book review :: identical strangers

I heard about this book on NPR. Shortly thereafter I managed to get my hands on a copy, but then I forgot about it. A couple of days ago I found it and read it in about three sittings. The story is mind boggling.

What would it be like to learn that you had a sibling when you were 30-something years old. What if you were told she was your twin, and identical? And if all that weren't enough, what if you then found each other and learned that you were part of a study? Can you even imagine?

But this is what happened. In fact there were several sets of multiples born in the late 60's and adopted through this agency in New York that had been separated in order to study them.

In this case Elyse decided to request information about her birth mother. In doing so she learned that she was an identical twin. Because Paula, her twin, had requested non-identifying information several years previous, the adoption agency was able to contact Paula and inform her of this news. The two were reunited shortly thereafter.

In addition to looking alike, they had much in common. Everything from their chosen professions to being allergic to the same medication. They made identical gestures with their hands, liked the same movies, and even traveled to some of the same places. Still, in the back of their minds each had some realization that despite all these similarities, they were strangers.

The women learned that the agency where they had been adopted decided it was best to separate twins. They first, however, had them placed in foster care for the first few months of their lives so that they could be studied. As best as they can tell, they were kept separate during their stay in foster care, although they were placed with the same caregiver.

They tell their story of how they each learned about the other and what happened since by taking turns sharing the narrative. It is interesting to glimpse each woman's perspective of the same events. It is just another way to reiterate how they are alike, and yet not the same.

In the course of their searching for answers, they learned that the data for the study was donated to Yale University and is sealed until 2066. They will be 98-years old. They made an attempt to have the records opened, but were unsuccessful.

Their story will make you think about everything from how much of our behavior is encoded in our DNA to what it means to be family. It will also make you think about what information should be disclosed to families adopting children. And of course, how far is too far to go in the name of science and research.

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10 Responses to book review :: identical strangers

  1. Melanie says:

    I can't wait to read this!

  2. chris says:

    It really does make you think about things even if it is a relatively quick read. Do you have a copy?

  3. Previous comment was truncated by the system somehow. It did start out with a curse, followed by:
    Separated in order to be studied? Then, on top of that, placed in foster care for months and then each yanked out of foster care, ripping that attachment and that security, to be permanently placed elsewhere? That's a case of emotional brutality. How anyone who has known and bonded with a baby could do that to anyone else's infant child is beyond me.

  4. chris says:

    A lot has changed in adoption and research since the 1960's. It certainly doesn't forgive what happened, but there were different beliefs back then. There is still much debate as to whether parents should be allowed to send twins to separate schools or put them in separate classrooms.The amazing thing is that for the most part both women have faired well despite the separation. In the case of Elyse she lost her adoptive mother when she was six, and her older brother (also adopted from the same agency although not a twin) had severe mental illness. Paula's childhood was not so traumatic, although both girls suffered from depression in college.One of the most bizarre things is that the agency (which was well respected) would ask prospective parents how they felt about children who might have special needs. Most believed it to be rhetorical in nature. But those who indicated they didn't have an issue with it, were usually given children whose parents had a mental illness.

  5. KeyLimeTwist says:

    "how far is too far to go in the name of science and research"I would say this qualifies, but hindsight is 20/20. I do think before the 60's there were inclinations of twins that had been seperated knowing something was missing from their lives. I don't think this study was really on the up and up, As they could have studied and interviewed Twins and Siblings separated by the system already, rather than separate more twins. It does bother me to think that either no one had misgivings about what it would do to the kids or they did have misgivings but they didn't stop what they were doing. "That's a case of emotional brutality."I would agree with this, as would plenty of people, but it still goes on. Children still get shuffled around foster care, and adoptions get contested well past the time a child has bonded with the adoptive parents. And so we dont seem to have made as much progress as we should have.

  6. chris says:

    Elyse actually had some of those feelings about something missing. Paula did not. As for the study, I think it had been approved by the CDC. Consent was another thing not really an issue in the 1960's. And once these children were handed over to the adoption agency they had no real rights. These children were considered 'perfect' for this type of study because they could keep both the adoptive parents and the children in the dark. All indications were that they were trying to study to what extent mental illness is passed on. There was a case where the adoptive parents who learned that their daughter had an identical twin when she was 7. They contacted the adoption agency and they told the parents to keep the secret and called the other family and informed them of the news, adding to keep their daughter in the dark. The girl twins found out about the each other at a swim meet when they were in their early teens. Of course they were quite upset to learn that this had been kept from them. And in a strange turn of events the woman who ran the twin study agreed to counsel them (for free) even though she knew it was a conflict of interest. A lot of what happened seems to go back to this woman who is deceased and whose records are frozen for another 58 years. She was a chief consultant to the adoption agency and told them that separating twins was best to allow them to develop their individuality.

  7. O-M-G!!! I could not begin to imagine!!! Looks like a good read…will have to check it out. Thanks.: )

  8. vj says:

    I just put this on hold at the library. Thanks for writing about this, Chris.As an adoptee, Greengrowtherusheso's remarks hit me square on. I was adopted in 1963, and had been in foster care for 6 months previous. My adoptive mother had had two foster kids for 6 months, each which she tried to adopt, and the whole experience broke her heart in ways that I doubt it ever healed. I can't imagine what that feels like.

  9. chris says:

    I have a feeling that placing babies is foster care back then was probably the norm, unlike now where babies go from the hospital to the adoptive family if possible. I don't know if they wanted to ensure that the baby thrived before making the placement or what. It does seem that even back then they had some idea about how babies bond and that there is a true window of opportunity in that department.

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