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  • Identical Strangers
  • Written by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780812975659
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A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited

Written by Elyse ScheinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elyse Schein and Paula BernsteinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Paula Bernstein

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On Sale: October 02, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-644-3
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Elyse Schein had always known she was adopted, but it wasn’t until her mid-thirties while living in Paris that she searched for her biological mother. What she found instead was shocking: She had an identical twin sister. What’s more, after being separated as infants, she and her sister had been, for a time, part of a secret study on separated twins.
Paula Bernstein, a married writer and mother living in New York, also knew she was adopted, but had no inclination to find her birth mother. When she answered a call from her adoption agency one spring afternoon, Paula’s life suddenly divided into two starkly different periods: the time before and the time after she learned the truth.
As they reunite, taking their tentative first steps from strangers to sisters, Paula and Elyse are left with haunting questions surrounding their origins and their separation. And when they investigate their birth mother’s past, the sisters move closer toward solving the puzzle of their lives.

Praise for Identical Strangers:

Winner of a Books for a Better Life Award

“Remarkable . . . powerful . . . [an] extraordinary experience . . . The reader is left to marvel at the reworking of individual identities required by one discovery and then another.”
–Boston Sunday Globe

“[A] poignant memoir of twin sisters who were split up as infants, became part of a secret scientific study, then found each other as adults.”
–Reader’s Digest (Editors’ Choice)

“[A] fascinating memoir . . . Weaving studies about twin science into their personal reflections . . . Schein and Bernstein provide an intelligent exploration of how identity intersects with bloodlines. A must-read for anyone interested in what it means to be a family.”
–Bust

“Identical Strangers has all the heart-stopping drama you’d expect. But it has so much more–the authors’ emotional honesty and clear-eyed insights turn this unique story into a universal one. As you accompany the twins on their search for the truth of their birth, you witness another kind of birth–the germination and flowering of sisterly love.”
–Deborah Tannen, author of You’re Wearing That?

Excerpt

IDENTICAL STRANGERS

from CHAPTER ONE

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 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.
Elyse Schein|Paula Bernstein|Author Q&A

About Elyse Schein

Elyse Schein - Identical Strangers

Photo © Elena Seibert

Elyse Schein is a writer and filmmaker. Her short films “I Steal Happiness” and “Private Dick” have been shown at the Telluride Film Festival and at cinemas in Prague and San Francisco. A graduate of Stony Brook University, she studied film at FAMU, Prague’s Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts. She has also worked as an English teacher, photographer, and translator. Schein lives in Brooklyn.

About Paula Bernstein

Paula Bernstein - Identical Strangers
Paula Bernstein is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, New York, The Village Voice, and Redbook, among other publications. Formerly a reporter at Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, Bernstein has also been a regular contributor to CNN. A graduate of Wellesley College, she has a master’s degree in cinema studies from New York University. Bernstein lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein

Random House Reader’s Circle: Why did you decide to write the book?

Elyse Schein: As separated identical twins, we found ourselves in the unique position of being able to examine the question of nature versus nurture firsthand. We thought that writing the book as it happened would put readers in our shoes and help them imagine, “What would it be like to meet my identical twin for the first time?” It’s a common fantasy to have a twin, yet the relationship is more complex than one might think.

Paula Bernstein: Writing the book happened very organically. When I first got the phone call from the agency telling me the news that I had a twin, my initial instinct was to write. It was a way for me to remain grounded by reality and make sense of the puzzling situation. As soon as Elyse and I began exchanging e-mails, we realized that a narrative was unfolding. It became apparent that writing a book together was a way for us to explore our relationship and to find some answers to the mysteries of our origins.

RHRC: Why do you think the public is so fascinated by twins?

PB: Being a twin really forces you to answer the question, “What does it mean to be me?” If everyone is a unique individual, how is it possible that two people can be so alike? Also, there is so much twin-based mythology and cultural lore that elevates twins to a special level in our society. On the other hand, twins are also viewed as nature’s freaks.

ES: So many people come up to us and say, “You’re so lucky. I wish I had a twin!” I think the idea is that a twin will be an ideal companion; someone who will understand you better than anyone else can. There seems to be a narcissistic element involved: “If only my partner could be just like me!” People seem to really enjoy comparing twins and pinpointing their similarities and differences.

RHRC: What memoirs inspired you during the process of writing the book? Were there any that influenced the way you conceived of Identical Strangers?

ES: As we prepared to embark on telling our story we found it necessary to study the genre, so we did a survey of all the most known memoirs, especially those that deal with similar themes. Since they both deal with the theme of a sudden shift of identity, Stephen J. Dubner’s Choosing My Religion and Helen Fremont’s After Long Silence stand out. It was also helpful to look at how Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story and John Colapinto’s As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl integrated research into their narratives.

PB: I was also influenced by Like Family: Growing up in Other People’s Houses by Paula McLain, Borrowed Finery: A Memoir by Paula Fox, and Ithaka: A Daughter’s Memoir of Being Found by Sarah Saffian. In all of those books, the protaganists struggle to redefine “family.” I related to Saffian’s story in particular because, like me, she was found by biological relatives.

RHRC: How did you decide on the book’s dual narrative?

PB: Since our individual stories were so different, when it came time to determine the structure of the book, we knew that we couldn’t write in one unified voice. It seemed only natural that we would each write from our own perspective. We had no idea how our sections would piece together or if they would fit at all. We began by mapping out key events we would cover, then set off to write on our own. Exchanging chapters, we were often astounded that we chose the same words to describe things. Other times, we were surprised that we viewed the same situations quite differently. Still, without much editing, our separate sections effortlessly complemented each other’s.

RHRC: How responsible do you think your environment was for the choices you made in your lives?

PB: Since I met Elyse, it has become clear to me that genetics plays a huge role in shaping our characters. It’s not just our taste in music or books; it goes beyond that. We share the same basic personality. Elyse and I are variations of the same theme. We were each editor-in-chief of our respective high school newspapers and then went on to study film theory. But although we share many of the same interests and personality traits, it’s a relief to discover that we’re distinctly different people.

ES: I think we were both troubled by the thought that our identities might have been interchangeable. We each wondered, “If I had been raised by your parents and you had been raised by mine, would I be you and would you be me?” It took three and a half years of our getting to know each other to realize that that is not the case. Identity is not simply genetics plus environment.

RHRC: What was the writing process like? Was it difficult working together?

PB: At times, writing the book together was emotionally grueling, but it was also therapeutic. As challenging as the process was for me on a personal level, the editorial process went surprisingly smoothly. We seemed to share the same vision of the book.

ES: We knew that for the book to work we would have to be brutally honest, which was difficult because we were both concerned about hurting each other’s feelings. It was often challenging not to edit the other’s perspective but rather to accept that although we were writing about the same events our views might be extremely different.

RHRC: What is your relationship like now since the book came out?

PB: Writing the book definitely brought us closer together. It was very cathartic to work through so many of our conflicts. Now, Elyse lives just a short bike ride away in Brooklyn and she comes to babysit her nieces regularly. Also, we have become not just sisters, but friends. We have the same taste in movies, so it’s easy to go see movies together. We also exchange favorite books.

We have come to trust each other and to understand each other; we respect each other’s differences and no longer assume we’ll always agree.

ES: It’s true. I don’t think we’d be as close now if we hadn’t collaborated on the book together. It really forced us to confront a lot of issues that we might not have discussed otherwise. It ended up being easier to tackle difficult topics through writing. We are still getting to know each other. Our story is a work in progress.

RHRC: Have you discovered more similarities and differences between your personalities as time has passed? Have you noticed that you’ve become more alike?

ES: Now that I’m less defensive about our similarities I do notice them more. Sometimes Paula and I will choose the exact same phrase to express ourselves. It’s becoming clearer that a large component of language is inherited.
Coincidentally, our hair length is the same now. Paula has started wearing her glasses more often and she now has the same wrinkle in her brow.

We are both naturally empathetic people so the more I get to know Paula the more I am in tune with her emotions, which is good and bad. If I’m not careful, I absorb her mood.

Even when we talk about something as straightforward as travel plans it’s hard not to ask myself, “Would I go there? Would I do that?”
RHRC: Are you still angry with the psychiatrists who decided to separate you?

PB: We do not believe that Dr. Bernard and Dr. Neubauer were evil, nor do we think they set out to do harm. But we do think they were terribly misguided. How could they not have considered the ramifications of their decisions?
Still, as angry as we initially were with them, we have chosen to move on with our lives. We will never be able to make up for the thirty-five years that we missed, but we have the rest of our lives to try. We do not want that time to be marred by anger.

ES: We wish that Dr. Neubauer had at least conceded that they might have been off base with their theory (that twins would fare better separately), and had recognized that early separation might ultimately have been detrimental to the twins and triplets.

RHRC: Have there been any new developments since the last scene in the book? Did you learn more about the twin study? Have you heard from other separated twins? Learned more about your birth family?

ES: We’re disappointed that the archives of the study have not been made accessible to us and others. We’re hoping we’ll gain access one day–even if it means waiting until we’re old ladies when the records become public in 2066.

Dr. Neubauer died just four months after the hardcover publication of Identical Strangers. Paula and I are relieved that we had the opportunity to come face-to-face with him before he died. It is still difficult to understand how he didn’t express any remorse about his involvement in the twin study.

Since the publication of the book, Paula and I haven’t heard from David Witt or other members of our birth family. We respect their right to privacy. We’ve accepted that we may never know the full truth about our birth mother.

RHRC: How did meeting your twin and writing the book together change your lives?

ES: In countless ways. The story of my life was literally transformed the instant I learned I had a twin. Not only did I “have” a twin, I was a twin, which altered my sense of self. All the self-analysis I did while writing made me aware how important being in a relationship was for me. I had been living in a self-imposed exile of sorts and this discovery brought me back home and opened me up to the possibility of love.

PB: In a very concrete way, I gained a sister and my daughters have gained an aunt. In more amorphous ways, the experience challenged my own preconceptions about nature versus nurture and the idea of what makes a family.

RHRC: What has most surprised you about the response the book has received?

PB: We’re surprised and gratified that so many people–not just twins or adoptees–have told us that they can relate to our story. Again and again, we’ve heard from people who, later in life, discovered surprising things about their family that caused them to rethink their sense of identity and their definition of family. Also, it’s prompted friends who are parents to question the role of nature versus nurture in raising their children.

RHRC: Do you have any plans to write another book together?

PB: We are each working on separate projects–mine is another nonfiction book and Elyse’s is fiction–but we are certainly open to the idea of working on another book together someday.

ES: Since we wrote the book as the events were unfolding, it might be interesting to revisit this period in a follow-up book in say ten or twenty years. Who knows where we’ll both be then?

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Identical Strangers delves into the age-old question of nature versus nurture. What conclusions does the book draw, if any? Has it changed the way you view the issue?

2. Paula and Elyse discuss the ways in which twins receive special attention in our society. Do you think twins have a special relationship? Why or why not would you want to be a twin?

3. Viola Bernard felt certain that twins would develop better senses of identity if they were raised separately. Even if you don’t agree with her, do you think there is any validity to her claim?

4. “Thank God she is not my carbon copy” (p. 51). When they first meet as adults, Paula and Elyse are both relieved that they are not exactly identical in appearance or personality. How do you think you would react meeting your double for the first time?

5. Paula and Elyse each deal with the news of discovering she has an identical twin differently. How do you think you would react if you were in their situation?

6. “Once we separate today, I worry that my twin will vanish again” (p. 68), Paula writes after their first meeting. Soon after, she writes “I sometimes wish that [Elyse] hadn’t found me” (p. 128). Can you understand Paula’s ambivalence about her relationship with Elyse?

7. “I would like a better word to describe my relationship to Leda,” writes Elyse. “Suddenly it occurs to me that Leda is not my mother, she is our mother” (p. 244). Do you think there is an adequate word to describe the sisters’ relationship to Leda?

8. Mr. Witt seems reluctant to meet with Paula and Elyse. Can you understand his hesitance? Do you consider him to be their “uncle”?

9. Has Identical Strangers changed your views on adoption? If so, how?

10. Were you surprised by how well Paula and Elyse’s families got along when they met? How do you imagine you’d react if you found out your adopted child was a twin? What action would you take, if any?

11. Project into the future. How do you think Paula and Elyse’s relationship will develop after the story ends?


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