While the occurrence of non-identical twins in families across multiple generations is not uncommon, the birth of identical twins happening again and again is considered very rare. But cases do exist, and one such instance is the family of author Jesmane Boggenpoel, whose maternal grandmother had an identical twin sister, as does her mother and Boggenpoel herself.
Boggenpoel’s grandmother Lilian and her identical twin sister Iris were born in Sophiatown, on May 11, 1924, and were the third and fourth born of eight children. Twenty-one years later, Lilian gave birth to identical twin daughters, Patricia and Naomi, on September 10, 1945, in Newlands, Johannesburg and on June 20, 1973, Patricia gave birth to identical twin daughters of her own – Boggenpoel and her sister Julie-Ann – in Port Elizabeth.
And as if that was not incredible in itself, in each case the second twin arrived five minutes after the first one and it was the second born that went on to also have identical twin girls.
Do you know how far back twins goes in your family?
My grandmother told my mother that her mother – my great grandmother – had twin brothers, but the one died young. Unfortunately we don’t have more details.
How unusual is it to have so many sets of twins in one family?
When I started my masters in public administration at Harvard, in a pre-school refresher class for mid-careers on statistics and probability, my teacher used my twin history as a class example.The probability of having identical twins is not genetic. Every person has the same chance of having identical twins and it is statistically an independent event. For example, there is the same probability of having identical twins if you are an identical twin, a fraternal twin, or not a twin at all. The probability of having identical twins is 35 in a 1000, or 0,35%. The probability of being an identical twin for three consecutive generations is around 1 in 25 000 000, so very slim indeed. While I have not researched this any further, I think the probability of having three consecutive generations of single gender twins is even more remote.
There’s always the question of that “special bond” between twins. In your family, has there been a special bond between the twins and can you give us any examples?
My grandmother and her twin sister were married on the same day when they were 20 years old, while my mother felt slight nausea and morning sickness when her twin sister was pregnant, even though she herself wasn’t pregnant. My twin sister and I are close, but we don’t have telepathy or anything like that. We were the top academic students at primary and high school and were study buddies. We both did degrees at Wits University, but went in different directions. I studied commerce to qualify as a chartered accountant and my sister studied medicine to qualify as a medical doctor. Although she now lives in Australia, we’re in touch all the time.
Did people confuse you and your sister?
Growing up, people always confused us. When we were studying at Wits, people would see me in the library with my commerce books and then see “me” with my medicine books. They came to the conclusion that I was super smart and studying a commerce and medicine degree at the same time!
Does your sister Julie-Ann feature in your book My Blood Divides And Unites?
In writing the book, having a twin sister was a bonus, as she could help me recall and confirm childhood memories. She also helped by reading the manuscript and giving commentary. In one chapter, I briefly describe our Christian faith, which sustained us while being raised in the poor township of Westbury, and how over the years my sister and I prayed for each other. In another chapter I describe and compare eerie similarities in how my sister, living in Australia, and I, travelling in Peru, had an experience in a workshop where a discussion triggered the trauma and memories of apartheid and our disadvantaged upbringing and brought both of us to floods of tears and a realisation that we had lingering emotions from the past to deal with and heal from.
Jesmane Boggenpoel’s book My Blood Divides and Unites – an account of overcoming apartheid and how reconciliation can transform pain into hope – is available now.