SCIENCE: When Paula met Elyse

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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Twins separated at birth in the name of science tell of the shocks and rewards of rediscovery. By Lisa Bradley.

Earlobes - are they attached to your head? And your wrists, are they slender like mine? Not the usual questions you ask a stranger, but Paula Bernstein couldn't help herself.

The woman she had under the microscope, Elyse Schein, was almost a mirror image of herself. They had similar noses and hair as well as shared career paths and an alarming number of mannerisms in common.

But then Bernstein and Schein were no ordinary strangers. In 2004, at the age of 35, they discovered they were identical twins who had been deliberately separated as babies in a secret nature versus nurture study involving five pairs of twins and a set of triplets.

The women, both writers living in Brooklyn and now aged 39, have released a book about their remarkable reunion, Identical Strangers, in which they explore their childhoods as well as the quest for truth about the twin study and the mother who gave them up.

For Schein, the journey from strangers to sisters began in 2002. She was 33, living in Paris and compelled to look for her biological mother, a search that bore little fruit until about a year later when she received a letter from Louise Wise Services, the New York agency which had handled her adoption.

It read: You were born the younger of twin girls on October 9, 1968.

Schein was stunned. All curiosity about her mother turned into "a billion questions" about a sister she never knew she had: "Who is this person? Is she alive? Is she just like me? Maybe our birth mother kept her and only gave me up. Maybe she died at birth."

She returned to New York two months later and rang the agency. The social worker who answered said she would contact her twin.

Bernstein meanwhile, living a comfortable life in New York with a husband and daughter, had just moved to an apartment in Park Slope. Thoughts of biological relatives were the last thing on her mind when she received the call from the agency.

"It was beyond shocking," says Bernstein. She took notes during the call, reverting to her reporting days because, she says, it seemed like the type of story that happens to somebody else.

"It was only when the woman said `I wanted to tell you in case you were walking down Fifth Avenue and saw an alternate version of yourself' that I broke down in tears. It was disturbing to think that my life wasn't what I thought it was."

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Two days later she met Schein in a cafe and they were comparing earlobes. "It wasn't like one of those reunions you see on television," says Bernstein. "We didn't run up to each other crying and hugging. We patted each other gingerly."

Bernstein took notes: They were born in New York; they edited their high school newspapers; studied film at university; shared the same tastes in books and have a habit of "air typing". Their necks also flush red when they are agitated, they sucked their fingers not their thumbs as toddlers and slept with toy bears into their adulthood.

"Actually, I still do that," admits Schein. "Paula slept with a bear until she met her husband."

So began a journey of discovery that saw Bernstein and Schein turn their attentions to not only their birth mother but to Peter Neubauer, the child psychiatrist behind the twin study aided by the adoption agency.

They learnt that Viola Bernard, a psychologist and agency consultant (who believed raising twins together was detrimental to their wellbeing) separated the siblings without telling the adoptive parents, and then secretly followed their progress.

Bernstein concludes the research centred on the topic of nature versus nurture, but says there was a side interest in the effects of differing parenting techniques. The twins will never know for sure Neubauer has locked the study in a Yale University archive until 2066. Efforts by the sisters and others who were studied have failed to release them.

Bernard is dead, but Bernstein and Schein did have the satisfaction of meeting Neubauer. He offered neither apology nor explanation.

"I wanted him to say `Well, I know what we did was misguided but back then we thought we were doing the best and I'm sorry if we were wrong'. That's all we wanted. We didn't want anything else. And it was disappointing he didn't do that," says Schein.

Neubauer can't see the big picture, adds Bernstein: "When somebody believes in something so strongly, and for so many years, there is no way they will change their mind. If he were to feel what he had done was wrong, how could he live with himself?"

The twins have no bitterness, and they refuse to make the study a life obsession. They have accepted the outcome just as they did when they learnt their biological mother, Leda Witt, had died when they were little.

"We had imagined the worst for so long that it was almost anti-climactic when we heard the news," says Schein.

"Paula was expecting me to be hysterical but, ultimately, I felt proud that Paula and I are testament to her life."

Discovering that their mother suffered schizophrenia was another piece in the puzzle: the twins knew she could never have looked after them.

While the sisters have not experienced symptoms of schizophrenia, they have suffered depression, and Schein says it was a relief they had overcome it in the light of their mother's illness.

Given the opportunity, Schein says she would tell her mother that she did the right thing. "And that Paula and I had loving families, that we met each other and we're happy. We can only thank her."

Not that the road to sisterhood was entirely easy. People have this romantic notion that finding a twin is like finding a soul mate, says Bernstein. It's simply not true.

"Seeing Elyse, part of me wanted her to look like some fabulous supermodel so I could say `Wow, I look so good', and part of me wanted her not to look as good as I did."

Schein agrees: "As much as I wanted her to think like me, I didn't want her to be like me."

Bernstein also struggled with taking on such an emotional commitment, and was concerned her newly found twin may have been trying to fill a void. That revelation was upsetting for Schein.

"I didn't see her as the missing piece," says Schein. "Knowing I had a twin answered a key element of my identity, but Paula was not that twin that was some other life that had never been. Just meeting her, even now as close as we are, that hole can never be filled."

Today, they are family by choice; they've "adopted each other".

Bernstein and Schein live 20 minutes from each other and catch up regularly. Schein babysits her sister's two children, they go shopping, share books, constantly email and swap updates on Desperate Housewives. They may visit the same clothing stores, but they walk out with different dresses.

They claim to share mannerisms more than looks. The uncanny resemblance they had as children has faded, although Bernstein now has a wrinkle on her brow in the same place she noticed her sister had one while she was taking notes during that first meeting.

And they see the best of themselves in each other faithfulness, passion, optimism and humour and the worst: "We can obsess the minor details."

There is trust and since the twins have stopped focusing on their similarities and differences they are gaining the ability to read each other's minds and finish each other's sentences.

They say the nature nurture debate is not clearcut, they believe nature plays a significant role a shift for Bernstein, who grew up thinking family is not about biology.

Their adoptive families remain as important as ever, she says. "My parents really like Elyse, but she's not their daughter. And the same on Elyse's side. Everyone gets on really well."

And neither dwell on what could have been a shared childhood.

"Would we have had Elyse's parents or mine? There are so many combinations that could have happened. It is hard for me to go back in time because I'm so grateful to the life I have led, and I think Elyse is too," says Bernstein.

Being separated has not only made them even "closer than sisters" because they don't take each other for granted, it has given them a greater understanding of themselves.

Finding someone with the same DNA as you, says Schein, and learning about the experiences they have had in your body, is an opportunity to see how your life might have been.

"Meeting Paula has made me sure of who I am, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

  • Identical Strangers, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, Hachette Livre, $39.99, on sale now

- Sunday Star Times

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