5 True Stories of Twins Separated at Birth

Twin babies
'Hey wait, where are you going?' Alex Linghorn/Photodisc/Getty Images

Twins, by their very two-for-one nature, are a historically and scientifically fascinating phenomenon. Start with, say, Cain and Abel, who may or may not have been twins, depending on your biblical bent. Roll right up to Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome in a mythological kind of way. Zip through Mary-Kate and Ashley, who we're sure have done something lately, and the Winklevosses, who founded Facebook evidently before there even was a Facebook. However you look at them, twins have made their mark on the world.

Scientists have long recognized that and have taken to studying twins (and other multiple births, like triplets) to uncover their mysteries. The Minnesota Twin Family Study (MTFS), perhaps the most well-known of the research, officially has been giving twins the twice over since 1987, and other studies in Minnesota and elsewhere preceded that one. Almost 10,000 people have taken part in the MTFS, which, it says, aims to uncover "how genes and environment interact to influence character, strengths, vulnerabilities and values."

Some of the most intriguing, mind-blowing stories concerning the "genes and environment" debate — the age-old argument of "nature vs. nurture" — come when siblings are separated at birth.

Elizabeth Hamel and Ann Hunt, for a fraternal twin example, spent 78 years apart after being separated at birth. When they finally reunited in 2014 — one lived in Oregon, the other in the U.K. — the nature-nurture crowd went wild over the striking similarities (and marked differences) between the two genetically alike but geographically diverse sisters.

Both Elizabeth and Ann were widowed. Both had husbands named Jim. Both are religious and like to cut up for the camera.

"Fascinating work on separated twins shows that here are twins growing up in totally different families, sometimes even totally different cultures, and yet they bring with them similar types of attitudes — in politics, religion, social behaviour," psychologist Nancy Segal, director of the Twin Studies Center at California State University-Fullerton, told the BBC. "Where do these things come from? It's difficult to know exactly but it seems that their genes linked to intelligence, personality and temperament just lead them to have similar types of world views."

Here are five more examples of siblings separated at birth who found each other years later.

5

'Three Identical Strangers'

"Three Identical Strangers," a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, follows the story of triplet brothers who were separated — dastardly so, as it turns out — shortly after their birth in 1961.

The brothers found each other 19 years later by a fateful fluke when one enrolled in a New York college that another had attended. Almost immediately upon stepping on campus, Brother 2 (Bobby Shafran) was greeted as the well-known and likable Eddy Galland (Brother 1), which led to more than a little initial confusion. When the two met, what was evident to everybody else became crystal clear to them: They were separated at birth.

Shortly after seeing news coverage of the miraculous reunion, David Kellman called up Shafran and Galland with a kicker: He seemed to be Brother 3.

What followed was a blast of media coverage, including a few stops on NBC's "Today" show (including one in 1981, shortly before sharing their first birthday together), an interview on "The Phil Donahue Show" and a cameo with Madonna in the 1985 feature film "Desperately Seeking Susan."

Despite growing up in three different households, the similarities were jaw-dropping, as Kevin Fallon writes in The Daily Beast: "[T]hey shared the same exact mannerisms, even sitting the same way. They were all wrestlers, liked the same colors, had the same taste in older women, and even bought the same brand of cigarettes. Each also had an adopted sister, and all three sisters were the same age."

The story of these triplets turns sinister, though: The three, born to a single mother who gave them up for adoption, were purposely separated at birth for a "nature vs. nurture" experiment and placed in three different socioeconomic households. Over the course of their lives, they were visited by researchers, posing as adoption agency officials. But they were never told about the experiment, or each other, and the results of the study have never been made public.

"It was cruel; it was wrong," Kellman told The Washington Post early in 2018.

4

Uncovering a Secret

twin sisters
Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein (neither are pictured) were just two of many children who were part of a controversial study looking at the effects of genes and the environment on multiples. pixelfit/E+/Getty Images

After the story behind the New York triplets of "Identical Strangers" was uncovered, the agency that set up the adoptions for the secret study began to release the names of some of the study's subjects, at least when asked. (The study, under some public pressure, ceased operations in 1980.)

Elyse Schein, born and adopted in New York and living in Paris, was looking for information on her birth mother in 2004. Schein was stunned to find out through the adoption agency, since shuttered, that she had a twin sister.

Schein was 35 years old at the time.

Paula Bernstein and Schein first met in a cafe in New York City's East Village shortly after that to catch up on a life missed. After a brief hug, the first thing they did was to check each other out, up and down.

"I remember I said, do you have chubby knees?" Bernstein told NPR. "And I kind of glanced down below the hem of her skirt and saw that her knees were quite cute. And I always thought of mine as kind of chubby. So I thought, but why did she get the cute knees?"

The controversial study that split up Schein, Bernstein, the triplet brothers and many others was helmed by Austrian child psychologist Peter Neubauer, who died in 2008. In interviews before his death, he showed no remorse for the decision to separate siblings and to keep information about their birth from them. He claimed it was all in the name of science [source: NPR].

The nonprofit Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, which was connected with the since-closed adoption agency responsible for the child separations, released a statement to The Washington Post in early 2018 disclaiming responsibility and urging any subjects of the study to come forward: "The Jewish Board does not endorse the study undertaken by Dr. Peter Neubauer, and is appreciative that the film ['Three Identical Strangers'] has created an opportunity for a public discourse about it. ... We hope that the film encourages others to come forward and request access to their records."

Bernstein told NPR that finding her twin compelled her to think more about nature vs. nurture.

"Twins really do force us to question what is it that makes each of us who we are. Since meeting Elyse, it is undeniable that genetics play a huge role — probably more than 50 percent," Bernstein told NPR in 2007. "It's not just our taste in music or books; it goes beyond that. In her, I see the same basic personality. And yet, eventually we had to realize that we're different people with different life histories."

3

A Social Media Meetup

Twin sisters Anais Bordier (L) and Samantha Futerman
Twin sisters Anaïs Bordier (L) and Samantha Futerman talk during a Q&A for the documentary 'Twinsters' on July 18, 2015, in New York City. Rob Kim/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Anaïs Bordier, a young woman raised in France and studying in the U.K., is alerted by a friend in 2012 to an American actress who — how freaky would this be? — looks just like her. As it turns out, the actress, Samantha Futerman, was born (like Bordier) in South Korea and (like Bordier) adopted.

The deal-sealer: They have the same birthday, too.

It's not the Lindsay Lohan feature film "The Parent Trap," the remake of the 1961 film of the same name about twin sisters separated at birth.

But it's the spitting image of it.

"So ... I don't want to be too Lindsay Lohan, well ... but ... how to put it ... I was wondering where were you born," Bordier wrote in her Facebook message to Futerman [source: Baker].

A lot of Skype chats, a meeting in London and a little DNA testing ensued, all of which form the basis of the 2015 documentary "Twinsters" and the sisters' 2014 book, "Separated @ Birth: A True Love Story of Twin Sisters Reunited."

For the nature-nurture argument, there's this:

"Besides hating cooked carrots, the two said they share almost everything in common from painting or not painting their nails at the same time and going to the hairdresser almost on the same date. The biggest difference, they say, is their taste in music. Bordier likes old and classic rock and roll or electro-techno music while Futerman likes rock and roll, soul, funk, and pop singers such as Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber" [source: Suh-young].

Or, as Bordier told The Guardian in 2015: "We're so similar: she reacts to things the same way I do. We're both awkward and have the same strange sense of humour. She doesn't have to explain herself to me and she understands me perfectly, too."

2

The Mixed-up Twins of Colombia

Twin brothers live in Bogotá, a city of about 8 million people in the South American country of Colombia. One day in 2013, a woman takes a friend along to visit one of the twins, who works as a butcher.

Only the friend sees, in the butcher, an exact, living, breathing copy of one of her co-workers, Jorge. Even though the butcher insists, to her face, that he is not Jorge. His name is William.

Things only get weirder and more complicated from there. Back at work, the friend tells her co-worker, Jorge, about the strange encounter at the butcher shop. As it turns out, Jorge says, he already has a twin brother.

And so does William, the butcher.

Finally, there's this: The butcher's twin brother and the co-worker's twin brother also are dead ringers for each other.

It's the old tale of the hospital switch, in almost unbelievably real life. Two sets of identical twins were born in late December 1988, one set in Bogotá, the other in in rural Santander, north of the city. When one of the twins in Santander fell ill — all four were born prematurely — he and his twin were sent to the hospital in Bogotá.

Here's what happened from there: Instead of sending the boys home as they should have — let's pair them off as Twins 1-2 and Twins 3-4 — the hospital somehow got them mixed up and sent them home as 1-3 and 2-4. One set of twins ended up in Bogotá, the other in Santander.

The mix-up finally came to light when William and Jorge, pushed by their friends, met in a square one night in Bogotá. There was no mistaking it then. It was clear they were identical twins, meeting for the first time. They were 25.

The story is chronicled in The New York Times Magazine story, "The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá," and a new book co-authored by psychologist Nancy Segal, "Accidental Brothers: The Story of Twins Exchanged at Birth and the Power of Nature and Nurture."

William Cañas Velasco, the butcher, grew up with who he thought was his fraternal twin, Wilber, in a small town in Santander.

Jorge Enrique Bernal Castro grew up with who he thought was his fraternal twin, Carlos Bernal Castro, in Bogotá.

But William and Jorge are the true, identical twins. As are Wilber and Carlos.

"I was scared, because there were two people who looked exactly like my brother and me, but at the same time, I didn't know who they were," Jorge told the BBC in 2016 about that first meeting.

The discovery was a gold mine for Segal, but it has done little to settle the nature vs. nurture debate.

"In many ways," Segal writes in the preface to the book, "the real identical twins in Colombia — Jorge and William, and Carlos and Wilber — aligned according to their genes. But while their similarities were striking, the parallel lines broke down in places, crisscrossing like streets on a Google road map."

1

Just Two Weird

Male fraternal twin babies sleeping
The Jim twins (not pictured) were separated at just four weeks old. They wouldn't reunite until they were 39, when they'd discover they'd led independent but remarkably similar lives. Jill Lehmann Photography/Moment/Getty Images

The story of Jim Springer and Jim Lewis will put you firmly on the side of nature when it goes up against nurture.

The two Jims — born together, adopted, reared and settled in Ohio — were separated at 4 weeks old and didn't find each other again until they were 39, in 1979. The identical twins led remarkably similar lives in those nearly four decades, as Edwin Chen notes in his New York Times article:

  • They were both married, and divorced, to women named Linda.
  • They both remarried. To women named Betty.
  • Their first sons were both named James. The sons' middle names are Allan and Alan.
  • They both enjoyed woodworking.
  • They were both nail biters.
  • They both suffered from stress headaches.
  • They both, as children, owned a dog named "Toy."
  • They were both in law enforcement.

"If someone else brought this material to me and said: 'This is what I've got,' I'd say I didn't believe it," psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard Jr., told The New York Times in 1979. Bouchard was the director of the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart Project, a precursor to the MTFS. "The probability of two people independently being given the same name is not that rare. But when you start to compound the coincidences, they become highly unlikely very quickly. In fact, I'm flabbergasted by some of the similarities, " Bouchard continued.

To many, the story of the Jim Twins provides a slam-dunk answer to the nature-nurture debate. Here's what the Minnesota Center for Twin & Family Research had to say:

We have found that an identical twin reared away from his or her co-twin seems to have about an equal chance of being similar to the co-twin in terms of personality, interests, and attitudes as one who has been reared with his or her co-twin. This finding leads us to believe that the similarities between twins are due to genes, not environment. Given that the differences between twins reared apart must be due totally to the environment, and given that these twins are just as similar as twins reared together, we can conclude that the environment, rather than making twins alike, makes them different.

In the end, finding out what makes those separated at birth so alike, and so different, is almost certainly not a question of either-or. Which, in the end, is what makes them so fascinating.

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Author's Note: 5 True Stories of Twins Separated at Birth

My dad was a twin. My wife has twin brothers. I thought Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger were passably funny in that 1988 film. Other than that, though, my experiences with twins are sadly limited. So what if, tomorrow, my heretofore unknown twin brother calls me up and wants to meet in downtown Atlanta? Well, I guess I'd hope he wasn't better looking than me. I'd be disappointed if he were a jerk. I'd be crushed if he were a Republican. But, heck yeah, I'd sit down for some barbecue and a beer and some good conversation with him. And if he's not up for that, well, then no way he's my kin. Can't be.

Related Articles

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