Just finished my second book of 2020: The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets. Their story is actually really sad, but it may not have seemed that way from the outside. They were famous from birth for being the first documented set of surviving quintuplets, and their popularity meant they had state of the art everything and a trust fund from all the advertisers eager to use their images to sell everything from milk to household appliances.
The strange thing about their lives is that they were kept as wards of the state, separated from their parents and other siblings, until they were almost 10 years old: far longer than medically necessary. The Canadian government was concerned about their image being exploited for profit, but didn’t actually protect them from their fame. They were put on display, with thousands of tourists observing them daily — just not for profit. Despite the daily shows, they claimed that living in their specially designed hospital under the care of nurses and doctors was the simplest and happiest time of their lives.
What struck me was how reasonable each decision about their care seemed in the moment. It made sense to move them to their own hospital when they were babies because they were medically fragile. It made sense for the Canadian government to be their legal guardians because it was the only way to get them out of a contract to be exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair. In a way, it even made sense to keep raising them in their hospital home, because that was the only place they knew as home, and their parents lived across the street and visited often. Plus, they weren’t close with their parents.
The book left me with a lingering sadness for them. They were raised in such a regimented way that they were adrift as adults in the world. Two became nurses, two tried to join the convent: all were a little lost on what to do once no one was telling them, moment by moment, what they should be doing. How would things be different if they had been born today? Well, they’d be instant Instagram influencers. In 50 years we’ll be reading biographies about multiples that were Insta-famous from birth, and in 50 years, there will be someone else who feels sad for their fate.