Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Identical Strangers

That Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein had been adopted as infants was a given.  Both were thankful to have been raised by loving adoptive parents and, at age 35, each had carved out a nice life of her own.  Paula, a freelance writer, lived with her husband and young daughter in New York City, and Elyse, a film director, considered Paris to be her home.  What neither woman knew was that they are identical twins who had been adopted out, when they were just a few months old, to separate families.
All that would change on the day Elyse contacted adoption agency Louise Wise Services to request information about her birth mother.  In addition to the minimal details about her mother’s background the agency was willing to share with her, Elyse was told that she had an identical twin sister.  And the search for her twin sister, which turned out to be surprisingly easy, was on.  Sooner than Elyse dared imagine, the two were sitting across from each in a New York restaurant on what, for both women, had the feel of a “first date.”  
Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited focuses on the women’s sometimes reluctant search for their birth mother, whom they learn was an exceptionally bright young Jewish woman who suffered severe schizophrenia at the time of their birth.  They also learn that locating their birth father will be impossible because when they were born their mother was unable to name him.  But despite being fearful of what they might learn about their mother’s mental illness, both sisters already having suffered varying degrees of depression, they are determined to identify her.
Identical Strangers, however, is about much more than the search for a birth mother – that particular book has been written often enough already.  Elyse and Paula, in alternating first-person chapters, instead offer a frank account of what it is like for each of them to suddenly face the identical twin neither ever suspected of existing.  One sister is enthusiastic about their reunion and future together but the other sometimes finds herself wishing she could have her old life back, the one into which she did not suddenly have to figure out how to squeeze in a new sister.  The two will exchange frank and blunt comments, and often have their feelings hurt, as they struggle to come to terms with their new relationship. Ultimately binding the sisters together, however, is their shared determination to learn why they were separated by the adoption agency instead of being offered to a family able to keep them together.  Only after many months of determined effort, do they finally learn the shocking truth about Louise Wise Services and the decision that forever changed their lives - along with the lives of the other twins (and one set of triplets) separated by the agency for the same reason.
Along the way, one learns much about the scientific differences between identical twins, fraternal twins and other siblings as the age old question of “nature vs. nurture” is explored.  Also included are numerous stories about the often amazing similarities shared by other twins and triplets who only found each other as adults.  Identical Strangers is another of those instances that remind us that real life can be as fascinating as the best fiction.
Rated at: 4.0

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