What is it that makes us who we really are: our life experiences or our DNA? Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein were both born in New York City. Both women were adopted as infants and raised by loving families. They met for the first time when they were 35 years old and found they were "identical strangers."
Unknowingly, Bernstein and Schein had been part of a secret research project in the 1960s and '70s that separated identical twins as infants and followed their development in a one-of-a-kind experiment to assess the influence of nature vs. nurture in child development.
Now, the twins, authors of a new memoir called Identical Strangers, are trying to uncover the truth about the study.
'I Have a Twin'
In 2004, Paula Bernstein received a phone call from an employee of Louise Wise Services, the agency where she had been adopted. The message: She had a twin who was looking for her.
The woman told Bernstein her twin's name.
"And I thought, I have a twin, and her name is Elyse Schein," Bernstein says.
Schein, who was living in Paris at the time, had been trying to find information about her birth mother when she learned from the adoption agency that she had a twin sister.
The two women met for the first time at a cafe in New York City — and stayed through lunch and dinner, talking.
"We had 35 years to catch up on. How do you start asking somebody, 'What have you been up to since we shared a womb together?' Where do you start?" Bernstein says.
Separated at Adoption
Soon after the sisters were reunited, Schein told Bernstein what she had found out about why they were separated: They were part of a study on nature vs. nurture. It was the only study of its kind on twins separated from infancy.
Neither parents nor children knew the real subject of the study — or that the children had been separated from their identical twin.
"When the families adopted these children, they were told that their child was already part of an ongoing child study. But of course, they neglected to tell them the key element of the study, which is that it was child development among twins raised in different homes," Bernstein says.
A 'Practically Perfect' Study
Peter Neubauer, a child psychiatrist, and Viola Bernard, a child psychologist and consultant to the Louise Wise agency, headed up the study.
Lawrence Perlman, a research assistant on the study from 1968 to 1969, says Bernard had a strong belief that twins should be raised separately.
"That twins were often dressed the same and treated exactly the same, she felt, interfered with their independent psychological development," Perlman says.
Lawrence Wright is the author of Twins, a book about twin studies.
"Since the beginning of science, twins have offered a unique opportunity to study to what extent nature vs. nurture influences the way we develop, the people that we turn out to be," Wright says.
Wright notes that the Neubauer study differs from all other twin studies in that it followed the twins from infancy.
"From a scientific point of view, it's beautiful. It's practically the perfect study. But this study would never happen today," Wright says.
Finding the True Story
The study ended in 1980, and a year later, the state of New York began requiring adoption agencies to keep siblings together.
At that point, Bernstein says, Neubauer realized that public opinion would be so against the study that he decided not to publish it. The results of the study have been sealed until 2066 and given to an archive at Yale University.
"It's kind of disturbing to think that all this material about us is in some file cabinet somewhere. And really for ourselves, we had to figure out what the true story was," Bernstein says.
The sisters attempted to reach Neubauer, a distinguished and internationally renowned psychiatrist who serves on the board of the Freud Archives. Initially, he refused to speak to them.
No Remorse, No Apology
Eventually, he granted the women an unofficial interview — no taping or videotaping allowed.
Bernstein says she had hoped Neubauer would apologize for separating the twins. Instead, he showed no remorse and offered no apology.
Neubauer has rarely spoken about the study. But in the mid-1990s, he did talk about it with Wright, the author of Twins.
"[Neubauer] insisted that at the time, it was a matter of scientific consensus that twins were better off separated at birth and raised separately," Wright says. "I never found anything in the literature to support that."
The author also says Neubauer was "unapologetic" about the study, even though he admits that the project raised ethical question about whether one has a right to or should separate identical twins.
"It is very difficult to answer. It is for these reasons that these studies don't take place," Neubauer told Wright.
Wright says that no such study will ever be done again — nor should it. But he acknowledges that it would be very interesting to learn what this study has to teach us.
'Different People with Different Life Histories'
As for Bernstein and Schein, getting to know each other has raised its own questions.
"Twins really do force us to question what is it that makes each of us who we are. Since meeting Elyse, it is undeniable that genetics play a huge role — probably more than 50 percent," Bernstein says.
"It's not just our taste in music or books; it goes beyond that. In her, I see the same basic personality. And yet, eventually we had to realize that we're different people with different life histories."
As much as she thinks the researchers did the wrong thing by separating the twins, Bernstein says she can't imagine a life growing up with her twin sister.
"That life never happened. And it is sad, that as close as we are now, there is no way we can ever compensate for those 35 years," Bernstein says.
"With me and Paula, it is hard to see where we are going to go. It's really uncharted territory," Schein says. "But I really love her and I can't imagine my life without her."
Neubauer declined to be interviewed for this story. Of the 13 children involved in his study, three sets of twins and one set of triplets have discovered one another. The other four subjects of the study still do not know they have identical twins.
- Special Bond: Identical and Simpatico
- Diane Arbus' Identical Twins, Present at the Creation
- 'Identical Strangers'
- Paula Bernstein
- Elyse Schein
- Radio Diaries
- Strangers Become Sisters as Twins Reunite
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
What is it that makes us who we really are? How much do our life experiences play in determining our identity? How much does our DNA count?
Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein were both born in New York City. Both women were adopted as infants. They met for the first time when they were 35. And they found that they were identical strangers.
Their story comes to us from producer Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. We hear them tell it in their words.
Ms. PAULA BERNSTEIN: My name is Paula Bernstein. I grew up in the, you know, picture-perfect childhood in suburban Westchester with very happily married parents. I got married. We had our first child. And really, we were kind of in a nesting stage of our life.
(Soundbite of music)
And then, it was a spring afternoon. I was just rushing in the apartment with my daughter. And I walk in the door and the phone is ringing. And I looked at caller ID and it said Louise Wise Services. And I had always known the name of the agency where I was adopted. And, you know, my heart kind of started to beat quickly. And I thought, why would they be calling me after all these years?
And a woman on the other end of the line confirmed that I was in fact Paula Bernstein and I was adopted from Louise Wise. And then she said, well, I've got some news for you. I thought I should tell you in case you were walking down Fifth Avenue and ran into someone who looks exactly like you do.
And then she said, you've got a twin who's looking for you. And she, at that point, said, I hope I did the right thing in telling you. Are you prepared to hear your twin's name? And I said, yes. And she told me her name. And I thought, I have a twin and her name is Elyse Schein.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ELYSE SCHEIN (Paula Bernstein's Twin): My name is Elyse Schein. I was living in Paris, and Paula was in New York. So, you know, I head off to New York. And we arranged to meet at a nearby cafe in the East Village.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: I was very nervous about what I was wearing, you know? How do you dress to meet your identical twin for the first time?
Ms. SCHEIN: Well, I was sitting on the terrace. It was a gorgeous spring day. And I was wearing sunglasses and, you know, nervously chain-smoking. And then, you know, suddenly, she saw me.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: I came over and said, Elyse? And she got up and we kind of gingerly patted each other, which was funny. There was no tearful hug.
Ms. SCHEIN: And then, we began to inspect each other.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: That was like, you know, monkeys in a zoo, that we were kind of inspecting each other's bodies. And I remember I said, do you have chubby knees? And I kind of glanced down below the hem of her skirt and saw that her knees were quite cute. And I always thought of mine as kind of chubby. So I thought, but why did she get the cute knees?
Ms. SCHEIN: You know, it's just a natural instinct for us to start comparing.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: You know, we had 35 years to catch up on. How do you start asking somebody, you know, what have you been up to since we shared a womb together? You know, where do you start?
Very soon after Elyse and I reunited, I said, do you know why we were separated? And she said, well, the woman at the agency said we were separated for a study nature versus nurture.
Ms. SCHEIN: The only study of its kind on separated twins from infancy.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: When the families adopted these children, they were told that their child was already part of an ongoing child study. But, of course, they neglected to tell them the key element of the study, which is that it was child development among twins raised in different homes.
Dr. LAWRENCE PERLMAN (Research Assistant, Study of Twins Reared Apart): My name is Lawrence Perlman. And in 1968 to '69, I was a research assistant on Dr. Peter Neubauer's study of twins reared apart. Apparently, Viola Bernard, who was a very prominent child psychiatrist and a consultant to Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency, had a really strong belief that twins should be raised separately. This idea that twins were often dressed the same and kind of treated exactly the same, she felt interfered with their independent psychological development.
So she had mentioned this to Peter Neubauer who was a very prominent child psychiatrist. And he said, oh, there's a great opportunity to do a research study, and that's how the study was born. And Paula and Elyse were newborns, so I hadn't seen them in their foster care. So at that time, they were called Marion and Jean, which I guess were the names that their mother had given them. And this was some notes of the visit that I did when Paula and Elyse were 28 days old.
Jean tends to be more active than Marion, wakes sooner, cries more lustily and persistently, and is less easily diverted.
Ms. SCHEIN: Cries more lustily and persistently, and is less easily diverted.
Dr. PERLMAN: They seem advanced for their age.
Ms. SCHEIN: They seem advanced for their age. They eat heartily and are ready to take solid foods, sleep soundly and can even be moved about and taken outside without disturbing their sleep.
It's hard to look at this and realize that I was this foster child, who, for the first five months of my life, really lived with my twin sister.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT (Author, "Twins: And What They Tell Us About Who We Are"): Since the beginning of science, twins have offered a unique opportunity to study to what extent nature versus nurture influences the way we develop, like people that we turn out to be.
My name is Lawrence Wright. And a few years ago, I wrote a book about twin studies, it was called "Twins." Every other twin study that I'm aware of, especially of identical twins who had been separated at birth, is retrospective. Usually, the twins are discovered, you know, oftentimes in the middle of their lives.
The Neubauer study differs from all other twin studies in that it looked at the twins at the beginning of their lives. They were filmed as they were struggling to their feet the first time. They were filmed as they went out on a bicycle for the first time. Their intelligence was assessed, their personality. All of these things were measured. And no one, neither the twins nor their adoptive parents, realized that they were adopting identical twins separated from each other. From a scientific point of view, it's beautiful. It's practically the perfect study. But this study would never happen today.
Ms. SCHEIN: So the study ended in 1980. And then a year later, New York State began requiring adoption agencies to keep siblings together.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: And at that point, they realized public opinion would be so against them, that they wouldn't dare publish the study. It's kind of disturbing to think that all this material about us is, you know, in some file cabinet somewhere. And really for ourselves, we had to figure out what the true story was.
Ms. SCHEIN: So then we immediately attempted to reach Dr. Neubauer and called him. And he refused to speak with us initially.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: As time passed, he realized that we were persistent enough that we were not going away. And he did grant us kind of an unofficial interview at his house. I think what we wanted was for him to say, at that time, we genuinely thought this was the best thing to do, I'm sorry if we seem to have not anticipated what might happen in separating the twins. And, well, he showed no ounce of remorse and certainly offered no apology.
I think we really had created in our mind this idea that we were meeting Dr. Frankenstein. And, in fact, he was rather charming. You know, I almost felt like he was this doting uncle. And by the end he said, well, you have to come back next time for some Viennese pastries.
Mr. WRIGHT: Dr. Peter Neubauer is not only a very distinguished psychiatrist; he is also on the board of the Freud Archives. He's internationally renowned in his field. And yet, I think, very few people who know Dr. Neubauer are aware of his study. He has rarely spoken to anyone about those studies.
(Soundbite of recorded interview)
Dr. PETER NEUBAUER (Child Psychiatrist): The study was only based on a small number of identical twins separated at birth.
Mr. WRIGHT: I interviewed Dr. Neubauer and I recorded those conversations.
(Soundbite of recorded interview)
How many twins are aware that they're twins and how many are not?
Dr. NEUBAUER: For many, many reasons, I don't want to talk about that.
Mr. WRIGHT: Still, I'm wondering - let me try to put it in more concrete terms. If you were to take one twin out of family A and change places with his co-twin in family B, would he be essentially the same person?
Dr. NEUBAUER: No, that's exactly the point.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah.
Dr. NEUBAUER: I'll tell you what we have found in each of the area.
Mr. WRIGHT: Ok. Go ahead.
Dr. NEUBAUER: A very, very high degree of concordance in all the areas. If you can support a human being fully, then they can become who they really are. And if you are interfering with this, naturally, you'll never know who they really could have been.
Mr. WRIGHT: This does seem like such a significant study.
Dr. NEUBAUER: Yes.
WRIGHT: Have there been ethical questions raised about this study?
Dr. NEUBAUER: Yeah. There have been questions raised by a number of people.
RICHMAN: He was unapologetic about the study. He insisted that at the time it was a matter of scientific consensus that twins are better off being separated at birth and raised separately. I never found anything in literature to support that.
(Soundbite of recorded interview)
Dr. NEUBAUER: Look, I hate to run to another meeting.
WRIGHT: Okay. Thanks again for your time.
Dr. NEUBAUER: Okay. Bye-bye.
RICHMAN: You know, no such study will ever be done again, nor should it be. But it would be very interesting to learn what this study has to teach us.
Ms. SCHEIN: It's kind of jarring and thrilling to see a carbon copy of the same person, partially because twins really do force us to question what is it that makes each of us who we are.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: Since meeting Elyse, it's undeniable that genetics play a huge role. You know, it's not just our taste in music or books, you know? It goes beyond that. In her, I see the same basic personality.
Ms. SCHEIN: Certainly, we've made very different life choices. I mean, she's married and has children. And I've been travelling a lot of and, you know, I'm still single.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: You know, it's not as if one of us led the true life, you know, the true outcome of this particular DNA combination.
Ms. SCHEIN: You know, if I were raised by Paula's parents and she were raised by my parents, would I be her? Would she be me? And I think the answer we've decided is no.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: Elyse, when we first met, would talk often about if we had grown up together. And she was frustrated by my inability to imagine a shared life would've been like. Part of me, I think, felt protective of my old life, you know, as much as I think they did the wrong thing. They should not have separated us. We should have grown up together. And yet, I can't go back and imagine my life growing up with Elyse. That life never happened. And it is sad that as close as we are now, there's no way we can ever compensate for those 35 years.
Ms. SCHEIN: Me and Paula, it's hard to see where we're going to go. It's really uncharted territory. But I really love her and I can't imagine my life without her.
SIEGEL: Dr. Peter Neubauer declined to be interviewed for this story. Of the 13 children involved in his study, three sets of twins and one set of triplets have discovered their siblings. There are still four people who don't know that they have an identical twin.
Our story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries with help from Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes. Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein's book is called "Identical Strangers." An excerpt and photos are at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.