There is a picture of me before my first ballet recital. I am about 6 years old, short and solid, wearing a pale tutu the color of buttermilk. The top is a slightly darker shade of yellow—just pure butter, I suppose. And there is a thin line of glittery gold sequins at the waist. My sister, 18 months older, stands next to me in a matching outfit. She is taller, slimmer, and with perfectly positioned arms. My arms look more like I am hugging a koala bear. Soon after, I stopped lessons, but my love affair with ballet continued. So, when I read the opening pages of Leah Dieterich’s new memoir, Vanishing Twins: A Marriage, on a flight from Zurich to San Francisco, I was instantly on board.
We meet the author in school, where she introduces us to one of several emotional doppelgängers—her BFF, another dancer she calls Giselle. She writes: “Ever since we met in third grade, no one at school had uttered our first names separately. They were always linked with an and.”
The friends drift apart in high school, and Dieterich finds herself lost—a theme that will repeat itself throughout the memoir, which follows the author as she searches for her “missing” emotional twin through a series of sexual partners, men and women. In her twenties, she finds “twinship” with a man named Eric and they quickly become inseparable: “I was so focused on my relationship with Eric that I didn’t have time to invest in others. I studied him. I tried to do the things he did.”
Despite this, not long after they are married doubts arise for Dieterich. On their honeymoon, she thinks: “He was my other half, my twin soul. But I didn’t feel like having sex as much as I had in the beginning, and if I could only have sex with him for the rest of my life, did that mean I’d stop having it altogether?”
They move to Los Angeles and she starts working at an advertising agency. The sexual aspect of their relationship, once so fulfilling, continues to devolve—and with it her conviction that he is her emotional twin. She dreams of the women she’s been with—and some she hasn’t: “Though I tried to deny it, our differing desires troubled my notions of twinship, of coupledom. But more troubling was the fact that I desired something our specific pairing could not fulfill.”
Then, six years into their relationship, she asks Eric for an open relationship—one which will allow her to act on these impulses. He agrees and they begin an uncertain journey full of potential pitfalls. She shares her new relationship with her husband, and the result is a complex, honest, and, above all, loving exploration of how they can each be their true selves and explore their passions (intellectually, creatively, and sexually) while still striving to keep their own unique connection. She writes: “I assumed that merging my body with another person’s body would help me to decouple from Eric. We didn’t discuss anesthesia, the odds of recovery. We didn’t know how much it would hurt.”
When Dieterich asks questions of herself like “How would I hold on to my queerness … in the context of our relationship?” she is inviting the reader to ask those questions, too.
Ballet obsessions aside, the fact that Dieterich spent years exploring her own bisexuality also resonated with me. After decades of dating men, I am now married to a woman. Although my path was different than Dieterich’s, who explored her sexuality by opening up her relationship with husband Eric rather than ending it (as I did with my husband), and while I found myself wanting her to go deeper into the spiritual journey to strengthen the narrative arc, the self-doubt, fears, and pain she shares will connect with anyone who has struggled to come to terms with their sexuality.
She is unflinching as she explores her own feelings and motives. She invites the reader in even as she makes some less-than-flattering realizations about herself. Her emotional twin, Eric, is equally courageous and I find myself wishing for even more of his perspective, which is primarily shared in a series of voyeur-esque email and chat exchanges.
Dieterich’s writing swings between a crisp journalistic style and the softer, more introspective tone of a personal journal. While I appreciated the insights and statistics she offered about twins early on in the book, the juxtaposition of these styles—and the frequency with which the two are intermixed—left me struggling to remain engaged at times.
Once you get past the opening starts and stops, though, the book is a quick and thought-provoking read. When she asks questions of herself like “How would I hold on to my queerness … in the context of our relationship?” she is inviting the reader to ask those questions, too.
In the end, Vanishing Twins reads as a love letter—a testament to two people who love and respect each other enough to give each other space to explore, make mistakes, and grow. As Eric writes to her at one point, “None of this is easy. Well, some of it is. My love for you.”
REVIEWED BY KARENA T. MEEHAN
By day, Karena T. Meehan works in corporate communications for the biotech industry. By night, she writes work that has been published in scientific and literary journals. She is stalking her local barre class and hoping that her wife will buy her a Bernese mountain dog for Christmas.