‘Identical strangers’ to speak in Tenafly
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‘Identical strangers’ to speak in Tenafly

New York resident Paula Bernstein is a Francophile. Editor of her high school yearbook, she went on to study film theory in college. Her favorite film is the 1998 German movie “Wings of Desire.”

New York resident Elyse Schein is a Francophile. Editor of her high school yearbook, she went on to study film theory in college. Her favorite film is the 1998 German movie “Wings of Desire.”

Elyse, left, at age 7 and Paula at age 7.

The two women – identical twins – did not meet until April 2004, when they were 35. Nor did they know the other existed. Their story – which the sisters will tell at the JCC on the Palisades on Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. – reads like fiction.

“If it hadn’t happened to us, we wouldn’t believe it ourselves,” Bernstein told The Jewish Standard.

According to Schein, the two always knew they were adopted. They knew as well that their birth mother had been Jewish. But their lives had taken different arcs – deliberately.

The two were part of a secret experiment on nature-nurture being conducted on twins (and triplets) by Dr. Viola Bernard, a psychiatrist with a close connection to the prestigious, Jewishly connected Louise Wise adoption agency in New York. As part of the study, the siblings were deliberately separated, with adoptive families having no idea that the twins existed.

“It wasn’t illegal,” explained Bernstein, “though it was clearly unethical. No other adoption agency would agree to participate in the study.” The Louise Wise agency has since closed.

As Schein tells the story, at 33 – the same age at which her adoptive mother died – while living in Paris, she decided she wanted to know more about her past.
“I contacted the adoption agency,” she said, and received a certified letter a month or two later. It was the second sentence of that letter that changed her life. After confirming her date of birth, it noted that she was “the younger of twin girls.”

“I was really in shock,” she said. “I used to go around telling my friends, ‘I feel like I’m missing a twin,'” assuming, she said, that others used that same metaphor.

“I’m relieved that my hunch was correct,” she said.

Still, the letter provided no further information. Nor did the social worker say she should call the agency.

“I walked around Paris in a blur for a few months,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘Would she be impossible to find? Would this be a crazy quest?'” Ultimately, she set out for New York.

Elyse, left, at age 11 and Paula at age 10.

“The social worker said she was only surprised I hadn’t called right away,” said Schein, adding that spurred by a desire to “right the wrong,” the social worker agreed to approach Bernstein.

“I got the call April 13, 2004,” said Bernstein, who had never wanted to learn more about her birth family. In fact, the freelance writer had written an essay years earlier saying she was happy with her life and felt no need to dig up the past.

Still – learning that she was a twin and that her sister would be in New York only a few more days before returning to Paris – she agreed to meet her.

“We met two days later,” she said, adding that she was “in shock, but also curious and impatient. I actually thought it might be a hoax.”

But when they came face to face, she said, she saw immediately that it was no hoax.

This was not “an emotional reunion with tears,” said Schein. “When we first met, we patted each other down, like monkeys in a zoo.”

The two were struck immediately by their similarities, such as “facial expressions and gesticulating with our hands,” said Schein. “We’re both articulate and voracious readers.”

“I always believed that family was not about genetic makeup,” said Bernstein, who previously was “adamant” that she had been shaped by her environment. “It’s chilling to find out how significant nature really is.”

Both were troubled by the question of identity, said Schein, now a filmmaker. “If we had been raised by each other’s parents, would we have been the other? Were our identities interchangeable?”

Fortunately, they concluded, while they are, in Bernstein’s words, “variations on a theme,” they are different people.

“Identity is not as simple as a mathematical equation,” said Schein. “It’s not either/or” when it comes to nature/nurture, agreed Bernstein. “There’s an interplay. You may be born with certain interests, but what we do is up to us.”

Since both women are writers, it seemed natural that they should write about this new development in their lives, said Bernstein, noting that after additional visits and “hundreds of e-mails” the two chronicled their remarkable story in the 2007 book “Identical Strangers” (Random House), now available as a trade paperback.

The writing developed “organically,” said Schein. “Sharing our stories allowed us to bridge the gaps in our lives.”

“It was a way both to cope and communicate with one another,” said Bernstein, calling the writing process “cathartic. We needed to make sense of what was happening.”

“We were writing the book as we lived it,” she said, joking that “we didn’t know how it would end.”

Calling the book “part dual memoir, part detective story,” Bernstein said the two years spent writing the book were “an intensive two years,” during which she had her second daughter.

“We try to put readers into our shoes by re-enacting what happened,” she said, noting that the two writers/sisters “came at it from two different perspectives. The format of the book reflects that, telling two very different stories. She was looking, and I was the one who was found. We were at different places in our lives. She was single and living in Paris and I was settled with a husband a child and did not want to search.”

Bernstein said she is not angry at those who colluded in the experiment, whose results have been sealed at Yale University, not to be opened until 2066.

“I don’t think they were evil,” she said, “only misguided and wrongheaded. It’s hard to be angry, but we should have been together,” she said, noting that she was especially surprised that it should have been a Jewish adoption agency that took part in the experiment, given the memory of the genetic selection that took place during the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, noted Schein, in the aftermath of these revelations, “Jewish groups have been very supportive of us. They were horrified to learn that this was a Jewish agency, trusted in the community.”

Schein said that she and Bernstein were ultimately able to confront psychiatrist Dr. Peter Neubauer, co-founder of the study, but that “he showed no remorse.”

Identical Strangers“It was disturbing,” she said. “We were both very upset that he had played puppet master, with no consideration for the children’s well-being.” In all, 13 individuals were involved in the study, five sets of twins and one set of triplets.

The two sisters agree that it’s now hard to think of a future without the other. Then again, they point out, it would have been hard to imagine a life with the other just a few years ago.

“We don’t know what life will bring,” said Bernstein. “We’re growing into being sisters.”

Schein points out, however, that as close as the two have become, “we’re still a bit guarded and respect each other’s boundaries.”

“Initially, our link was biological but we were not sisters,” said Schein. “Now we have ‘adopted’ each other.”

For further information, call (201) 569-7900.

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