Identical twins reunited after 35 years
By Alex Spillius in Washington Last Updated: 1:10am BST 27/10/2007
Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein lived very similar lives. They were
both born in New York, edited their high school newspapers and studied
film at university. And both were adopted in 1968.
Paula Bernstein, left, and her twin Elyse Schein
It was only at the age of 35 that they discovered each other and just
how similar they were: identical twins who had been separated as
infants in a bizarre social experiment.
It came to light when Elyse, who had been living in Paris, had decided
to seek her birth mother. She was told that the mother was not
interested in meeting her, but was then informed that she had an
identical twin, Paula.
After not knowing her sister for three decades, with help from social
workers she was able to find her within days.
The two women met for the first time three years ago at a café for
lunch and talked until the late evening.
"We had 35 years to catch up on," said Paula. "How do you start asking
somebody, 'What have you been up to since we shared a womb together?'
Where do you start?"
On that first day Elyse did not reveal the secret she had discovered
during her research. But soon afterwards she told Paula that they had
been deliberately separated at birth and were the subjects of a unique
study on nurture versus nature, a debate that has enthralled
scientists for generations.
The real purpose of the experiment was hidden from their adoptive
parents, who were vaguely told that the children were part of an
Elyse, age 11 (left) and Paula, age 10
"They neglected to tell them the key element of the study, which is
that it was about child development among twins raised in different
homes," Paula told America's National Public Radio.
"It was like something out of a movie, I broke down in tears," she
said, recalling when Elyse told her about the study.
"Nature intended for us to be raised together, so I think it was a
crime we were separated," added Elyse.
Overcoming the turmoil in their emotions, the sisters, who both now
live in Brooklyn and are both writers, decided to combine forces and
write a book about their childhoods and the intense experience of
discovering an identical twin in their mid-30s.
"Imagine a slightly different version of you walks across the room,
looks you in the eye and says 'hello' in your voice..." they write in
Identical Strangers, published this week in the US.
"Looking at this person, you are able to gaze into your own eyes and
see yourself from the outside. This identical individual has the exact
same DNA and is essentially your clone. We don't have to imagine."
advertisementThey also tackled the scientist behind the experiment
that changed their lives, Peter Neubauer, an internationally renowned
At first he refused to speak but he eventually agreed to meet them as
long as their conversation wasn't recorded. They allege he showed no
remorse and offered no apology.
The twins found that he was willingly aided by the Louise Wise
adoption agency that handled both their adoptions.
Viola Bernard, a child psychologist and consultant to the agency, had
firmly believed that twins should be raised separately to improve
their psychological development, and that dressing and treating them
the same retarded their minds.
Separating twins at birth was ended in the state of New York in 1980,
a year after the study ended.
Aware that his research would be criticised, Mr Neubauer reportedly
locked the study in an archive at Yale University, not to be opened
until 2066. "It's kind of disturbing to think that all this material
about us is in some filing cabinet somewhere," Paula said.
The sisters believe that in the great conundrum that justified their
separation, nature is more important than nurture.
"Twins really do force us to question what is it that makes each of us
who we are. Since meeting Elyse, it is undeniable that genetics play a
huge role - probably more than 50 per cent," said Paula.
"It's not just our taste in music or books; it goes beyond that. In
her, I see the same basic personality. And yet, eventually we had to
realise that we're different people with different life histories."
Both veer between regret at the years lost and joy at discovering each
"That life never happened. And it is sad, that as close as we are now,
there is no way we can ever compensate for those 35 years," Paula
Elyse added: "It is hard to see where we are going to go. It's really
uncharted territory. But I really love Paula and I can't imagine my
life without her."