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Learning Your Sister Is ‘Someone Else’s Twin’

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
August 15, 2011

Thirty-seven years ago, identical twins Begona and Delia were born at almost the same time as another infant named Beatriz in a hospital in the Canary Islands. Due to a hospital mistake, one of the twins was switched with Beatriz.

“This caused the single child [Beatriz] 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,” says Nancy Segal, a psychologist at California State University, Fullerton.

Segal, a twin expert and a twin herself, explores the case of Beatriz, Begona and Delia, as well as other twins switched at birth, in her book Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth. She tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies that the twins didn’t meet until they were 28 years old — an observant retail clerk confused one of them for the other one, who was her good friend.

“A meeting was arranged for that evening, and it turns out that these two twins who had been separated for 28 years realized that they really belonged together,” Segal says. “DNA tests followed, the twin-ship was confirmed, and everyone’s life just fell apart.”

At first, Begona and Delia decided not to reveal their relationship to the families who had raised them, Segal says.

“They feared the families’ reactions,” Segal says. “Imagine a mother raising a child for 28 years and suddenly finding out that it’s not her child. … Eventually the [twins' biological] mother did find out, and this was shocking, horrifying — just really so difficult to accept. … In the other family, they didn’t find out for eight to nine years, and that was because that single twin was really, really afraid to let them know. … The reaction when they did find out was completely devastating.”

Beatriz was deeply affected. She feared that her family would reject her after learning that she wasn’t biologically related to Begona, the woman she grew up thinking was her fraternal twin, Segal says.

“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,” Segal says. “She felt different from them. So her reaction was that she was going to lose a family and lose a twin.”

The twins themselves were also shocked and overwhelmed at the number of similarities they shared, despite being raised in separate environments with separate families.

“They had a similar way of walking, and they had similar tastes and opinions on many, many topics,” Segal says. “They had similar tastes in clothing.”

But they didn’t develop the close bond that identical twins often have — in this case, Segal says, there were simply too many pressures.

“I’ve worked with many, many pairs of separated twins,” Segal explains. “Most of them have been separated because people couldn’t afford to keep them or parents died in childbirth, so it was as if their separation was meant to be. In this case, the separation was not meant to be. It was due to a careless error in a crowded hospital nursery. Everyone’s life played out in a way that was not intended. I think it was this that tormented the parents so very deeply and has gotten in the way of Begona and Delia truly developing a close relationship.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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