Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Good Read: Identical Strangers

I thoroughly enjoyed Identical Strangers, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein's account of discovering each other at age 35. They were identical twins separated at birth because of a creepy experiment carried out by the then-prestigious Louise Wise adoption agency in New York City and two prominent psychiatrists, Viola Bernard and Peter Neubauer. The kicker, of course, is that neither of them knew they were a twin, not to mention an identical twin -- until Elyse's research in her thirties.

The story is poignantly told in alternating sections by each twin, and for me it was a compelling and suspenseful tale: would they find out why they were separated? How will reuniting affect each of them? How are they similar and different? Will they find their birth mother? What was her story? Why did she surrender them? Who was their father?

Surely there is no plot line more gripping than the loss of mother love, the raw grief and helplessness of an abandoned infant. Add to that separation from one's biological double, the "other" with whom you shared a womb, and the story becomes irresistible.

Both writers and researchers, they intersperse their account with intriguing histories of twins, separated and otherwise. They try to find other separated Louise Wise twins and analyze many fascinating twin studies.

And in the process, their story touches on what it means to be human, what it means to be an individual. There's something here about primal bonding and human loneliness. As others have noted, Elyse, who was kept longer in foster care and then lost her beloved adopted mother when she was only six, seems to have had a harder life, and she pursues bonds with her rediscovered sister more passionately. Paula, who had the luck of a loving and consistent family, went to Wellesley and has a husband and two daughters, eventually welcomed Elyse into her life but not without doubts and resistance. Yet both women tell their stories with remarkable openness. The seductiveness of the discovered link -- that shared DNA, the shared womb -- is the search to be known, to be understood. For Schein and Bernstein, even with their identical chromosomes, the outcome wasn't a perfect fulfillment of the fantasy. But the quest, and the real love that actually did blossom between them, is riveting.

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