Learning Your Sister Is 'Someone Else's Twin' A pair of identical twins lived apart for 28 years after one of them was accidentally switched with another infant in the hospital nursery. Twin expert Nancy Segal details what happened next in Someone Else's Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth.

Learning Your Sister Is 'Someone Else's Twin'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/138993130/139576485" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week.

For years, researchers have studied twins who are raised apart from one another for clues into how much of our personalities, intelligence and interests are inherited and how much are products of our environment. No one's been more involved in those efforts than our guest, Nancy Segal.

She's a professor of psychology at California State Fullerton, and director of the Twin Study Center, which she founded 20 years ago. She's also a fraternal twin.

Segal's new book is about three babies born and raised in Spain's Canary Islands, off the Moroccan coast. Two of the newborns were identical twins, and due to a hospital mix-up, one of them was sent home with an unrelated mother who'd given birth to a single daughter. That child was raised in the wrong home as the remaining twin's sister. No one in either family discovered the mix-up until the girls were grown, and the resulting heartache and litigation became a national story in Spain.

Segal's book about the case and the issues it raises is called "Someone Else's Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth."

DAVIES: Well, Nancy Segal, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Professor NANCY SEGAL (California State Fullerton): Lovely to be here.

DAVIES: Give us the basics of this story, where these twins were born, what happened at birth.

Ms. SEGAL: These twins, Begonia and Delia, were born in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, located off the coast of Morocco. When the twins were born, they were born just about the same time as a single child, and a nurse took one of the twins out for a procedure and brought her back to the wrong place in the hospital, inadvertently switching the twin with the single child.

This caused the single child to grow up with the wrong set of parents and caused an unrelated pair of girls to grow up in a family thinking all their lives that they were fraternal twins. When they turned 28, the twin who was raised in the right family went to a shopping mall and was suddenly approached by a shop clerk who asked if she wasn't someone else, and she said no, and she just walked on.

When she returned several days later, with the girl that she thought all her life was her twin, the shop person approached her again and said you look just like my friend. And she turned to the sister and said you look just like my friend's sister.

And the resemblances were so striking that a meeting was arranged for that evening, and it turned out that these two twins who had been separated for 28 years realized that they really belonged together. DNA tests followed, the twinship was confirmed, and everyone's life just fell apart.

DAVIES: Well, there's a lot of twin research, and you've done much of it for many, many years, and I want to talk about some of what we've learned. But first, explain, if you will, the basic biology of fraternal versus identical twins.

Ms. SEGAL: Fraternal twins are created when a mother releases two eggs at the same time, and they're separately fertilized by two separate sperm from the father. And these children are no more alike genetically than ordinary brothers and sisters.

They may look somewhat alike, but they may look quite different. They share half their genes in common, on average.

Identical twins result when a single fertilized egg divides, sometime between the first and 14th day after conception. And these twins share 100 percent of their genes in common and of course look very, very much alike.

The beauty of these two types of twins for researchers like myself is that we can use them to understand the genetic and(ph) environmental influences on behavior by simply comparing similarities between identical twins and fraternals.

DAVIES: Now, just to back up, when these two twins were born in the hospital, wasn't the mom told that the twins were identical and didn't she realize when she brought them home they were not?

Ms. SEGAL: Well, the mom who delivered the twins was told they were identical except that she did not get them at the same time, and she never really spent time with them because she herself had a health problem. And she never thought to question the fact that they didn't look the same.

A lot of people don't pay too much attention to identical versus fraternal. Maybe they do more now, but at that time they really didn't. And remember that they were under the influence of the former Franco regime, where people didn't question what hospitals did.

And so even if one of the babies was a little bit more dark-skinned than the other members of her family, but she just rationalized that as a little bit of intermarriage back in my husband's family.

The other mother, it turned out, received a baby that was a little bit lighter-skinned than the other members of her family, and she too rationalized on the basis of some intermarriage back in her husband's family.

DAVIES: Okay, so then at age 28, because they live some miles apart, the presumed twins are in an urban community, the one living alone is in a rural community, but eventually people recognized them. This chance meeting brings them together, and they discover this.

I want to consider the reactions of all of the various parties here because they all have a unique position. But one of the things that's fascinating is that the two twins didn't tell their respective families immediately, did they? They kept that a secret.

Ms. SEGAL: That's right. The twins kept this a secret from their families because they feared the families' reactions. Imagine a mother raising a child for 28 years and suddenly finding out that it's not her child.

DAVIES: All right, so let's see how the different parties reacted to this emotionally traumatic information. Let's start with Beatriz. She's the one who discovers she is not biologically related to the sister she thought was her twin or to the mother who had reared her or her father and her siblings. How did she take this news?

Ms. SEGAL: Beatriz feared rejection by her family. She thought if I'm not part of them, maybe they won't want me, maybe they won't love me anymore. All of her life, Beatriz felt different from her twin and from her sisters, and this was reinforced because she did not look like them and she felt different from them. So her reaction was that she was going to lose a family and lose a twin.

In some ways, you might say her reaction was the most difficult, but I wouldn't say that. I think everyone's reaction was just different. But nevertheless, she suffered tremendously.

DAVIES: A tremendous fear that she would be rejected by these folks that she thought were her family. Now, her sister, or the woman she thought was her sister, was Begonia. She discovers that the sister she grew up and loved as a twin is indeed not her biological sister. But somewhere else there has been, all these 28 years, a twin, somebody who looks and acts like her, who has lived a life apart. She meets her. Give us a sense of what this was like for her.

Ms. SEGAL: When Begonia first set eyes on Delia, it was shock and it was disbelief, perhaps an unusual lookalike. But the similarities were just too overwhelming - the way they looked, the way they gestured, the kinds of things that they thought about. An immediate connection formed between them.

I think that Begonia also worried a great deal about Beatriz because Beatriz was a rather dependent and needy type, and one thing about Begonia that was just truly marvelous was that she cared so much about Beatriz, truly loved her and truly made her feel that she would never be rejected.

DAVIES: Beatriz being the one who thought she was her twin. So her reaction in some ways was to be very protective of the emotions of the woman she grew up with as her sister.

Ms. SEGAL: Yes.

DAVIES: Then we have Delia. She was one of the two identical twins who was separated and lived a life apart from her twin and with a family whom she was not related to. How did she react?

Ms. SEGAL: Delia also went through the shock, the disbelief and the eventual acceptance that Begonia did, and many things that puzzled Delia over the years, why she looked so different from her two younger sisters and why she was so different from them, all kind of came clear to her. She understood things that she never understood before.

And the tragic part about Delia's situation was that she developed leukemia when she was 16, and Begonia, of course, would have been the perfect donor for bone marrow had she been available. But this was never known. And Delia was forced to undergo a much riskier procedure.

But I think that what Delia and Begonia both together were experiencing was this loss of a truly marvelous relationship that they could have had, had they been raised together as they should have been, because the connection between them was almost immediate.

I will say, though, that they didn't really have the opportunity to develop that relationship because of all the pressures from other family members - from their mother, who was devastated; from the other mother and father who just could not believe that the daughter they had been raising all their lives was not theirs; and then Beatriz, of course, who needed Begonia's protection.

So Delia and Begonia had to carry on their relationship almost at a distance, and since I was in Las Palmas and saw them there and have been following them since, they still maintain their closeness, but they really haven't had the opportunity to develop that bond.

DAVIES: Nancy Segal's new book is called "Someone Else's Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Nancy Segal. Her new book is "Someone Else's Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth." It's about a real case in the Canary Islands, in which two identical twins were switched at birth at the hospital. One was reared with another girl, who was not her biological sister but reared as if they were twins, as far as that family knew, and then one of the identical twins was raised miles away in a different family.

And just to recap, because this can get confusing to someone who's just tuning in, we have Begonia, one of the twins, who was raised in an urban environment, in which I believe you report she had more cultural and educational opportunities; and her identical twin, Delia, was raised in a rural setting with a different family that she was not biologically related to.

Talk a bit, if you would, just about how much Delia and Begonia actually were alike, despite these very different environments they were raised in.

Ms. SEGAL: Begonia and Delia were a lot more alike in many ways despite their different rearing. Neither one of them really went terribly far in school initially, but later on in life they developed interests that they wanted to pursue.

They had the similar way of walking. They had similar tastes and similar opinions on many, many topics. And what really impressed me was how Begonia said that she and Delia could come into understanding so rapidly something she could not do with Beatriz. Now...

DAVIES: Beatriz being the one that she had thought was her twin but not biologically related. Yeah, go ahead.

Ms. SEGAL: That's correct. She had lived with Beatriz for 28 years, and yet they could not come to the same level of understanding or agreement that she could achieve so readily with Delia.

DAVIES: And then, of course, there are the moms. We have one mom reared what she thought were twins. It turns out one was her own daughter, another completely unrelated young woman, who she loved and adored for having raised her 28 years.

We have another mom miles away, who's raised a daughter who turns out she's not biologically related to. Do you want to talk a little bit about what it was like for them?

Ms. SEGAL: Well, it was shocking for the mothers to suddenly discover that the child they were raising was not really theirs. I remember speaking with Begonia's mother, and she didn't have her husband there. He had died about six years earlier.

And she said she literally went crazy thinking that this was not her child. She had put all of her trust and faith in the doctors who delivered her babies.

Now, she heard the news from her daughters, but the other mother, the one who raised Delia, that mother and father actually heard the news in quite surprising ways.

The mother was watching television one day, had the local news on, and apparently Delia had discussed several things with the press, and suddenly the mother heard her neighborhood being mentioned, she heard a baby being mentioned that was born the same day as her daughter, and then she saw her house. And this, put together, actually told her in some ways that this child was not hers.

Now, I was a little surprised at how quickly and willingly she was to believe all this, and it makes me suspect that maybe deep down somewhere there was a doubt, a slight doubt because of Delia's differences in appearance and behavior from the rest of the family, although I can't prove that.

But she seemed so willing to believe that this switched baby was hers.

DAVIES: And in Delia's case, and she, again, is the identical twin who was separated and lived with a family not her own, in this rural setting, she ended up in a complete rupture with the parents that she was reared with, did not even invite them to her wedding. Why was that?

Ms. SEGAL: Delia did not enjoy a close relationship with her parents. In fact, she was largely raised in her grandparents' house. And she didn't get along for many years, and she certainly clashed with her sisters, but she explained her disagreements with her parents as the usual adolescent difficulties that everyone goes through.

But when she suddenly learned that she was a member of a totally different family, she kept the news hidden. But when it was finally revealed, she felt that she had no place to go. She was quite torn between staying in that family and leaving.

She had an attachment, if not a close relationship, with those parents. She felt that she belonged in that family, even though she was so different. After all, she was raised by them. And she finally contacted an attorney, who then suggested she contact a psychiatrist, who really said to her you can't go back there.

Now, Begonia's mother was willing to take Delia in as her own daughter, but Delia simply did not regard Begonia's mother as her own mother. She still regarded the mother who reared her as her own. But she felt caught between these two worlds in which she really did not feel comfortable.

Now Delia is married. She has an independent life, and I think for the first time she's content.

DAVIES: This was a case of two twins separated by mistake at birth, and then an error that was not discovered until they were already adults. You describe another case in the book, and there are a number, but one that you describe is a case of two twins in Switzerland, also separated by error at birth, and the error was discovered when they were, I guess, seven years old. Do you want to just briefly describe that case? It's very different.

Ms. SEGAL: Yes. In a small town called Fribourg, Switzerland, in July, 1941, just one or two days apart, a mother gave birth to identical twins; another mother gave birth to a single child. And this hospital, very small, had only 12 cribs, and instead of using baby bracelets, they simply hung a little sign on the post of the bed.

At any rate, something happened, we don't know what, to cause one of the single babies to be switched with one of the twins. And the mother of the twins was French-speaking, and the mother of the single child was German-speaking. And typically in Fribourg, these different people kept fairly much apart.

But the mother of the twins wanted her children to be fluent in the German language. So when the boys were six years old, she had them enrolled in the same German-speaking school as the single boy, and suddenly everybody was struck by the appearance or the similar appearance between one of the twins and the single child.

Eventually, at a school parade, the father of the twins met the mother of the single boy, and after some discussion it became quite clear that this was probably a switched-at-birth twin case. The three boys were then sent to Geneva to have 12 very comprehensive days of medical testing.

It turned out that a switch had occurred, and it was left to the justice of the peace of Fribourg to decide the fate of these children.

DAVIES: And he made the decision to reunite them with their biological parents, right?

Ms. SEGAL: Correct, he did, and he made the decision to return them to their families and switch their names.

DAVIES: And what was the impact of that?

Ms. SEGAL: Well, the impact was devastating to everybody. The children were totally shocked. Seven-year-old children develop close bonds with their families, and not only that, they couldn't speak the language of the family. And the mothers were absolutely devastated. They so loved these children, and parting with them was just torment for everyone involved.

I always felt that the boys should have stayed where they were, and because the families lived in the same town, they could have arranged meetings between the families, almost a joint custody. But of course in the late 1940s, those kinds of arrangements were probably not possible.

There were not child development specialists the way we have them now. The importance of attachment between a child and a parent might not have been in place and appreciated the way it is today.

So everyone suffered, and they suffer today.

DAVIES: You make the point that despite, you know, the similarities and affinity among identical twins, that in a case where they have been reared apart, it's far better to keep them with the parents who have reared them.

Ms. SEGAL: Well, I should say that I've always been a strong advocate for bringing twins together. But I think that at the age of seven, that becomes very, very difficult. And in this particular case, because everyone lived in the same town, arranging for common meetings or joint custody would have been easier if people had thought about that.

Now, there was another case I mentioned in the book of two pairs of twins, all female, born in Puerto Rico, and the switch was discovered when the children were only one and a half. What had happened here was that one child in each pair had been switched so that each set of parents took home one of their twins and someone else's twin.

And the children were eventually switched back at age two. It was traumatic momentarily for some of the children, but they quickly forgot and adapted to their new families. But it was a painful decision for the parents and still is because they came to truly love the babies they'd been raising.

DAVIES: You know, there are issues involved in rearing twins, and one of them is when they go to school, should they be sent to separate classrooms? And I gather sort of the conventional educational wisdom is yes, they need separation, independence. Do you agree?

Ms. SEGAL: I could not disagree more. I believe that there should be no single policy for twins, just like there is no single policy for the educating of non-twins.

Some identical twins in particular do well when they're together. They're used to being together, they work well together, and I think that in the early years, to have them separate from one another, as well as from their parents, upon entering into kindergarten and first grade, is really a little too much to ask of them.

So what I advise teachers to do is to put the children at different tables so they can meet other children and still have a sense of where the other one is. But I really think that you need to take these cases one by one.

At the start of every school year, I get inundated with telephone calls and email messages from parents who constantly face school principals who want to keep children apart. And I just don't think this is in the best interest of children. I always believe that children, in their own way, will tell you what's best for them.

DAVIES: Do you advise parents to dress identical twins alike when they're little?

Ms. SEGAL: I don't advise parents to dress identical twins alike. I think that what's most important for identical twins is to be called by their proper name. And that is only going to be possible if they dress differently and wear their hair somewhat differently.

On the other hand, being an identical twin is a lot of fun. And I think on occasion identical twins should be allowed to dress the same way if they choose to, just to enjoy that moment here and there. But as they get older, most identical twins choose to dress differently.

DAVIES: You've studied twins for so long. What are the unanswered questions you really want to explore?

Ms. SEGAL: There are a lot of questions concerning twins I'd like to know the answers to, and one is what causes that fertilized egg to split. We simply don't know. We know a lot more about what causes fraternal twinning - that is, older mothers have a higher tendency to release two eggs at the same time.

I would also like to know more about what causes identical twins to be so much alike despite the differences between them. And I would like to know more about the basis of that very strong twin bond that we see between identical twins.

I've used words like nonjudgmental and intimacy and acceptance to describe that bond, but I'd like to hear more about that from the twins themselves.

DAVIES: Well, Nancy Segal, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.

Ms. SEGAL: Thank you.

DAVIES: Nancy Segal is a professor of psychology at California State Fullerton and director of the Twin Study Center, which she founded in 1991. Her book is called "Someone Else's Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.