October 6, 2007 / GO Brooklyn / Books / Checkin’ in with...

Separated twins Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein

The Brooklyn Paper
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Spy magazine used to have a popular segment called “Separated at birth” that featured pictures of celebrities who bore an uncanny resemblance to each other. Forgive real-life twins Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein if they fail to find humor in the photographic juxtaposition — after all, “Separated at birth” is their life story.

The twins, adopted by different middle-class Jewish families in the 1960s, were the victims of a New York adoption agency’s bizarre — and since repudiated — theory that identical twins would flourish if raised separately.

To add insult to this gross injury, the adoption agency — the once-silverplated Upper East Side firm Louise Wise — brought in a psychiatrist to conduct a secret study of the twins. So not only were the twins separated by the adoption agency, but the agency claimed to be doing it in the name of science.

All of this might have never become known — and Bernstein and Schein might never have met — had Schein not decided to search for her birth mother. That search proved fruitless — her biological mother was long dead — but a new administration at Louise Wise gave her the shocking news that she had an identical twin living in Brooklyn.

The result is the stunning book, “Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited” (Random House), which touches on some of Mankind’s biggest questions (“What does it mean to be an individual?”) and some of its most intimate (“Is this woman I’ve just met my ‘sister’ just because we share the same DNA?”). Along the way, Schein and Bernstein introduce us to the adoption agency officials; the psychiatrist who conducted the study (and to this day remains guilt-free about it!); and their biological uncle, who was initially standoffish, but later gave precious details about the life of their birth mother.

This week, Bernstein, who lives in Park Slope, and Schein, who lives in Fort Greene, checked in with Brooklyn Paper Editor Gersh Kuntzman.

GO: Elyse, why did you even begin the quest that led to you meeting Paula?

ES: In my late 20s, I began to say to people, “I feel like I’m missing a twin.” Up to that point, I never searched for my biological family, but eventually, there was this mystery that I wanted to resolve.

GO: And you eventually found Paula, but, truth be told, she wasn’t as ready to fully accept you into her life so quickly. Why not, Paula?

PB: I’d always grown up feeling like my adopted family was my real family and that I didn’t necessarily feel that biology was significant. On top of that, I had just had my first child and moved to Park Slope. I was in a phase of life, the nesting phase, where I felt very comfortable and happy. I wasn’t looking for any complications.

GO: But then you got a call out of nowhere from the adoption agency — and then your sister — telling you that you had a twin. Kind of an atom bomb, no?

PB: I was in a physical state of shock, so I just went into reporter mode and took notes. Then I broke down into tears.

GO: I realize there is some pain about the fact that you and other separated twins were studied, but it does raise fascinating questions about the old nature vs. nurture argument. In the book, it’s pretty clear that you guys come down on the side of nature.

PB: Meeting Elyse challenged my belief. As an adoptee, I went overboard on the side of nurture and thought nature was not relevant. I am so much like my adoptive dad.

ES: I always thought it was a combination of both because I imagined my birth parents were Bohemians because I was so interested in traveling and the arts even though my adoptive parents were not.

GO: And it’s funny how similar you guys realized you are — right down to taste in movies.

PS: There was an element of excitement, as in “Oh, you do that? I do that, too!” And we both bonded over “Wings of Desire.”

GO: Now the big question: was the adoption agency right that twins should grow up apart?

ES: Paula and I are not the people we would have been if we had grown up together, and we lead happy lives. But it was wrong that we were separated.

PB: It’s a paradox. Intellectually, I know that twins should not be separated, but I can’t negate the life I’ve led. Yes, it’s probably true that we were able to develop our own personalities because we were separated, but does that mean twins should be separated? No. We lost the bond that we were entitled to. I don’t think the agency was malicious, but they were incredibly shortsighted.

Q: But you’re truly sisters now, right?

ES: We really are part of each other. We finish each other’s sentences now.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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Reasonable discourse

Mandy says:
Im an identical twin, and reading this article gave me shivers. I can't imagine my life without my sister, and the idea of separation is beyond my imagination. I agree with paula, you were entitled to a bond that cannot even be expressed in words.
I really want to read the book, will it be published in Australia?

Oct. 28, 2007, 8:20 pm
mandy says:
Im an identical twin, and reading this article gave me shivers. I can't imagine my life without my sister, and the idea of separation is beyond my imagination. I agree with paula, you were entitled to a bond that cannot even be expressed in words.
I really want to read the book, will it be published in Australia?

Oct. 28, 2007, 8:21 pm
Karen Rowe says:
As an identical twin of 38 years - I feel that it it is cruel what these women have missed out on. Unless you are a twin, you have no idea how strong the bond is. Being a twin also comes with a lot of challenges - like mistaken identity, people you don't know thinking you are rude enough to ignore them when you walk past them in the street etc, BUT - the bond is a beautiful thing.I would definately want to have missed out on growing up with my twin - my best friend.Someone i would die for.
Oct. 29, 2007, 3:07 am
ruth kaufman says:
I finished the book over the week end and I found it very moving the way the twins struggled each in their own way to make sense over this absolutely stunning discovery that they were twins. I believe the search for their mother bonded them. Hopefully in this day all agencies would consent of the birth mother to separate twins. In this case if the birth mother had no capacity to make decisions the her mother or brother should have made these decisions. It should not be left to an individual in an agency. Self interest playeda part in allowing 5pair of twins and one set of triplets to be adopted separately with all families being unaware thea they had one of a set of twins.
Oct. 29, 2007, 9:39 pm
Betty Owens-Tucker from California says:
I am the birthmother of twin daughter I placed up for adoption in New York, New York. They were born on May 27, 1967 in New York, New York. After searching for several years, a search agent located one of the twins, who lives in Staten Island, New York. She is named Melody Watson. She told the search agent that her adoptive parents adopted she and her twin sister but return her sister back after two weeks to the adoption agency because she could only handled one child. Melody said that she has started looking for her twin sister seven months ago. She does not want to have anything to do with me at this time because of fear of hurting her birthparents whom she is extremely close to. Melody and her adoptive parents live on the same block. Melody is also very close to her grandmother and she is active in helping with her care. Melody told the agent that she has not been able to get a copy of her birth certificate or any information regarding her birth. The search agent has not been able to locate the other twin. All of the above information I received from the search agent because Melody do not want to talk to me. I would like to locate the other twin. I would appreciate any information you can provide.
Many thanks

Betty Owens Tucker
(510) 260-4618
Nov. 26, 2007, 11:07 pm
adam reece from cornwall uk says:

i was adopted and only met my birth mother when i was thirty

we didnt get on

I had a daughter and when I rang to arrange a meeting I was told not to contact again by her brother which was a relief

As a child I was sent away to school and often told I was a burden by my adoptive family. My experience was not great. I was bullied at boarding school for 8 years

Now though my life is good and I have a beautiful seven year old daughter and I tell her every day how special she is

i wanted to write to the twins to express my sympathy about what it feels like to be an innocent victim of some hidden entities plan and to have had no say in your fete and to have been at the hands of some third party who did not hold your needs as a priority

Its not a good feeling, yet it is important not to let it defeat you or to become cynical about life or the blessings you have or things you have achieved

In fact in many ways it makes you stronger

I feel for the twins and hope they have a good relationship and that they don't feel bad about the way things have turned out for them

God bless them and Happy New Year

Adam Reece

Dec. 31, 2007, 6:33 am
Eileen Gallagher from Griffin,Ga says:
Elyse, you will always be Stacie to me. Happy new Year! We'll my book club will be reading your book this Jan. They asked me if you could come to our meeting. I told them that you lived quite a distance away. But Darling, they were very interested in reading it. I love you and I'mso proud of and I know your Mom is love Eileen
Dec. 31, 2013, 6:03 pm

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