Siamese twins exemplified triumph, not tragedy

Two of the world's most unusual people died recently. But unlike the widely mourned passing of two other unusual people, Dizzy Gillespie and Rudolph Nureyev, the deaths of Yvonne and Yvette McCarther early in January were scarcely noted.

"Yvonne and Yvette McCarther, Siamese twins joined at the head, have died at age 43," reported one brief wire service story. "The sisters were among the world's oldest unseparated Siamese twins. . . . They were found dead in their home, apparently of natural causes."


It was great talent, of course, that set Gillespie and Nureyev apart from the rest of us. And we remember and honor them for that.

What made Yvonne and Yvette so unusual was not talent but an awesome accident of birth that rendered them physically different from almost every other human being in the world. But anyone who ever met these two women would agree that they too deserve to be remembered with honor: honor for the way they managed to carve out lives of dignity despite the sometimes cruel responses to the way they looked.


I learned this about the McCarther twins firsthand when I spent two days interviewing them. The year was 1988 and Yvonne and Yvette had just enrolled at Compton Community College. The road to this sunny California campus had been a winding one for the twins, with detours that took them through stints as sideshow attractions in the circus and in carnivals.

It's odd, but the two things that struck me first about Yvonne and Yvette were their humor and their stylish way of dressing. I didn't expect either.

"Hi, ladies. Love those coats," one classmate called out as he walked by.

"Thanks, hon, but I can't stop to talk," said Yvonne. "I'm late for class."

"Yeah, thanks," said Yvette. "But I can't stop to talk either. I'm late for class, too."

They were also graceful. Whatever they did, their movements were perfectly, almost eerily, synchronized. Connected at the top of their heads, the twins had to walk with their necks tilted at almost a 90 degree angle, a condition that prevented each from ever looking directly into the other's eyes. To see each other, they had to look in a mirror.

With grace and humor they accepted a physical condition that would be unthinkable to most people. "I'd rather be dead than be like that," was the response of some who read the story.

But the twins didn't feel that way. The idea of surgical separation was unacceptable to them. "We just never think about separation, hon," said Yvonne. "We're happy this way," said Yvette.


Their physical condition was rare -- doctors estimate such an abnormality occurs perhaps once in every 2.5 million births -- but rarer still was the twins' attitude toward life. Against all odds, they became outgoing, trusting human beings. And those who came to know them eventually saw not the abnormality but two women who represented a triumph of the human spirit.

"When you first meet them you kind of feel sorry for them," Cordell McDonald, their math professor, told me. "But after you get to know them, you kind of feel sorry for yourself. They know who they are in a way that's quite unique."

The summer before I met them, Yvonne and Yvette had worked at a summer camp for handicapped youths. They did not consider their own condition a handicap -- "You can call it that if you like," said Yvonne, "but it's not a handicap" -- and they were moved by the children at the camp.

"We had to be their eyes when they were blind," Yvonne said simply. "And the hands for those who couldn't use their own," added Yvette.

Although the twins had separate brains and normally developed bodies, their blood circulation was shared. And they knew that when one of them died, the other would die also. But Yvonne brushed aside the inevitable, saying: "If you can't understand that we're happy, then you just don't understand what being Siamese twins is all about."

Remembering Yvonne and Yvette now, you understand what it was all about. It was about closeness. About acceptance. And, above all, about courage.