sentence that did not reference this treadmill: how many miles she had got up to, how many hours and calories burned, which man said he was impressed by her endurance, which bad family member had tried to keep her from her machine. She had spent a quarter of her life sprinting in place and she was going to run out the rest the same way.

I think about these women now, and how obvious it was that at every session we were all (patients and counselors) mentally comparing the bodies in the room and the stories attached to them. I wonder why we talked so much about food, weight, family, sex, but never about the one feeling that united us.

envy is silent. It leaves us ashamed, inarticulate. As Schoeck observes, “It is remarkable how seldom the vernacular forms of different languages permit one to say directly to another person: ‘Don’t do that. It will make me envious!’”

A stunningly beautiful famous woman posts a picture of herself, always with a caption that is either jokey or empowering, as though the proud display of her beauty represents oppression overcome. Every so often one of her millions of followers will reply with an “ugh, so gorgeous” or an “I can’t even” or occasionally a friendly “OMG I hate you.” This is the closest we come to discharging the barely contained fury coursing through the comment feed. “ANGEL!” people shout. “PURE WARRIOR GODDESS!” “YASS!” “YOU’RE SO PERFECT!” It’s like we are stoning her with compliments.

my sister has been staying with me during the outbreak, helping with childcare. Tonight in the kitchen my husband and I start fighting again about something stupid—whether it’s safe to refrigerate tomato paste in the can. When our voices get sharp my sister quietly leads my daughter upstairs and starts running the bath. I hear her sweet, clear voice singing an improvised song about scrubbing, punctuated by gleeful shrieks and demands for more. She is the kind of aunt who throws her whole soul into every goof. I am grateful; during her stay here I have come to rely on her as a co-­parent. Yet there are times when the love between the two people I need most in the world threatens me. “You can’t need anything from your child,” says my mother when I call her in tears.

After my daughter falls asleep I knock softly on my sister’s door. She is sitting in bed with her laptop on her lap. “Whatcha reading?” is never an innocent question with us now; we are often racing to finish the same batch of submissions. Sitting alone at my desk, skimming pages, I wonder, What does she think of this manuscript? If she values it, then I will value it. If she dismisses it, then I am bored.

The great dream of my life is to succeed in collaboration with my sister, harmonize with her, shine with her, but the reality is that we almost never manage this. Instead I am often stupefied by her eloquence, disturbed by her peace, extinguished by her light. She seems to cancel me. When she gains weight or gets a pimple on her face or fails at something, I rejoice inwardly for a millisecond before I recover myself and quash this hideous joy with shame.

in miloš forman’s amadeus, the composer Salieri, who calls himself the “patron saint” of mediocrities, is tormented by envy of Mozart. In middle school I became fixated on Salieri, recording his monologues from the movie, which are accompanied by musical movements, and listening to them on my Walkman while at school. I felt, though I couldn’t have expressed it at the time, that Mozart’s music became more beautiful—inexpressibly, unbearably ­beautiful—when heard through the scrim of impotence and longing that was the Salieri filter. He suggested to me that a note of envy might be inextricable from the experience of beauty, and maybe the experience of love, too. Schopenhauer writes that envy “builds the wall between Thee and Me thicker and stronger”; sympathy, in his formulation, tears the wall down. But maybe they’re both adaptations to each other—sympathy a penance for primal aggression, envy a defense against annihilating love.


at ten,
my sister and I had been sent to separate schools so that we could develop our own identities. I never questioned the logic of this separation, and I don’t think my parents did either; it was simply the done thing. At my new school I set to work. The quickest and easiest way to differentiate was to become “the bad one.” I dyed my hair a dark color and took up smoking. I got my period first. Smoked a joint first. Kissed a boy first. Dropped acid first. Got to first, second, and third base first. Got home first. Got home with my sister in the room, lying perfectly still under the covers of her twin bed while I inhaled sharply.

I got home with a boy we’ll call A. He was on the basketball team, and after school I would sit and watch his lanky body move under the yellow lights of the gym. I was so in love with him that my hands shook whenever he was in the same room with me. This continued well into my twenties.

A therapist would say I was looking to re-­create the closeness of the twin bond and was doomed to disappointment, and yes, I behaved with A as though we shared one body. I found separating from him even for just a matter of hours physically painful. Once I got down on my knees on the sidewalk outside of school and grabbed him around the legs to keep him from walking away, but he walked away anyway, his black Air Jordans dragging me down the street until I came undone. And yes, of course he befriended my sister and they remained friends after he told me he didn’t love me anymore.

when, at twenty-­six, my sister told me that my worst fear about A had been justified—that he had pursued her, declared his feelings for her—I drew a blank and laughed. Why hadn’t she told me sooner? “I thought it would be better if you didn’t know,” she said. I was never angry with her, or I never expressed my anger. How could I? It wasn’t her fault she was so lovable, so calm and unassuming and perfectly opposite to me, who had screamed and begged and sent A email upon email filled with below-­the-­belt insults and declarations of everlasting devotion, who had been so needy, so totally bulimic in every way. For months I wrote to him and heard nothing. Until suddenly there was a reply and I was sick with excitement. I clicked the bold text. He had written me one line: “Stop. You have earned enough credits to graduate.”

In retrospect I think I gave up on the idea of trying to be a writer at that moment. What is the point of stringing words together if you can’t argue someone into loving you? How good can you possibly be if you fail to persuade?

of all the definitions of envy I have read, the simplest and most terrifying comes from the psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, who wrote, “Envy may be an active realization that one is not good enough.”

for years the thought of a, always intrusive, was accompanied by an image: I pictured a tall glass filled to the lip with the foulest black liquid, and I knew that I would have to drink it all. I repeated a merciless mantra to myself, hoping that it would toughen me up, though it turned out the tall glass was bottomless—the breast that never stops lactating, because you never stop sucking it. “For a fact, A does not love you. For a fact, he loves your sister.”

Here is where the metamorphosis begins. You take to your bed and daydream a different outcome for days, pausing only to sleep, and when daylight attacks, you roll over and daydream some more. You make a comfortable home in what Dickens called “the vanity of unworthiness.” Here, you cannot go any farther down. You are at the bottom of the ocean, the bottom of the family. You stay down there, streaming entire seasons of whatever on your iPad, going back and forth from bed to kitchen, chewing and swallowing until your jaw aches, salty chips from the bag, whole packages of stale rye crackers smeared with cold butter, ice cream that comes back up into the toilet in cold sweet glugs. Here at the bottom, in your state of obstructed agency, you are free to hoard all the ugliness—and by extension, all the humanity—for yourself.


this can’t last.
You may not be good enough, but you are still going to get up and leave the house and work and get married and have a child and love your sister and try to be there for her when she feels like the other one. I remember the night a few years ago, when I came home to find her sitting hunched on my front steps, her long hair curtained in front of her splotchy wet face. I was doing well then, seeing an excellent therapist twice a week, exercising regularly, sticking to a healthy diet, getting promoted, working on a new style of self-­talk that I planned to use on my sister when she calmed down a little.

It took us forever to climb the four flights to my apartment because she kept stopping to clutch the bannister and sob, as though something were trying violently to escape her body and she had to stand still to help it. I remember being in a light, strong, masterful mood. Upstairs, as soon as I got my apartment door open she collapsed on the rug, unable to make it the extra few steps that would have landed her on the couch. I put the kettle on, then went and sat cross-­legged on the floor and lifted her head into my lap and rubbed it gently, noticing the slight stiffness at the roots of her hair. (I remember sitting like this, but reversed, my head in her lap, on the steps of a church in Paris while she carefully cleaned my ears. We were teenagers and hadn’t seen each other in months and we had gone straight from the airport to a pharmacy to buy Q-­tips because we knew that this would be the way back, to sit quietly and groom each other like monkeys.) After a while her breathing slowed and I thought she might be asleep, or in the trancelike state that sometimes steals over a person in the middle of a breakdown and that can, in my experience, be quite pleasant. But then she turned and looked up at me and said, her lips twisting, “I feel like you’re leaving me behind.”

Jean Garnett is an editor at Little, Brown and Company. She lives in the Hudson Valley.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021

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