On the Far Side of The World, Watching Her Sister's Back

Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner, left, went to Iraq while her twin sister Jenny feared the worst.
Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner, left, went to Iraq while her twin sister Jenny feared the worst. (By Maria Esquivel)
By Jenny Spinner
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 26, 2006

The doctors pulled me free first, two minutes ahead of my sister Jackie. I was the bigger twin, more than a pound larger than my tiny sister. She spent the first week of her life in an incubator, gaining back what I had taken from her in the womb. Even I find something brutish about myself in the stories of our birth, stories my sister dangles before me in jest:

"You ate all my food!"

"You just had to be first!"

In later years, I scored better on the tests she threw my way.

"What if somebody has a gun and wants to kill one of us?" she once asked.

"I'll insist it be me," I replied.

"No," she said quietly. "I can't live without you."

We spent weeks pondering the dilemma until I finally figured it out.

"We'll stand back-to-back," I told her, imagining our identical frames melding into one, like the mirrored reflection in a kaleidoscope. "The bullet will pierce both our hearts."

As I grew older, I understood that my sister and I could not invent our fate, that in reality, one of us would probably be left alone to shoulder the burden of a split life. But when Jackie told me that she had volunteered to go to Iraq, I felt she had thrown herself in front of the gun, taking a bullet not for me but for herself, to save herself from an unfulfilling reporting beat. I found nothing noble in such a selfish gesture.

Months passed before my anger finally gave way to understanding about why Jackie needed to be in Iraq, but my peace was always uneasy.

While she was in Iraq, I lived suspended, in that space between breathing in and breathing out. I loved her. I admired her. I couldn't stop talking about her courage, about the important work she was doing. Still, I couldn't breathe.

When Jackie called several weeks ago with the news that her friend and fellow reporter Jill Carroll had been abducted, the familiar dread crept back. At first, I didn't say anything. I think Jackie thought I hadn't heard her or that I didn't care. In truth, I was reminding myself to exhale.

"This is a reporter's worst nightmare," my sister said. It was also mine.

After Jill's abductors released the silent footage of their captive, I watched it over and over again. I touched the television screen with my hand, brushing Jill's pale cheek as I once did when my sister's face appeared on TV during the battle of Fallujah. I feel terrible for Jill, terrible for her parents, but it is her twin sister Katie I can't get out of my mind. I don't know what it's like to be held captive by people who say they will kill you. I don't know what it's like to have a child in such a situation. But, oh, Katie, I know what it is to have your twin sister in a place that you cannot imagine, a place that hovers between life and death, a place beyond your reach.

My sister came back from Iraq alive. I hope Katie's prayers are answered, too.

But no matter what happens, nothing will ever be the same. When your twin goes off to war, she never really returns. And you are the one left desperate, grasping for an arm, a leg, anything familiar to hold onto, to push her back into the womb you once shared.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company