When we describe the premise of Identical Strangers, most people assume it’s a work of fiction. Separated twins reunited after 35 years? For sure, the story is the stuff of fairy tales. But in our case, fairy tales really do come true.
We met for the first time three-and-a-half years ago after discovering we were identical twins. Each of us had been adopted and raised by separate families who were never told we had a twin sister.
Immediately after our reunion, we began to jot down notes about our unusual situation and to compile endless lists of questions. What is it that makes each of us unique? Do we owe our personality traits largely to nature or nurture? Why were we separated? Would we be the same people we are today if we had been raised together? At the time, we didn’t realize that these initial scribblings would be the impetus behind Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited. What started out as an idea to write a personal essay about our reunion became a common project that would unite us for the next two years.
Spurred on by our curiosity, we teamed up and became twin Nancy Drews. As we investigated our biological family and explored the reasons for our separation, we unearthed some unpleasant facts about the adoption agency that placed us. We were troubled to discover that as infants, for a time, we were part of a secret research study involving separated twins. Not only did we have a personal story to tell, but now we had a mystery to solve. It was clear a book was emerging.
Our friends and family were amazed at how quickly after meeting we began to work on the book and we had our own doubts. At first, we feared that writing together would put too much stress on our new relationship. We barely knew each other and suddenly, we would be forced to bare our souls and commit ourselves to working with each other on a regular basis. Meeting to share ideas at cafes and in each other’s homes, we got to know each other over brainstorming sessions. We eventually found that creating a shared narrative allowed us to bridge the wide chasm that separated us as strangers.
Since our individual stories were so different, when it came time to determine the structure of the book, we knew that we couldn’t write in one unified voice. It seemed only natural that we would each write from our own perspective. We had no idea how our sections would piece together or if they would fit at all. We began by mapping out key events we would cover, then set off to write on our own. Exchanging chapters, we were often astounded that we chose the same words to describe things. Other times, we were surprised that we viewed the same situations quite differently. Still, without much editing, our individual sections effortlessly complemented each other.
When we drew up the initial chapter outline, there was no way of predicting how the story would end. Would we confront the psychiatrist responsible for the study? Would we track down our birth mother? Because we wrote the book as the events were unfolding, our emotions were still incredibly raw. Overwhelmed by the pressure to compensate for so many lost years, during one particularly grueling writing session at a local coffee shop, we broke down in tears. Later we joked that writing together was saving us thousands of dollars on therapy. In truth, working within the constraints of a narrative forced us to put into words the puzzling emotions we were experiencing. By writing in the present tense, we also hoped to convey a sense of immediacy. We would thrust the reader into our absurd situation and force them to imagine what it would be like to encounter the double they never knew they had. Still, we were wary that chronicling the experience while it was happening might alter the course of events. We came to realize that writing a memoir requires some distance and we began to see ourselves as characters. Vowing to remain faithful to our characters, we didn’t want to do or say anything simply for the sake of a good story. We recognized that ultimately, our priority was the truth of the story of our lives. Elyse Schein is a writer and filmmaker whose work has been shown at film festivals in Telluride and Long Island. Paula Bernstein is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Redbook and Variety. Both sisters live in Brooklyn. Identical Strangers is their first book.