It’s strange enough to find out as an adult that you are adopted. It’s even weirder to discover you’re not as unique as you thought you were. Hey, meet your identical twin.
That’s the strange and shocking scenario presented in Identical Strangers, a memoir written by identical twin sisters and adoptees Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein.
I read this book while on vacation near Cancun, Mexico with my family. (My recipe for a perfect vacation? Put me on a beach, add a good book with a couple of mojitos, and I’m happy.)
Paula and Elyse didn’t grow up together the way sisters normally do. They were raised by different sets of adoptive parents. Early on, they knew they were adopted but they had no clue about their “twinship” until they were in their 30s. Whoa! I cannot imagine how strange it would be to discover as an adult that I had an identical twin sister. It was weird enough to find out the truth about my adoption as a woman well into my 30s. That’s when I learned that my sister, Melissa, and I had been adopted. Of course, this family “secret” was a secret only to Melissa and me. Our cousins, aunts, uncles, God knows who else, all knew about our adoptions. Ah, the joy of being a late discovery adoptee.
Paula and Elyse are late discovery twins. They discovered they were separated as infants for a secret and misguided study on separated twins. Speaking to each other on the phone for the first time, the women realize their voices are practically identical. The sisters both suffered nearly fatal reactions to sulfa drugs. They also suffered from depression. Meeting in person for the first time, Elyse and Paula realized they shared the same mannerisms and even liked the same shade of lipstick.
Yet Paula and Elyse live very different lives. Paula is married, has a little girl and lives in Brooklyn. Elyse, who is single, lives a bohemian lifestyle in Paris.
As an adult, how do you fit a brand new twin sister into your life? Paula has reservations about a relationship with Elyse. Still, they forge a bond. They laugh, they cry, they get on each other’s nerves, just like sisters do. Their many uncanny similarities, shared DNA and love bring the women together.
Elyse and Paula embark on a search for their biological parents. Hey, I can relate to the excitement and pain that goes along with the search for kin. Of course their search leads the sisters to painful realities. Among other things, they learn that their mother, Leda, tried to commit suicide when she was more than 5 months pregnant with them. Like me, Paula and Elyse never got a chance to meet their birth mother, who was long gone by the time they found out about her.
When she discovers Leda is deceased, Paula is relieved.
“A bittersweet mix of relief and sadness sweeps over me,” Paula wrote. “There will be no emotional reunion, no pressure to find a place for our birth mother in my life.”
I know many adoptees wish for nothing less than a happy reunion with their natural mothers. I’m like Paula. I breathed a sigh of relief when I found out Lillian was deceased. Though I still find it fascinating to learn things about Lillian’s life, and would have liked to have met her, I have never had a huge desire for a relationship with the mother who was absent from my childhood.
I remember how much it hurt to find out the woman who brought me into the world battled with demons in her head. Lillian suffered from bipolar disorder. Leda, who suffered from schizophrenia, was hospitalized several times for emotional problems.
Adoption searches force us to face painful truths. Paula and Elyse suffered when they learned the truth about Leda, but their search brought them even closer to each other. Adoptees in search of happy reunions will enjoy this story.