Introduction: Discovery In Las Palmas
Every once in a while a researcher discovers a problem, event, or situation that is irresistible, something so compelling that she drops everything to study it. This happened to me in June 2008 when I learned about Delia and Begona, a pair of switched-at-birth identical twins from Spain's Canary Islands (Islas Canarias), located off the Moroccan coast. In 1973, newborn twin Delia, born on January 18, was accidentally switched with unrelated infant Beatriz, born on January 15, in the crowded nursery of the Nuestra Senora del Pino Hospital. It is likely that the three infants were placed in the same incubator, making an exchange of babies likely by either of the two nurses in charge of sixty newborns. In that instant, Begona and Beatriz became a fraternal "twin" pair, and Delia became a first-born "singleton" child raised by a family with whom she had no biological connection. No one discovered the mistake until 2001 when the twins and Beatriz turned twenty-eight, at which time two chance encounters, two incidents of mistaken identity, and more than a little curiosity finally revealed the truth.
Lawsuits filed against the Canary Islands Health Service by the twins and their families continued for years. The case drew little attention until 2008, when it was allegedly leaked to reporters in the capital city of Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria. News spread quickly through the seven islands comprising the Islas Canarias, across Spain, and throughout the world. Psychologist Payam Heidary from California sent me a link to the online story. Minutes after reading it I was riveted and knew I would go to Las Palmas to meet the twins, their families, and their attorneys. I wanted a closer look at the circumstances and consequences of this incredible case — my only fear was that another investigator would get there first. I learned that Delia and Begona were only the sixth pair of switched-at-birth twins ever identified; I learned of a seventh pair shortly after I discovered them.
I was fortunate that the families' attorneys, Sebastian Socorro Perdomo (for Delia) and Jose Antonio Rodriguez Peregrina (for Begona and Beatriz) gave me full access to their clients while they turned away most reporters, journalists, and other individuals seeking information about the twins. The lawyers reasoned that my professional background in twin research might help their case. I sent Socorro several articles about twins reared apart and a 2005 book chapter I had written about switched-at-birth twins before I arrived.
The Spanish press and other newspapers in mostly Latin countries began covering the twins' story in 2008. In June of that year Socorro's office arranged for me to be interviewed by Monica Lopez Ferrado, a science reporter from Spain's leading national newspaper El Pais. I received Ferrado's e-mail message while changing planes in Dallas en route to Louisville, Kentucky, for the annual Behavior Genetics Association meeting. Ferrado produced what must be the best, most comprehensive newspaper coverage of this case outside Gran Canaria. When I arrived in Las Palmas in September 2009, I was interviewed by Antonio F. de la Gandara, a writer from the local Canarian newspaper Canarias 7, who also covered the case extensively.
I traveled to Las Palmas in September 2009 to spend twelve days gathering material. I stayed at the Tryp Iberia Hotel, just three kilometers (two miles) from the city's popular beach, Playa de las Canteras, and marveled at the hotel's gorgeous views of the ocean. Scenery aside, the hotel is also situated approximately midway between the two attorneys' offices, located, respectively, in the old town of Triana Vegueta (Socorro) and the newer development along Calle Luis Doreste Silva (Peregrina). With much to be done, I had only one free weekday. I used it to visit the old Cathedral Santa Ana and Casa Colon (Columbus Museum) in the historic scenic section of Vegueta and to explore the bustling shopping promenade Calle Mayor de Triana.
Before I got to work, I wanted to understand a bit more about where the twins grew up. On Calle Alcalde Jose Ramirez Bethen court, not far from the hotel entrance, is a statue of a large canine. Most people assume that the seven Canary Islands were named after the bird, the canary, but the islands were instead named after the dogs that figured significantly in their history. Canary birds were, in fact, later named after the islands to which they are native. There are many historical references to dogs on these islands and many different stories about how the Canary Islands were named. Archeological excavations on one of the islands, Tenerife, showed that dogs were buried with their masters to lead their souls to the place of the dead.5 As for the name, it may derive from the North African tribe the Canarii who once inhabited the island of Gran Canaria, the twins' birthplace. The name might also come from the Latin term Insular Canaria, which means Canary Island. Whatever the reason, eventually people began calling the islands the Islands of Canaria, then the Canary Islands.
I do not speak Spanish, so I worked closely with interpreter Jessica Crespo. She accompanied me to the attorneys' offices, the twins' homes, the judge's office, the shopping mall where the twins first met, and many other locations. I found Jessica through the American School in Las Palmas, where she teaches English. I hired Jessica based largely on her credentials — she holds a bachelor's degree in translation and interpreting with a major in law and economics and a master's degree in audiovisual translation from the University of Las Palmas. Jessica is also a sworn translator, as named by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and has studied children's literature translation at the University of Surrey in England. She showed an impressive command of English, evident to me during telephone interviews prior to my leaving for Spain. I met Jessica in person on September 13, the day before our interviews with the twins began. Jessica was a stunning, twenty-seven-year-old woman who spoke French as well as English and Spanish. She had shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes and stood taller than her five-foot, eight-inch height because of the shoes she wore. I was lucky to have found Jessica because her wonderful social skills put the twins and their families at ease during the interviews, and we became friends as well as colleagues.
The result of my research in the Canary Islands is this book, Someone Else's Twin, in which I examine and describe the traumatic life changes with which Delia, Begona, and Beatriz still grapple. I also introduce other switched-at-birth twins and singletons whose life stories were similarly altered beyond recognition. This book is also about the significance of the families' experiences for women having babies, parents raising children, lawyers protecting justice, and researchers studying behavior. I chose the title Someone Else's Twin because it captures the switching of the twins from the perspectives of everyone involved. For readers to understand my immediate response to news of the Canary Islands twins, I must go back in time. I am a fraternal twin. My sister Anne and I were the only children born to our parents Al and Esther Segal, both in their early thirties. The double conception was natural — my mom was just approaching the age at which the chance of having fraternal twins starts to rise. She had an easy pregnancy, although we were born prematurely at seven-and-a-half months, as are many multiple-birth infants. One could also say that we were an early reared-apart pair — Anne, the larger and more robust baby, went home after a few days' stay in the incubator, while I was a month-long incubator occupant.
Over the years, friends and relatives sent us the usual matching out-fits, but they did not look adorable on us. I discovered several photographs taken when we were two, three, and four showing us in identical T-shirts, shorts, and dresses. Seeing them today gives me the impression of two kids trying to look like twins, making it easy to understand why my mother rarely dressed us alike. Our physical differences have persisted — since childhood, Anne stood four inches taller than me, so I often received her hand-me-downs. Anne's hair is short and wavy, while mine is long, straight, and slightly darker than hers. No one ever confused us or suspected that we were twins, although some people forget which name goes with which twin.
The differences between Anne and me extend beyond our looks. Anne is a corporate attorney; I am a psychology professor. Anne is slightly introverted; I am fairly extroverted. Anne is married; I am unmarried. Anne lives in New York; I live in California. But we are close sisters who trust each other more than any other person in the world and laugh together at jokes no one else would follow. However, it was our differences, not our similarities, that captivated me and caused me to think hard about how children growing up together can be so dissimilar.
My dual interest in twins and psychology has defined my career, and I've had more fun than many of my colleagues trying to answer all sorts of human developmental questions. For me, twins bring human interest and personal relevance to a scientifically significant research subject. Their personal stories illuminate the test data in many ways. It is amusing to hear that identical twins independently choose similar outfits, buy the same birthday cards, or make the same unusual mistake on an exam. But these events are consistent with research showing that identical twins have similar tastes, preferences, and abilities.
There is another small piece to this story. Just for fun, Anne and I had our DNA tested at Affiliated Genetics, a Salt Lake City, Utah, laboratory that performs paternity and twin-typing (identical and fraternal) tests. The staff distributes special kits that allow clients to prepare saliva samples at home and mail them to the laboratory for processing. I often use their services for determining whether twins in my studies are identical or fraternal.
Our results were perfectly reasonable, but gave me a slight jolt. Anne and I had fewer than the average eight out of fifteen matches expected for fraternal twins and full siblings. The results are certainly consistent with genetic relatedness. In fact, it is possible for fraternal twins and full siblings (both of whom share half their genes, on average, by descent) to differ on all tested DNA markers because they have only a 50 percent chance of inheriting each gene in common. Because I knew this in advance, my momentary concern quickly subsided. Delia, Begona, and Beatriz's case has heightened my awareness of how previously unknown birth events can so profoundly alter lives years later. Knowing who your relatives are is a fundamental part of personal identity and developmental continuity, as the switched-at-birth twins have clearly shown. What happened to the Canary Islands families could happen to anyone.
Excerpted from Someone Else's Twin by Nancy L. Segal. Copyright 2011 by Nancy L. Segal. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.