Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein knew they were adopted; what they didn't know until recently was that they were identical twin sisters who were separated and had, for a time, been part of a confidential study on separated twins.
When Elyse and Paula reunite, they begin to explore the puzzle of their early lives and find out more about their birth mother.
As the women get to know each other and build a relationship, they discover fascinating similarities between them but also must cope with the challenges and frustrations of getting to know an identical twin later in life.
Their co-written memoir, "Identical Strangers," details their fascinating story. You can read an excerpt below.
Identical Stranger: Chapter 1
ELYSE: 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 faraway 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 deco- rum. 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 cinémathèque 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.
PAULA: In one of my earliest memories, I am sitting on the brick stoop in front of my grandma's row house in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. My pale, skinny legs crossed Indian-style, I peck away at a black manual typewriter. Doing my best to sit up straight and look grown-up, I practice "playing piano." When I press too many keys at once, the metal spokes of the typewriter jam together and I fear that I've broken it.
I like to think that my childhood fascination with the typewriter was an early indication of my eventual career as a writer. More likely, it was simply the closest thing to a toy that I could find in my grandma's house that balmy summer afternoon. No doubt, I also dwell on the memory because it is one of the few that involve my grandmother, who died two years later.
She was the only grandparent I had the chance to meet; the others had died before I was born. Growing up, I grilled my parents with questions about these phantoms and envied friends with grandparents who showered them with attention, not to mention gifts.
I now see that there was another element of my grandparent obsession: they were a link to a past that did not include me. The only evidence I had that they had ever existed were the photos my parents preserved in musty old scrapbooks in the attic. Since all of their pictures were in black and white, I reasoned that my dead grandparents had lived in a time before the world had turned to color. Unlike most kids, I couldn't study these grainy old photos looking to find a resemblance to myself.
How were these antiquated strangers related to me? Just because I considered my adopted parents my "real parents," did that automatically make their parents my grandparents?
Despite the conventional wisdom that "blood is thicker than water," I had always believed that family is something you create rather than something you are born into. "Never forget for a single minute,/You didn't grow under my heart -- but in it," read part of a poem my mother clipped from a "Dear Abby" column and pasted into the inside cover of my baby book.
One fall afternoon, soon before my sixth birthday, I snuggled close to Grandma on her stiff twin bed at the nursing home where she spent the last year of her life. By today's standards, she was relatively young at seventy-one, but at the time, she seemed ancient. Calmly, she cupped my tiny hand in her bony one as we sat there in silence for what felt like an eternity. Although we didn't exchange words, her eyes said good-bye.
Since my mother didn't have biological children and my aunt never married or had children, my grandmother's genes would die with my mother and her sister. Still, I am certain that my grandma never felt any less connected to me because I wasn't her genetic descendant.
Now, as an adult, I'm back in Brooklyn, not far from where my mother was born and raised and my grandfather owned a kosher butcher shop. But, along with my grandmother, the rest of my mother's family has long since died or moved South. "You're moving to Brooklyn?" my mom asked incredulously when I informed her of our plans to move to Park Slope. For her, the suburbs were the Promised Land. Why would we want to settle in the place she had worked so hard to leave?
ELYSE: Six months after I wrote to the adoption registry, I received the only information about my birth mother I ever expected to have. The registry wrote me that they had contacted Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency I knew had handled my case, and re- quested that they send nonidentifying information to me. As a consolation prize, they enclosed a form listing my birth mother's various attributes, of which only nationality (American) and age (28) are filled in.
I quickly calculated the years: my birth mother would now be in her mid-sixties rather than in her early fifties. I had envisioned her in my mind's eye as a pregnant teenager living on the fringes of New York's subterranean society when she'd given me up. So I could safely eliminate the majority of my fantasy birth mother candidates: She wasn't Edie Sedgwick, who was rumored to have had a fling with Bob Dylan at the Factory in 1967... a possibility that had always left me wondering. And since, at age twenty-eight, my birth mother would presumably have been old enough to raise a child, extraordinary circumstances must have caused her to give me up.
Returning to America after a three-year stint as a film student in Prague, I myself had experienced the first pangs of nature's call to procreate, at the age of twenty-eight. Before then, I had convinced myself that as an artist, I was required to choose between family and film. I chose the illusory world of film. In the fairy-tale city of Prague my dream to turn colored lights into images finally came true. I had been selected to study in the international program at the prestigious film school FAMU. I packed my bags convinced that there was no return.
When my 16mm short film, Je Vole Le Bonheur (I Steal Happiness), was received with acclaim and accepted to the Telluride Film Festival in 1996, I felt my choice had been vindicated. I was as satisfied as a proud mother, having given birth to the creation inside me. But the satisfaction was not complete.
Though I espoused my theory of sacrifice, inwardly I longed for a partner and a child. I also suspected that even if I never conceived, someday a wayward and abandoned child would somehow enter my life. I imagined that my gay best friend, John, would help me raise it.
In 1968, my birth mother was obviously unprepared to raise a child. No matter what noble intentions she may have had in providing me with nurturing parents, my birth mother gave me up. The letter was proof that she was clearly not looking for me now. I resign myself to the fact that even such basic characteristics as her height, weight, and eye color would always remain a mystery.
I am shocked to arrive home one wintry day in February, six months after the adoption agency had been asked to provide me with information, to find a certified letter from Louise Wise Services. Is there some new revelation they suddenly want to share? Is my birth mother looking for me? Wanting to linger over the moment, I pour myself a drink and light a cigarette while staring at the envelope. I savor the last minutes of expectation and then delicately open the letter. Impatiently scanning it, I immediately zero in on the third sentence, the words "You were born at 12:51 p.m. as the 'younger' of twin girls born to a 28-year-old Jewish single woman."
The sentence seems totally unreal, yet at the same time confirms my deepest suspicions. It is as if past and present converge and resonate with meaning. Elation buzzes through my body.
Breathless, I grab for the phone to call a close friend to meet. My first instinct is to share the news. I want to show Jean-Claude the letter to confirm that I am not dreaming.
Over a beer at our local Belgian pub on Boulevard Montparnasse, empty the middle of this winter afternoon, Jean-Claude, a fifty-five-year-old literary aficionado, shares my amazement at the novelistic elements of my discovery. Though we usually drink wine together on evenings after I tutor him in English, he is equally at ease at the pub, overdressed in an elegant suit, guzzling down a pint of rich Belgian amber. His eyes widen in childlike wonderment as I describe the details of the letter to him.
My twin dwells in the abstract. There are still so many questions to be answered: Are we fraternal or identical twins? What would it be like to look at myself? Is that why I have always gazed at my reflection in mirrors and shop windows? Jean-Claude and I laugh at the prospect of her living a parallel life, just down the street from me in Paris, perfecting French, just like me. How many times have we crossed each other's path? I am reminded of one of my favorite films, Krzysztof Kieslowski's La Double Vie de Véronique, where, on a visit to Poland, a young French woman coincidentally encounters her double.
"Why were we separated?" I ask rhetorically. The particularly vibrant winter afternoon light illuminates Jean-Claude's puzzled expression. He looks at me as if this is a riddle he cannot fathom, a philosophical conundrum he is left to ponder.
"It's like The Two Orphans, the nineteenth-century serial by Adolphe d'Ennery!" he exclaims, making one of his usual esoteric references. "They are looking to unravel the mystery of their origin."
On our second beer, I move my ashtray and lay the letter out on the wooden table so we can go over it together.
"It says that my, um, our birth mother -- it's strange to say 'our'! -- was 'very intelligent with a high IQ who earned excellent grades in an elite high school,' " I read aloud as Jean-Claude and I pore over the letter together.
"She was very intelligent!" Jean-Claude says excitedly. "That's not a surprise!"
"''She entered college on a merit scholarship but emotional problems interrupted her attendance,'" I continue. "'She had a history of voluntary hospitalizations for emotional problems.'"
"Emotional problems?" Jean-Claude asks, "Like depression?"
"'Secondary sources noted that your mother's diagnosis was schizophrenia, mixed type, which was successfully treated with medication.'"
I look to Jean-Claude for consolation and he answers my silent question by saying "But you are okay," and takes my hand in his. The letter claims that my birth mother's schizophrenia was suc- cessfully treated. But, since my brother continues to struggle with the disease, I know there is no miracle cure for schizophrenia -- and there certainly wasn't one in 1968 -- so I am reluctant to accept her diagnosis. Mixed-type schizophrenia would probably be more accurately diagnosed today as bipolar disorder or manic depression.
Even if she is a mad genius, I would still like to find her. I wonder about the hereditary factors in mental illness and how they have affected my own emotional stability. Debilitated by depression my junior year of college, I could barely make it out of bed and considered dropping out. Had my twin sister suffered from this illness? And if my twin had indeed succumbed to madness, could I tolerate seeing a deranged, exaggerated version of myself? I fear if I confronted a bleary-eyed stranger with my features. I could not face seeing the life I had barely managed to escape.
Jean-Claude and I ruminate over these possible scenarios. What if my twin is dead? I almost died when I had an extreme allergic reaction to the antibiotic Bactrum, a sulfa drug, when I was fourteen. What if she hadn't survived after having a similar reaction to the drug? Or what if looking at her was like looking at myself, but without the mild, raised scars from the resulting chemical burn that have become so familiar to me? What if I find her, as I am driven to do, only to be rejected by a spoiled Jewish American Princess who frowns upon my years of wandering bohemia?
The vision that scares me the most is that she has conquered her solitude and has settled down with a soul mate and a child. If I witness her domestic bliss, will I regret having opted for a liberated but solitary existence? Considering these possibilities sometimes leads Jean-Claude and me to pensive silences. We also celebrate my enlightenment about the facts of my life. Though I anticipate that finding my twin will be a long and arduous journey, I am tranquil knowing at last that the loneliness I have always felt is not of the usual existential kind; it has a name now. "C'est le début d'une nouvelle vie," Jean Claude says. It is indeed the beginning of a new life. And yet, I feel the knowledge that I have a twin had always been underneath the surface of things.
*** In a book at the library, I find an image of twins nestled together in their mother's womb. As a fetus first opening my eyes at the gestational age of six months, I must have encountered my twin looking back at me.
In addition to the traumatic separation from their mother at birth, psychologists believe, twins also experience a brutal rupture from their twin, with whom they have shared an intimate relationship in the womb, negotiating for nutrients and space.
Though consciousness in the womb has not been scientifically proven, many people claim to have a memory of a lost twin. One reason may be that researchers estimate that 12 to 15 percent of us began life in the womb as a twin. Yet only one in eighty twin conceptions survive to full term.
Early in a pregnancy, a second or third embryonic sac may appear on ultrasound tests, only to disappear later. In such cases, these embryos are partially reabsorbed by the mother or by the other twin, or they are just shed entirely. Without complications in the pregnancy, these aptly named "vanishing twins" sometimes go unnoticed, often leaving no trace. Since twins are more likely to be lefthanded (20 percent of twins, compared to 10 to 12 percent of the total population), some twin experts speculate that many lefthanders could be the remnants of a twin pregnancy.
In rare cases, two embryos merge and one twin incorporates the other; the result is called a chimera. In Greek mythology, the Chimera possesses the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. Unlike the gruesome creature for which it is named, the human chimera may only be detected through DNA or blood tests that reveal two blood types in a single person.
And yet, since identical twins share a blood type, it is virtually impossible to determine in a singleton birth if there was originally an identical twin in the womb with her.
PAULA: Dwarfed by the maze of packed cardboard boxes that surround me, I wonder how my husband and I managed to amass so much junk. Piles of books and garbage bags filled with old clothing beckon to be rummaged through and sorted.
We've been in our new apartment in Brooklyn for just over a month and today is the day I have set aside to create some order out of the chaos. The ascetic life is looking good as I envision a sleek, Zen-like apartment with minimal furniture. But reality -- especially with a toddler -- is a lot messier.
It's the sort of brutally cold early February day when you can see your breath. Despite the weather, my husband, Avo, has bundled up our daughter, Jesse, and carted her off to the nearby playground so I can focus on the task ahead of me. I've declared Jesse's second birthday, just two weeks away, as my unofficial deadline for clearing out the moving boxes.
In addition to showing off Jesse's newfound skills of walking and talking, the event will also serve as an unofficial judgment day. When Avo and I decided to flee the funky East Village for family oriented Park Slope, Brooklyn, we knew our more eccentric friends might not get it. Jesse's party will be the first opportunity for our Village friends to inspect our new digs and to give us an earful about how we'd sold out.
I had pretty much had my fill of the bohemian life. As a journalist and film critic, I regularly attended film premieres, art openings, and late-night parties. Before I got married, my roommate and I had earned a reputation for throwing raucous parties, which attracted an eclectic mix of indie filmmakers, aspiring photographers, and grunge musicians. I remember one particularly lively bash where a prominent German film director and his drag queen date made their dramatic entrance just as a troupe of fully costumed Shakespearean actors were exiting.
Avo and I had viewed raising a kid in the East Village as a badge of coolness. Unlike other parents who wimped out by bringing their children up in the suburbs (where I had grown up), we were proud to be living on the edge. Rather than cart Jesse around in a minivan, we traveled by bus or subway. Instead of a backyard, Jesse relied on seedy Tompkins Square Park for her fresh air.
But, however much we cherished our lifestyle, we had now been forced to come to terms with the fact that we were on the verge of outgrowing our six-hundred-square-foot walk-up apartment. Since we planned to start work on producing a little sister or brother for Jesse sometime soon, we would need more space. Known for its Victorian town houses and liberal denizens, Park Slope, we rationalized, would be the East Village but with less graffiti and more greenery. After moving on Christmas Eve, we rang in the New Year eating take-out pizza by the fireplace. Now that we're here, my greatest fear is that I'm going to become a New York City cliché: the Park Slope mom. In the East Village, parenthood made us seem brave. In Park Slope, we are soldiers in an army of parents each marching to orders barked by minisergeants in strollers. Children are the unofficial entry ticket to this neighborhood, where double strollers bottleneck the sidewalks and nursing moms and haggard dads wearing BabyBjörns dominate the cafés.
I've tried hard to balance the stay-at-home-mom life with freelance writing, but switching gears is more challenging than I thought it would be. Occasionally, I manage to put aside the dirty diapers to write articles for various newspapers and magazines. Aside from making some extra cash, it's also an insurance policy that I won't lose my mind entirely to mommy stuff.
As I line Jesse's bookshelves with her favorite Winnie-the-Pooh and Maurice Sendak books, it strikes me that we are creating the home where Jesse will form her first memories. I hope we can give her the stability that my parents provided for me. As a teenager, I found their normality oppressive, but while I was growing up, it was comforting to know that I could rely on them to behave like the supportive parents I saw on my favorite TV show, The Brady Bunch. I could always count on my mother to contribute to the school bake sale, conjure up creative Halloween costumes, and volunteer to be the Brownie leader. Dad always caught his commuter train and made it home in time for dinner with the family, which my mom dutifully had on the table promptly at six p.m.
Since I can't cook or sew and don't have much interest in being a den leader, I'm resigned to the fact that I won't live up to Brady Bunch standards of motherhood. The only thing I hope to emulate is the unflagging sense that my parents would always be there for my brother and me when we needed them.
ELYSE: "I feel like I've lost a twin," I had often said to friends, after film school, out in San Francisco, whenever I faced a particularly difficult bout of depression. I had always assumed that my profound loneliness stemmed from the early death of my mother and the loss, in some sense, of my older brother to schizophrenia. My friends thought it was just the potent Humboldt County weed speaking. But my stoned suspicions had been right?literally. Those other later losses echoed a first and most dramatic separation from a twin sister.
I am grappling not only with the realization that I have been separated from my twin, but also with the fact that I was, as the letter clearly stated, adopted at six months rather than shortly after birth, as I had always thought. My parents had lovingly recounted the story of my adoption without ever getting into the exact details. It didn't help that my mom was no longer around to repeat the story, and my dad's memory is rather spotty.
In fact, I had assumed that my brother's late adoption, at six months, had contributed to his schizophrenia. The knowledge that I had also languished in parentless limbo for months makes me pity the orphaned infant I once was. My vision of the past is slowly shifting, this new fact making the others fall like dominoes.
Since I received the letter, my mind has been so consumed with the discovery of my twin that thoughts of finding my birth mother have been relegated to the back burner. Back in 1988, when returning to Long Island for college, not far from where I had been adopted, I wondered if without even knowing it I might someday pass the woman who gave birth to me. I wished for a sign, hoping that some imaginary spectators would call out to alert me, "That's her!"
Like the baby bird in the children's book, I cracked out of my shell in front of every kind woman wondering, "Are you my mother?" "'Yes, I know who you are,' said the baby bird. 'You are a bird and you are my mother.'"
Or would I instinctively know her by her bushy hair and doelike eyes? The concept of kin eluded me. Do people related by blood recognize each other on some basic primal level?
Returning home now to my small flat on boulevard Raspail, I stare at myself in the mirror and try to imagine that somewhere out in the world I have a sister who resembles me. In constantly looking at my own reflection, have I been inadvertently looking for her -- my doppelgänger?
The notion of the double had always fascinated me. At college, I had taken an entire class centered on self-reflexivity in cinema. It was this class that motivated me to become a director. Watching Ingmar Bergman's Persona, in which a mute actress and her nurse fuse identities at a secluded seaside town, I was mesmerized. My emotions were mirrored in the nurse's question "Is it possible to be two people at the same time?"
Now that the concept of the doppelgänger has become strangely relevant, I start to read whatever I can find at the local library. Doppelgänger comes from the German words doppel, meaning "double," and gänger, "goer" or "walker," but is commonly rendered in English as "double" or "look-alike." I remembered reading Freud's 1919 essay, "The Uncanny," in which he describes the phenomenon of the double as encountering something very familiar that becomes frightening.
Seeing one's double is often construed as a bad omen, which portends death. In fact, the poet Percy Shelley drowned in a river shortly after seeing his doppelgänger appear on his balcony. In folklore, doppelgängers are similar to vampires in that they cast no shadow and have no reflection in a mirror or in water. They provide advice to the person they shadow, which can be misleading or malicious. In many cases, once someone has viewed his or her own doppelgänger she is doomed to be haunted by images of that ghostly counterpart. In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "William Wilson," written in 1839, the eponymous protagonist encounters a classmate who eerily shares his name and birth date. Tormented by his double, whom he believes to be a saboteur, Wilson kills him in a climactic duel. Likewise, in Dostoyevsky's novella The Double, the protagonist's doppelgänger threatens to ruin his good name and usurp his position in society.
As I daydream about my newfound twin somewhere out in the world, I wonder why the idea of twinship has such a dark cultural legacy. Finding out I have a mysterious lost twin only exponentially increases the gothic overtones.
Just last month, my friend Laurent had chanced upon a sculpture that, he felt, bore an uncanny resemblance to me. While he was wandering through a small museum in Montparnasse, the sculpture The Polish Woman, who appeared to be one of my ancestors, had startled him out of his Sunday reverie. On Laurent's insistence, I visited her at the Bourdelle Museum the following Sunday. Expecting to see her at every turn, I walked with anticipation through the stately museum. As I passed through a gathering of monumental Greek gods, she came into view. Though she was just a small bust made of clay, the resemblance was remarkable; we had the same mane of thick hair and the same mischievous smile.
Until now, I had based my life on a fallacy: that I had been born alone. Rocking myself to sleep at night, the stuffed bear I bought myself the first day of college nestled against my chest, I repeated like a mantra, "I am alone. We are all born alone." I could no longer be lulled by that lie, though I would never be able to truly replace what I had lost. Was my twin the "we of me" that I had been unconsciously searching for all my life?
PAULA: Even after they learn the basics of how babies are made, most children remain incredulous that such an unseemly physical act could have been responsible for their arrival into the world. Eventually, they come to terms with the fact that their parents must have had sex at least once in order to procreate. But since I was adopted, I had no proof that my parents had ever had intercourse. Perhaps, I reasoned as a child, they had adopted my brother and me because they were leading a celibate life and therefore were unable to produce children of their own.
I was caught off guard one night when I was nine years old and my extended family had gathered in the dining room for a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Blithely ignorant of the adult conversation around me, I froze when one comment demanded my attention. "I remember when you were pregnant," Aunt Marilyn, my father's sister, said casually to my mother. I studied my mom's face for a reaction, but found none. Why didn't she correct Aunt Marilyn and remind her that Steven and I were adopted? I fiddled with the kasha varnishkes on my plate, but couldn't bring myself to eat any more. My brain was struggling to make sense of what Aunt Marilyn had said. I visualized a younger version of my mother with a full belly and a pregnant glow. What had happened to the baby inside her?
After dinner, I approached my mother as she was scraping the dinner plates clean.
"Mom, can you come to my room? I have something I want to talk to you about," I said in as mature a voice as I could muster.
I studied the bright, floral pattern on my bedspread as my mother made room for herself on my platform bed.
"Aunt Marilyn said something about your being pregnant. I didn't know you were ever pregnant," I said tentatively. I hugged my favorite stuffed animal, an oversized bunny rabbit who wore a goofy felt smile.
"Yes, I was pregnant a couple of times, but I had miscarriages."
My eyes welled up with tears, which I soaked up with the sleeve of my burgundy velvet dress. I wasn't sure exactly what a miscarriage was, but I gathered that it wasn't good.
"The doctors couldn't find a medical reason for it, but I knew I couldn't go through another miscarriage," my mom said softly. "Your dad and I always felt comfortable with the idea of adopting. Now I'm glad that I had the miscarriages or else I might never have had you."
It hurt to hear that if it weren't for my mother's miscarriages, my parents wouldn't have adopted me. Aside from my celibacy theory, I must have subconsciously wanted to believe that adoption was their first choice.
I don't remember a specific moment when I was told I was adopted. I like to think that I always knew. It was never presented as a secret, just a fact. My older brother and my childhood best friend had also been adopted, so it seemed commonplace to me. None of my classmates seemed to think that being adopted warranted much of a reaction -- I was neither taunted, nor handled with kid gloves. Since it was such a banal topic, my adoption wasn't something my family discussed much, with one notable exception. I routinely egged my parents on to tell the sob story of my early days.
"When you were born, you weighed only four pounds and eleven ounces. By the time we brought you home at five months, you still weighed less than ten pounds. You had a layer of dirt caked onto the soles of your feet that we had to scrape off. Dad would proudly show your picture around his office, but people must have thought that you looked like a concentration camp survivor. To us, you were beautiful." My mom lovingly recited the tale, like a favorite bedtime story.
"What did the doctor say about me again?" I wanted every last detail, every time.
"The doctor who examined you surmised that your foster parents boiled your formula for so long that it had lost all its nutrients, which explained your inability to digest food and your malnutrition. He told us, 'Don't get too used to her.'"
The pediatrician's flip dismissal of my chances for survival must have devastated them at the time, but my parents' innate optimism was apparently enough to fatten me up. They quickly managed to compensate for my early months of neglect.
This heart-wrenching tale of a pathetic orphan and the parents who rescued her from certain death and nursed her back to health seemed so incongruous with my comfortable suburban upbringing that I returned to it again and again. I was no longer that starving abandoned baby, but I loved to romanticize my humble beginnings -- especially in the comfort of our four-bedroom house in manicured Westchester County. I might have been wearing a Benetton sweater and Calvin Klein jeans, but I came from dirt. I was tough.
It always seemed surreal to me that I had had another identity before my parents adopted me. The social worker at Louise Wise told my parents that I had been called Jean at the foster home. Perhaps because it represented the time before I had a real family, I despised the name Jean, which sounded so homely to me. I was grateful my parents had decided to call me Paula.
However much I liked to imagine that my rocky start in life made me a more hard-edged person than my pampered peers, it simply wasn't true. If anything, I was more sensitive, more prone to cry when a friend snubbed me for another playmate or when I failed to get a grade I felt I deserved. My parents rarely had to punish me, because most of the time I was harder on myself than they would ever be.
Like most adoptees, I occasionally fantasized about my biological family. When I was seven, I sat glued to The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, convinced that the glamorous stars were my parents and that their blond daughter, Chastity, who was about my age, had stolen my birthright to be onstage.
I also felt a kinship with Little Orphan Annie, especially since she also had curly red hair. At nine I barricaded myself in my room after school to sing along to my Annie record for hours, mouthing the words to "Maybe." I studied my reflection in the mirror as I imagined my birth parents living a romantic life a world away from mine: "Betcha they're young,/ Betcha they're smart, / Bet they collect things like ashtrays, and art!"
I dreamed that one day I would star in Annie on Broadway and that my birth parents would come to see me perform and realize how wrong they had been to give me up since I was clearly such a special, talented child.
ELYSE: I have no idea how I will go about finding my twin. I start by looking up the Louise Wise adoption agency on the Internet. Though I've always known this was the agency I was adopted from, I never researched it until now. The first thing I find is the tragic story of Michael Juman, who, like my brother and me, was also adopted from Louise Wise. Coincidentally, Michael was born the same year as my brother and also suffered from schizophrenia. When Michael searched desperately for information about his birth mother in hopes of understanding the root of his malady, his psychologist contacted Louise Wise, and was denied Michael's medical history from his file. Finally able to locate his birth mother's name in the 1965 birth registry at the New York Public Library, Michael set out to find her so that she could provide insight into his illness and help him find a cure. Michael managed to track down a biological cousin, who informed him that his birth mother had been a lobotomized mental patient.
In 1991, the Juman family filed suit against Louise Wise for fraud and wrongful adoption. It's disturbing to read that Michael Juman's severe schizophrenia led to his early demise -- in 1994, he died from an accidental medication overdose at the age of twentynine.
Two years later, the court ordered Louise Wise to provide Michael's family with his file. It showed that his birth mother met his birth father, who was also schizophrenic, at a mental hospital. Unlike most people, adoptees have two birth certificates. One is issued at the time of their birth and lists their birth parents' names. A second birth certificate, which is issued at the time of their adoption, lists their adoptive parents' names. Only a handful of states (Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Oregon, and New Hampshire) currently provide adoptees who have reached the legal age access to their birth certificates. In the rest of America, an adoptee who would like the original birth certificate must petition the court and plead extenuating circumstances; petitions are rarely granted.
Before the 1930s original birth certificates were available to adoptees and both sets of parents. But, in an effort to deter biological parents from interfering with adoptions during the postwar adoption boom, most states sealed the records. In doing so, they also denied adoptees access to their original birth certificates. If I manage to locate my original birth certificate, which is supposedly numbered the same as the one I received at the time of my adoption, would my twin's certificate be filed just one page away? When I had applied for French citizenship last year, the certified birth certificate I'd requested from the city's vital records department to accompany the application listed the hospital's name, along with the hour of my birth, a fact I had never previously known. Seeing my mother Lynn's swirled script on the birth certificate had been a surprise. I felt comforted seeing her name on the official document, as if she were accompanying me on my quest for a new nationality. Her death at thirty-three had circuitously led me to discover the truth about my twin. I long to share this revelation with her, my real mother. If only there were a registry that could reunite me with her.
When she had written me, the director of postadoption services at Louise Wise had enclosed a sibling registration form to send in to the New York State Registry, where I had made my initial request. As she provided me with no other feasible lead, I decide to begin there, though I realize that the chance of a reunion is nearly zero unless my twin somehow also knows of my existence. Perhaps, I think, the agency can do no more than hint and they know that my twin, also looking for her birth parents, has registered. My mind is racing. Is it possible that my birth mother kept my twin and only abandoned me? Why were we separated?
As elation is overtaken by confusion, I call my dad in Oklahoma. Though we live thousands of miles apart and have differing ideas, especially about how to handle my nephew, we share a mutual respect. I find it unlikely that he would have known the truth all along without revealing it to me, but I have to be sure.
"Hello?" By chance, I catch him at a rare moment when he is not busy at work.
"Dad, I got a letter from Louise Wise."
Silence. Having offered to help me search for my birth mother when I turned eighteen, Dad knows the significance of this name. I continue. "Are you busy? Are you sitting down?"
"Yeah. What's up?"
"I have a twin." I can picture his clear baby-blue eyes on the other end of the line.
"We have to find her," Dad says, without a pause, as if this conversation had been scripted thirty-five years ago. Though I can tell by his voice that it is a shock to him, I am taken aback by his lack of hesitation. The fragile tenor of his voice speaks volumes. "It's wrong to separate twins."
My father is indignant that Louise Wise hadn't offered both twins to him and my mother. He had trusted the agency, which he held in such high regard. Though Dad was not responsible for separating me from my twin sister, an illogical feeling of guilt weighs upon him. He must realize the magnitude of my dual losses -- the loss of a twin, compounded by the death of my mother when I was so young.
Even if my twin is alive and well, I know in my heart that I need to follow my own life's design. I can't renounce the first thirty-five years of my life to live in a hypothetical tandem. I am reeling in reverie about my twin, but I will try to focus on my own path, which at the moment means preparing for the CAPES, the notoriously difficult French teacher's exam.
My father and I decide to track down my twin and plan a trip to New York, during my spring break, just two months away. It has been a long time since we have been back to New York together.
Copyright © 2007 by Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.