Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated & Reunited - Elyse Schein & Paula Bernstein

"I am a twin," I say slowly, practicing the phrase. I grin sheepishly, as if caught lying. It still feels so unreal to me.

In the early 1960s, thanks to some obscure (and arguably faulty) research, several sets of identical twins were separated and given to different adoptive parents. The theory was that raising twins together was a burden both for the twins and the parents. Meanwhile, some researchers thought it would be an excellent way to study the nature-versus-nurture problem.

At age thirty-five, while searching for information about her birth mother, Elyse Schein discovered that she had an identical twin sister, Paula Bernstein. After reuniting, they began to look for answers about their birth family and the reasons for their separation. This book is a record written from both of their perspectives about the experience of getting to know each other and the difficulties they encountered along the way.

Because of the nature of the situation, Identical Strangers touches on a range of subjects: twins and twin research, nature versus nurture, adoption, identity, depression and mental illness. The particular study involving them had been given to Yale, which sealed the records until 2066, and part of the book tracks their attempts to get these records released. They also cite several stories about other reunited twins (and triplets), and it's surprising to learn about the things that are genetically influenced.

Elyse and Paula's story is also compelling because they each write their own reactions to their meeting, and at times it's painfully honest. Elyse had often felt like she'd "lost a twin," and so when she found Paula she expected her to fill this hole in her life. Paula, on the other hand, was married and had a child already, and was quite satisfied with her life the way it was. When Elyse showed up in her life, she almost felt it was an intrusion. They also write about their families' reactions: suddenly the parents wondered what life would have been like if they'd been offered both girls for adoption. And there were inevitable comparisons on both sides: is this how I would have turned out if ... ?

The other thing the sisters manage to convey is a sense of horror at what was done to them and other twins. The Louise Wise agency gave them up for adoption to separate sets of parents, without telling the parents that they were twins, and omitting important details about the birth mother's medical history. Parents were told that their children were part of a developmental study, but not that it was a twin study. It's bizarre that none of the researchers or the adoption agency considered that these children would meet each other later in life, despite the fact that most of them were given to middle-class Jewish families in the New York City area.

This isn't the first story about reunited twins, but because this one is written by the twins themselves (and they're both pretty good writers), it makes for an engaging tale, with a little bit of mystery and a lot of drama. I would recommend this if you're interested in any of the subjects I mentioned above, but particularly if you have any curiosity about twin research and the nature-versus-nurture debate.

You can visit their website,, for more information.

Fed to jonathan's brain | January 11, 2008 | Comments (0)


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