'I Was in a Womb With Someone Else'

One day, a New York woman picked up the phone, only to be told she had a twin sister, separated from her at birth. Their fraught encounter gave rise to a close relationship - and a jointly written book.

One winter morning four years ago, Paula Bernstein, a free-lance journalist and mother of one, sat in her home in Brooklyn, New York, where she wrote film-industry articles for publications such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. The telephone rang and a woman introduced herself as a representative of the Louise Wise adoption agency, which had arranged Bernstein's adoption 35 years before, when she was just a few months old.

"I hate to dump this on you," said the woman, "but you've got a twin."

The twin sister, it turned out, is Elyse Schein, whose parents also adopted her from the agency, which specialized in the adoption of Jewish children by Jewish families. Neither adoptive family knew that their new baby daughter had a twin.

The adult twins met and discovered that even though one lived in Paris and the other in New York, and they also grew up quite a distance from one another (Schein's family moved to Oklahoma when she was very young), both worked in cinema: one as a writer, the other as a filmmaker. They also share the same favorite film - "Wings of Desire," directed by Wim Wenders. The two have other common interests and tastes. Both have suffered from the same health problems, and even share unique habits.

Their meeting was unsettling. Both had to cope, for the first time, and ever since, with the new mirror image facing them. As naturally inquisitive women, they began investigating their complicated past, which until then had not interested them. They both related to their adoptive parents like real parents, but since her mother had died when she was only 6, Schein, at 33 - the age her mother was when she died - decided to look into her past. Two years passed until she heard about her twin.

Inquiries made by the sisters since that first meeting revealed that the decision to separate them was adopted according to a policy set by psychiatrist Viola Bernard, who figured it would be better for twins to grow up separately, for their own benefit. In addition, they were part of a study conducted on twins in the 1960s, to determine which was stronger in molding human personality: nature or nurture. All of this is related in the twins' book, "Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited," published two months ago by Random House; it has already been translated into French, Chinese and Dutch, but not yet into Hebrew.

The book is written from the point of view of each of the twins, who tell their story together, and includes many studies on twins. The book addresses the most difficult issues raised by their meeting, and recounts their family history - particularly that of their biological mother, whom they call "our mother," as opposed to "my mother," for the adoptive mothers.

"It would have been logical to tell the story from two perspectives, because there is no doubt that there was a dichotomy here. I searched and she was found," says Schein in a joint telephone conversation this week with her and Bernstein, who now live near one another in Brooklyn. The twin who was found often writes about her mixed emotions concerning the new identity that landed on her, and the new entity in her life.

Once, years before their encounter, Bernstein wrote an article in The New York Times, explaining why she did not want to search for her biological family. "The moment you find someone, you cannot unfind him," she wrote. At the twins' first emotionally charged meeting, in Paris, Bernstein confessed to Schein that she was not sure she wanted to develop a connection with her.

The idea of writing the book cropped up soon after their relationship began. "I always write during significant periods in my life," explains Bernstein. "I wrote a journal the year I spent in Israel, on a student exchange program at Tel Aviv University" - evidently Schein had also spent a year in Israel - "and of course I began writing down what has happened since Elyse first approached me.

"We both decided not to do anything - like looking for our biological mother - just to satisfy the readers' curiosity," says Schein, "but in the end we decided to look for her, for us."

The book is "brutally honest," by Schein's definition. "This was essential," she explains. "Even when I did not agree with what [Bernstein] wrote, I never censored her or myself. Sometimes I would send her a chapter I had written, with real trepidation. I was even afraid of what she would say about the quality of my writing."

Bernstein went to a more prestigious university, started a family (she is happily married and has two daughters) and has an excellent relationship with her family. She also has steady work.

Schein's relationship with her father's second wife was not good over the years. Her older brother (both twins have an adopted older brother three years their senior) is not a healthy person. She writes in the book that sometimes she gets the feeling the sisters are being monitored - even her own twin is monitoring - to see which of the two did better with her DNA. "A twin is like an alternative version of yourself. Anyway, I think that we have improved in accepting the other. We understand that it is possible for each to live her life, even if her twin would not have made the same decisions."

"I was just thinking the same things," says Bernstein. "We learned to respect the differences, even if there are still tensions."

Bernstein says she has already passed the stage of holding a grudge against Schein for finding her: "It is hard to get into the mind-set I had back then. Not long ago Elyse said to me, 'Do you realize we might never have met?' and I told her no, today it is completely logical that we are a part of one another's lives."

Does the law in the United States not protect adopted children from "invading" relatives?

"What happened in our case," explains Schein, "is that the adoption agency was about to close near the time when I approached them. Even though we could claim foul play, the social worker can always hold that since Paula applied to them years ago, she actually wanted to be found."

35 years lost

In their book, Bernstein and Schein write about the stage at which they wanted to sue the agency (even though they stress that they are "not the suing type"), for separating them for research purposes. The lawyer whom they hired for that purpose looked at them and said he saw two women who succeeded in life, so what was there to compensate?

Schein, for example, writes that she mourns the 35 years she lost. That feeling has not passed: "In French the wording is different than in English - not 'you have a twin,' but 'you are a twin.' This is a key element to my identity. I was in a womb with someone else. From my point of view, that means that at birth I was separated from someone else, in addition to my mother."

Full of twins' stories, the book describes a meeting similar to theirs - how, after two men discovered as adults that they had twins, and an article about them appeared, another man saw the photo of the brothers and realized they were not twins, but triplets, and that he was the third one who had been separated from them. Bernstein and Schein note that nothing so dramatic happened to them following publication of the book.

"On the contrary, our lives settled down," Bernstein comments. "I was afraid of exposure. I thought that everyone would be very judgmental. They would start comparing, saying who was more successful. Fortunately, each of us in her own way apparently arouses sympathy in the book, and the reactions toward us are accordingly."

The studies in the book deal extensively with the issue of nature versus nurture. "Until I met Elyse I thought that genetics didn't mean a thing," says Bernstein, "that only the environment is responsible for how we develop, but since I met her, I think that my identity has a lot to do with nature and nurture. We share a lot of innate characteristics. I think that genetics and education affect one another. Research shows that the environment can affect DNA."

"We do not believe in equations such as genetics + nurture = person," Schein adds. "It stressed me out at first, to think that if each of us had been adopted by the other's family, and we had grown up in opposite families, we would have turned out just like the other. We realize that that could not have happened."

"You know how research studies are," says Bernstein, who while working on the book discovered many studies with totally contradictory findings. "As an anecdote, this is good, and it also sounds logical - when growing up together, each takes the direction that will make her unique."

Both twins suffered from depression. One attempted suicide at some point; the other has been taking Prozac for over a decade. Each had an eating disorder in her late teens. While investigating their lives and the study in which they participated (as infants, after which their participation was halted), they discovered that one of the goals of the research was to see whether mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, from which their biological mother suffered, is hereditary.

"We do not believe that the researchers specifically searched for a mentally ill Jewish woman who was giving her twin daughters up for adoption," says Schein, who, like Bernstein (who says as much in the book) is well aware of the associations that such a study of Jewish twins arouses.

"That was not their main interest," says Bernstein, "but was certainly one of the things about which they were curious, and they used it."

At the end of the book the women learn that their biological mother's name was Leda, which was the name of the woman in Greek mythology who was impregnated by Zeus, in the form of a swan, and gave birth to twins. Their mother's fate, however, was not quite fairy-tale material.

"It was somewhat comforting to discover that she came from 'a good family,'" says Bernstein.

"In a certain sense," concludes Schein, "the book is a testimony of her life."