Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited [NOOK Book]

Overview

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. When Elyse contacted her adoption agency, she was not prepared for the shocking, life-changing news she received: She had an identical twin sister. Elyse was then hit with another bombshell: she and her sister had been separated as infants, and for a time, had been part of a secret study on ...
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Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited

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Overview

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. When Elyse contacted her adoption agency, she was not prepared for the shocking, life-changing news she received: She had an identical twin sister. Elyse was then hit with another bombshell: she and her sister had been separated as infants, and for a time, had been 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 the 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 and take their tentative first steps from strangers to sisters, Paula and Elyse are also left with haunting questions surrounding their origins and their separation. They learn that the study was conducted by a pair of influential psychiatrists associated with a prestigious adoption agency. As they investigate their birth mother’s past, Paula and Elyse move closer toward solving the puzzle of their lives.

In alternating voices, Paula and Elyse write with emotional honesty about the immediate intimacy they share as twins and the wide chasm that divides them as two complete strangers. Interweaving eye-opening studies and statistics on twin science into their narrative, they offer an intelligent and heartfelt glimpse into human nature.

Identical Strangers is the amazing story of two women coming to terms with the strange and unbelievable hand fate has dealt them, an account that broadens the definition of family and provides insight into our own DNA and the singularly exceptional imprint it leaves on our lives.

Imagine a slightly different version of you walks across the room, looks you in the eye and says “hello” in your voice. You discover that she has the same birthday, the same allergies, the same tics, and the same way of laughing. 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 as you and is essentially your clone.
We don’t have to imagine.

–from Identical Strangers

"A transfixing memoir."--Publishers Weekly
"Poignant."--Reader's Digest
"Absorbing."--Wired
"Fascinating . . . An intelligent exploration of how identity intersects with bloodlines. A must-read for anybody interested in what it means to be a family."--Bust


From the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588366443
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/2/2007
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 308,170
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

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.

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.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an 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.
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Foreword

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 Paulaand 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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Reading Group Guide

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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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2008

    Couldn't put it down

    I could not stop reading this book -- devoured it in a weekend. This is not just an analysis of the twin relationship or of adoption practice. Nor is it a typical narrative. It is a riveting personal story, like a diary, honestly told by two people suddenly faced with a stunningly unique challenge to their notions of what it means to be 'me.' The personal nature of the storytelling is what gripped me -- at times a bit ragged, at times emotionally inconsistent, and with twists and turns no novelist would dare invent. It's very real, and I often found myself wishing i could just go have coffee with Paula and Elyse to hear their latest. They are remarkably introspective people who question rather than just accept.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2007

    Touching and Fascinating

    I was happily surprised by not only the warmth and charm of the story and writing but also the educational value. They have definitely done their homework about twins- and I was delighted not only to come out having read a fascinating story but also having learned a lot about the lives of twins. Elyse and Paula's made it easy to understand what they must have been feeling throughout incredible and unlikely circumstances and held nothing back to help us understand the roller coaster events of the reunion

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 9, 2011

    a must read!!

    i enjoyed this from start to finish. such a heart felt story! what an amazing journey!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2008

    Then There Were Two

    Identical Strangers was a Christmas gift from my own identical twin, with whom I share an uncommonly close bond ... and a lifetime of mistaken identity. Thus, I absorbed this book with emotional incongruity. While I deplore sibling-separation, and though I mourn the authors' sisterless childhoods and lost early closeness, I see a compensating consolation in each being raised as her own person in her own defined space. The book's alternating-author format propelled me to its poignant finale in one sitting. In addition to the story itself, many aspects of Elyse's and Paula's personalities interested me, such as their sleuthing chutzpah, their initiative, persistence, varying moods, and differing reactions. I also appreciated the book's related genetic facts and information. To connect with this story, one needn't be an adoptee, a twin, or even a sibling. There's infinite appeal in its universal secondary theme: Identity. The precise mix of biology, environment, timing and all other factors that make each individual profoundly unique, even those sharing identical DNA, remains as complex as it is intriguing.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2008

    fabulous story

    As someone who has helped adoptees find their biological parents, is the wife of an adoptee and is the author of a number of books about ethics, I had a special interest in this book. And it met with all my (high) expectations. In short, it was terrific -- well-written, engaging and thought-provoking. The authors deal with all sides of several important issues, from the emotional repercussions and rewards of finding one's biological roots and relatives to the ethical issues of medical research and perspective, especially the issue of separting twins (which would include separating other siblings, too). Whether you agree with the authors or not on these issues, their book is a fabulous springboard for discussion in book clubs, classroom settings and among friends and relatives. For anyone considering doing a similar search or helping someone search for their roots, it is a good resource. In short, I highly recommend reading it and can't wait to see the movie!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2008

    Nature vs. nurture

    I found this book very interesting and liked the alternating chapters by the two authors on the audio version. In addition to describing the emotions of the identical twins separated during infancy and reunited at age 35, scientific information on multiple births is presented. The ethics of the prestigious New York adoption agency that made the decision to separate twins and triplets is examined. The sisters' detective work in discovering their origins is also detailed.

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    Posted January 12, 2011

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