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?