Separated at Birth? No, Really: Identical Strangers, by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein
One day in 2004, Paula Bernstein, a thirty-five-year-old New York writer, woke up to learn that she had an identical twin whom she'd never met. That same day, Elyse Schein, a thirty-five-year-old filmmaker living in Paris, made the same discovery. Schein and Bernstein suddenly found their most basic assumptions about identity challenged. Their attempts to piece together what happened to them as infants, and for each to become acquainted with her doppelganger in midlife, led to their co-authored book Identical Strangers, an unusual combination of memoir and detective story.
Despite all the Tina Fey/Sarah Palin jokes, there appear to be only a few hundred twins who have ever really been separated at birth. What makes these twins' journey even stranger is that they were divided from each other intentionally, without their adoptive parents' informed consent or knowledge, for a medical research study that was never published.
Schein and Bernstein each tell overlapping versions of what happened, from perspectives that can be surprisingly different. We follow as they attempt to unearth their past, understand the researchers' motivations and, ultimately, see if they can find their shared birth mother. Early on, they learn that their genetic mother had been hospitalized for schizophrenia. Their evolving story raises some interesting and challenging questions about "nature vs. nurture," and how little we still know about mental health.
The book has a depth that goes far beyond the "twins reunited as adults" headline. Identical Strangers has an unusual emotional honesty, particularly given that it has two co-authors with such a complicated relationship. Bernstein, with a stable marriage and a new daughter, openly acknowledges her initial ambivalence at being "found," and Schein is clearly shocked by that ambivalence. Both freely confess their insecurities about their physical attributes, bouts of depression, how they might be seen by the other, and so on. It is intimate rather than tawdry, and it makes it much more possible to imagine how we might react if we found ourselves in their newly shareable shoes.
I recently caught up with Bernstein in a Brooklyn café. Now a vivacious auburn-haired forty-three-year-old with two daughters, she sipped a mint iced tea as we talked about the writing process and life after publication. I'd wondered about how she and her sister navigated co-authoring a book while simultaneously coping with such -- well, family drama. She laughed, and agreed that it might have been easier to just write their sections and let an editor sort it all out. Writing collaboratively can be a challenge under the best of circumstances and, as her sister wrote, "[They] are strangers who inhabit the same body."
As we get an insider's view of Schein and Bernstein's complicated journey, we are reminded of questions posed by Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire," a film they both love: "Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there?" They -- and we -- are still searching for those answers.
from CHAPTER ONE
My mother, my adoptive mother, my real mother, died when I was six, but throughout my childhood I believed she watched over me from above. I held the few images that remained of her in my mind like precious photographs I could animate at will. In one, she sat before her dressing table, lining her charcoal eyes, preparing to go out with my dad one Saturday night. The scent of her Chanel No. 5 is enchanting.
I can still see her. She catches a glimpse of me in the mirror and smiles at me, standing in the doorway in my pajamas. With her raven hair, she looks like Snow White. Then, after her death, she seemed to simply disappear, like a princess banished to some far-away kingdom. I believed that from that kingdom, she granted me magical powers.
When I jumped rope better than the other girls in my Long Island neighborhood, I knew it was because my mother was with me. When I went out fishing with my dad and brother, my mother helped me haul in the catch of the day. By sheer concentration, I could summon her force so that my frog won the neighborhood race.
Since I wasn’t allowed to attend my mother’s funeral, her death remained a mystery to me. When other kids asked how she had died, I confidently announced that she had had a backache. I later learned that her back problems had been caused by the cancer invading her spine.
Along with my mother’s absence came an awareness of my own presence. I remember standing in complete darkness in front of the bay windows in our house shortly after her death. Alone, except for my reflection, I became aware of my own being. As I pulled away from the glass, my image disappeared. I asked myself, Why am I me and not someone else?
Until autumn of 2002, I had never searched for my birth parents. I was proud to be my own invention, having created myself out of several cities and cultures. In my ignorance surrounding my mother’s death, I amplified the importance of the few facts I had accumulated—she was thirty-three when she died, which I somehow linked to our new home address at 33 Granada Circle. It was probably no coincidence that when I reached the age of thirty-three, after one year in Paris, the urge to know the truth of my origins grew stronger. Turning thirty-three felt the way other people described turning thirty. I felt that I should automatically transform into an adult.
I had recently starting wearing glasses to correct my severe case of astigmatism, which had allowed me to see the world in a beautiful blur for several years. All the minute details I had been oblivious to were suddenly focused and magnified. But even if it meant abandoning my own blissful vision of the world, I was ready to face the truth.
I was working in the unlikeliest of places, as a temporary receptionist in a French venture capital firm in the heart of Paris’s business district. Of course, the desire to eat something other than canned ratatouille for dinner had played a part. I assured myself that I wasn’t like the suburbanites who commuted every day in order to pay for a satellite dish and a yearly six-week vacation to the south of France.
Initially I had amused myself by observing French business decorum. As the novelty wore off, I entertained myself with the front desk computer. Assuming a businesslike pose, I sat for hours alternating between answering the phone and plugging words and topics into various search engines. I typed in old friends’ names and discovered that my classmates from SUNY Stony Brook were now philosophy professors and documentary directors. One had even edited the latest Jacques Cousteau film.
Meanwhile, bringing espressos to hotshots in suits, I was beginning to doubt that my particular path would somehow lead me to realize my own dream of directing a cinematic masterpiece. After college graduation, I had migrated to Paris, leaving New York and my boyfriend behind to pursue the life I imagined to be that of an auteur film director. My Parisian film education consisted of regular screenings at the cinématèque and the small theaters lining the streets near the Sorbonne. Sitting in a dark cinema, I returned to the safety of the womb, united with an international family of strangers.
I wanted to go far away, to become someone else. In the French tongue, my name, “Stacie,” sounded like “Stasi,” the word for the East German secret police. Wanting a name that could be pronounced in any language, I took Elyse, my middle name. I couldn’t change my name entirely, though, for as far away as I wanted to wander, I always wanted to be easily found.
My family still called me Stacie, but not in person because I hadn’t seen them in four years. My schizophrenic brother could barely leave his house, much less get on a plane. My absence was convenient for them. I criticized their überconsumerism, while they couldn’t understand my reluctance to join them in civilization. Though they would have bailed me out if I couldn’t pay my $215/month rent, I wouldn’t ask them to. My relationship with my father and my stepmother, Toni, consisted of a biweekly call to Oklahoma, where we had moved when I was eleven.
“Is everything okay?” they would ask.
“Yeah. Is everything okay?” I would echo back. “Everything’s okay. The same.” The same meant that my nephew was still causing mayhem. My family adopted my nephew Tyler as an infant, when my brother, Jay, and his then girlfriend abandoned him. Struggling with the onset of schizophrenia, Jay and Darla, a seventeen-year-old high school dropout, were in no position to raise a baby. Though I never saw them do drugs, I’d heard rumors that Darla sniffed paint while she was pregnant. Since the moment I snuck into the hospital room and watched Tyler enter the world, I have felt like his guardian angel. I even considered smuggling him into Canada to raise him as my own. Now the child in whom I had put so much hope had become an ornery teenager. The apple had not fallen far from the tree: Tyler had begun to use drugs. Disagreeing with my parents on how to handle him, I was excluded from his life.
The hum of the computer filled the silent office. Monsieur Grange had ordered me not to disturb him in his important meeting, so I was able to hide behind my polite mask while making contact with the outside world via the Internet. On a whim, I typed in “adoption search” and the die was cast. Countless sites appeared. I sorted through them until I found what seemed to be the most reputable, the New York State Adoption Information Registry. Unlike some states and other countries where adoption records are open to adoptees, New York seals adoption records; they can only be opened by petitioning the court. The Adoption Registry allows biological parents, children, and siblings to be put in contact, if all parties have registered. Maybe my birth parents were simply waiting for me to register and I would soon be reunited with the mysterious and formidable characters who had shadowed my life. Perhaps, after searching for many years, they had been unable to find me. On the other hand, as a temp, I certainly was not at the pinnacle of my minor artistic success, and the thought of disappointing these imaginary figures was daunting. Maybe they would reject me again. Or perhaps they wouldn’t be fazed at all, having come to peace with their decision years ago. I would be a hiccup in their reality. The scenarios and possible repercussions of my inquiry multiplied infinitely in my mind, a million possible futures.
I filled in a form requesting identifying and nonidentifying information about my birth parents and sent it to the registry in Albany.
From the Hardcover edition.