Strangers with the Same Face: Twins Reunited after 35 Years Apart

Separated at birth, twin sisters Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein never knew about each other's existence. But when they finally met at age 35, they learned what they'd been missing all those years.

Imagine dialing the phone number of a total stranger – and hearing your own voice on the other end of the line.

Several years ago, that’s exactly what happened to Paula Bernstein, a New York City-based writer.

Sound like something out of The Twilight Zone?

Think The Parent Trap instead: You see, the voice on the other end of the line was Bernstein’s identical twin sister, Elyse Schein – a woman she had never met.

Now 38, both Bernstein and Schein were put up for adoption when they were babies. In most cases, twins would never be adopted by different families – but because of a cruel psychological experiment, Bernstein and Schein were used as guinea pigs to study the effects of environment versus genetics, and were adopted separately. Though they grew up mere miles from each other in suburban New York City, neither girl knew that she had a twin sister.

During their formative years, both girls’ lives took strikingly similar paths: “We were each editor-in-chief of our high school yearbooks, and went on to study film theory,” says Bernstein. Both young women spent time in Paris, and later pursued careers in the arts: Bernstein as a writer, and Schein as a filmmaker. “Elyse and I are different variations of the same theme,” says Bernstein.

All their lives, both women had felt a certain absence. Schein, who has faced bouts of depression, often told friends, “I feel like I’ve lost a twin,” when she was feeling particularly down. But neither one knew the true story until 2002, when Schein decided to track down her birth parents. Though the search for her birth mother was unsuccessful at the time, it led her to an even more startling discovery: Her twin sister.

“It felt momentous. A key element of my identity had been revealed: I not only ‘had’ a twin somewhere in the world, I ‘was’ a twin,” says Schein. “Though I had no idea where my twin was, I was driven to find her.”

When the two sisters finally met in a New York City cafe in 2004, neither woman knew quite what to expect. Would they look the same? Act the same? After all these years spent as strangers, how could they relate to one another as sisters?

Strange as it was, though, both women felt immediately at ease. “There was an immediate intimacy that we could ask each other anything,” says Schien. “No subject was out of bounds, which is odd because we were actually strangers.”

Bernstein agrees: “It was like meeting the best friend I never knew I had.” But although they shared incredible similarities in looks, taste, and even mannerisms, they weren’t quite sure how to define their relationship: “It was apparent we were twins, but we weren’t yet sisters.”

But over the last few years, their tentative friendship has evolved into a sense of family. The sisters are bitter about losing so many years together, but are doing their best to make up for their absences in one another’s lives with regular lunches and coffee dates. Both women are writers, so they felt “compelled to chronicle our experience as it was happening,” says Bernstein. Their writings would become the new book, Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited.

“At times, writing the book together was emotionally grueling, but it was also cathartic. It brought us a lot closer,” Bernsein says.

The book also answers a common question that many of us have pondered: What would it be like to meet your own identical twin?

“It’s a common fantasy to have a twin, yet the relationship is more complex than one might think,” says Schein. “As separated identical twins, we were also in the unique position of being able to answer the question of nature versus nurture firsthand.”

So, in the battle between nature and nurture, which one comes out the champion? From what the two sisters can tell, both have played a large hand in forming their identities – but neither one has made them the women they have become.

Before meeting, both women had wondered, “If I had been raised by your parents and you had been raised by mine, would I be you? Would you be me?” recalls Schein. It took three and a half years of learning about each other and comparing lives to realize they were each their own person, says Schein. “Identity is not simply genetics plus environment.

Bernstein and Schein’s fascinating memoir, Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited is available from Amazon.

Check out this slideshow of the twins’ eerily similar separate lives throughout the years from NPR.

Originally published November 2007

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