When I first met the twins, John and Michael, in 1966 in a state hospital, they were already well known. They had been on radio and television, and made the subject of detailed scientific and popular reports.
The twins, who were then twenty-six years old, had been in institutions since the age of seven, variously diagnosed as autistic, psychotic, or severely retarded. Most of the accounts concluded that, as idiots savants go, there was “nothing much to them”—except for their remarkable “documentary” memories of the tiniest visual details of their own experience, and their use of an unconscious, calendrical algorithm that enabled them to say at once on what day of the week a date far in the past or future would fall. This is the view taken by Steven Smith, in his recently published, comprehensive, and imaginative book, The Great Mental Calculators. There have been, to my knowledge, no further studies of the twins since the mid-Sixties, the brief interest they aroused being quenched by the apparent “solution” of the problems they presented.
But this, I believe, is a misapprehension, perhaps a natural enough one in view of the stereotyped approach, the fixed format of questions, the concentration on one “task” or another, with which the original investigators approached the twins, and by which they reduced them—their psychology, their methods, their lives—almost to nothing.
The reality is far stranger, far more complex, far less explicable, than any of these studies suggest, but it is not even to be glimpsed by aggressive formal “testing,” or the usual Sixty Minutes-like interviewing of the twins.
Not that any of these studies, or TV performances, is “wrong.” They are quite reasonable, often informative, as far as they go, but they confine themselves to the obvious and testable “surface,” and do not go to the depths—do not even hint, or perhaps guess, that there are depths below.
One indeed gets no hint of any depths unless one ceases to test the twins, to regard them as “subjects.” One must lay aside the urge to limit and test, get to know the twins, and observe them, openly, quietly, without presuppositions, but with a full and sympathetic phenomenological openness, as they live and think and interact quietly, pursuing their own lives, spontaneously, in their singular way. Then one finds there is something exceedingly mysterious at work, powers and depths of a perhaps fundamental sort, which I have not been able to “solve” in the eighteen years that I have known them.
They are, indeed, unprepossessing at first encounter—a sort of grotesque Tweedledee and Tweedledum, indistinguishable, mirror images, identical in face, in body movements, in personality, in mind, identical too in their stigmata of brain and tissue damage. They are undersized, with disturbing disproportions in head and hands, high-arched palates, high-arched feet, monotonous …