Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein knew they were adopted, but not the rest of the story—they were identical twins, separated at birth, subjects of a study their families knew nothing about. While many reunited-twin stories emphasize harmony, this one dwells as much on the fraught bond between Elyse, a Paris bohemian who lost her adoptive mother at the age of 6, and Paula, a Park Slope mom with a comparatively idyllic childhood. The two, now 39, found parallels: Both studied film, battled depression, and shared mannerisms like air-typing. But as their new book, Identical Strangers (Random House), recounts, their real intimacy grew when they united to search for their troubling origins.
Elyse, how did you find Paula?
Elyse: I had never searched, because I felt that I was my own invention—and that my family, for better or worse, was my family. But when I reached my thirties, the age my adoptive mother was when she died, I said it’s now or never.
Paula: I had just moved to Brooklyn, and when I walked in the door, I saw that Louise Wise Services was calling—a name I knew because I’d held the adoption agency in high regard. The woman asked if I wanted more information. And I said, “I’m not sure!” As open as my parents were, I didn’t want to hurt them. I didn’t want to shake things up. Once you find someone, you can’t unfind them.
And this was a radical situation: You’d been lied to by the agency.
P: Right. I mean, Louise Wise was a respected New York agency that specialized in placing Jewish children with Jewish families. Viola Bernard was the chief psychiatric counsel, and she must have convinced herself what she was doing was right. But she had a completely off-the-wall theory that twins are better off raised separately.
E: At the time, this wasn’t common practice. When the agency’s director tried to study twins from other agencies, they refused.
But while your biological mother’s history—I don’t want to spoil it here—was tragic, and your own relationship rocky at times, there must also be the sheer coolness of finding parallels.
E: Well, we did find some odd similarities. We like the same obscure Godard film. We both saved our Alice in Wonderland dolls in their decanters.
P: Ballerina in a bottle, basically.
E: But there were dark elements: What would it be like to confront an alternate version of you?
P: In the beginning, we saw each other’s mannerisms as more intense, sometimes more irritating, than our own. At times, it’s like, I already know what you’re going to say, why even talk—
E: But on the flip side, sometimes we don’t know. And then it’s like, How could you not understand? You should read my mind!
Your families were a lot less analytical. Why do you think that is?
P: Part of it is generational. And part of it is that Elyse and I are similar. We tend to analyze, if not overanalyze. We’re more intellectual than our families, more angst-ridden and intense.
What was the worst moment?
P: [Pause] It was after I visited Elyse in Paris, when I confessed I’d considered not being in the relationship.
E: It was hard for me to understand. We realized we could never see eye to eye. I could never put myself in Paula’s shoes entirely and vice versa.
How has the experience changed your feelings about adoption?
P: We’re still very pro-adoption. But I think I had an overly romanticized view. You’re not adopting a blank slate.
Do you think that quality of self-consciousness, of comparison, will be exacerbated by the book coming out?
E: I think it’s the opposite. The book forced us to be honest.
P: Although, no doubt, some people will say, “You’re more x! You’re more y!” People do want to label you—
E: And nobody likes to be in a box.