Unreal delves into why St. Louis is a travel destination for cheapskates and then checks in with identical twins who were separated at birth

Nov 26, 2008 at 4:00 am
There are times when Unreal comes across a story so, well, so unreal that we feel no need to enhance the unreality with our own Unrealistic flourishes. A talk earlier this month at the Jewish Book Festival in Creve Coeur was one of those times.

The whole thing sounded like something out of a soap opera. Back in 1969 Elyse Schein was adopted as an infant. In 2002, when she was 34, she decided to look for her birth mother. She contacted Louise Wise Services, the agency in New York City that had handled her adoption. The agency claimed to know nothing about Schein's biological mother or the rest of her family. But, they said, did Schein know she had an identical twin sister who lived in Brooklyn?

If this were a soap opera, Paula Bernstein would have turned out to be evil and would have wreaked havoc on Schein's life and tried to kill her. Instead, when the two women met, they got along famously. Not only did they have the same butt, allergies and facial expressions, they found they were both hardcore liberals, had studied film theory in college and shared the same favorite book and film (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera and Wings of Desire, respectively).

What was nature and what was nurture? Strangely enough, as Schein and Bernstein delved into their shared past, they discovered that they had been part of a scientific experiment designed to answer that very question. Along with four other sets of twins and one set of triplets, they had been split up at birth and adopted by different families. The families were not told that the children were twins, only that they were part of a "child development study."

Bernstein and Schein were actually dropped from the study when they were six months old because they had already begun to grow at different rates. But no one thought to reunite them.

But, wait! There's more! Schein and Bernstein eventually discovered that their birth mother had suffered from depression and schizophrenia. Both twins had experienced depressive episodes and eating disorders. Some of the other biological parents and children in the study had psychological illnesses as well. Coincidence? It made the two women wonder.

When they finally confronted Dr. Peter Neubauer, the child psychiatrist who directed the study, Schein asked him point-blank if he had also intended to research the heritability of mental illness. He didn't exactly say yes. But he didn't exactly say no, either.

Neubauer, who died earlier this year, never published his study for fear of negative publicity. The records are sealed until 2066.

Schein and Bernstein spent the next two years collaborating on a joint memoir called Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited. At their talk at the JCC, they wore identical brown knee boots but were otherwise distinguishable: They had different clothes and glasses and each had tinted her hair a different shade of brown.

They are close enough to predict what the other is going to say, but not so close, said Bernstein, that they would feel comfortable rummaging through each other's kitchen cabinets.

Of the two, Schein was the more emotional. "I always used to tell people, 'I feel like I'm missing a twin,'" she said. "A baby's in the womb when it opens its eyes for the first time. Most see reflected light, but the first thing I saw was my twin."


Traveling Cheap: Not Exactly Brain Surgery
Unreal has not been spared from the bursting of America's economic bubble; we've had to scrimp, scrounge and skimp just like everyone else. But between stocking our fridge with Busch instead of Budweiser and only flushing the toilet once every five trips to conserve water, we've stopped to ask: Just what the hell are we saving for?

According to the folks at CheapTickets.com, many Americans are saving up for the good ol' family vacation, and, wouldn't you know it, St. Louis was rated by their company as the No. 2 travel destination for America's cheapskates! Trailing only Austin, Texas, in the rankings, St. Louis scored high for our cut-rate hotels and abundance of activities with free admission (such as the Saint Louis Zoo).

We called CheapTickets.com spokeswoman Marita Hudson Thomas to find out where we need to open another Wal-Mart in order to become the No. 1 cheapest city.

Unreal: Are you saying we're a cheap date?

Marita Hudson Thomas: I'm saying St. Louis is an awesome destination. St. Louis consistently offers great hotel rates, and once you get to St. Louis you can find ton of activities that are perfect for families traveling on a budget. So it's a kind of a cheap date, but in a good sense.

We're kind of sore losers: What does Austin have that we don't?

They have a cheaper average daily hotel rate in Austin. In Austin $78 a night is the average hotel rate. In St. Louis the average rate is $83. That's the only reason Austin came in No. 1 over St. Louis.

At least we beat Detroit, right?

Of course you beat Detroit. Of course. But I'm not going to speak badly of Detroit.

I see St. Louis on the list but no mention of East St. Louis. If Chevy Chase and the gang from that Vacation movie taught us anything, it's that if you're traveling on a budget, the east side is the place to go.

East St. Louis? I don't get that. I don't remember that movie. East St. Louis is part of Illinois, isn't it?

It's in Illinois, but it's called East St. Louis for a reason: It's just east of St. Louis. Moving right along, one of your company's slogans is "The less you pay, the better it feels." If that's the case, why not walk to your destination and camp in the park?

We mean the less you pay the better it feels when you're doing what you want to do. Everybody doesn't want to camp out. Cancún is a dream vacation for a lot of people, and the less you pay when you go there the better it feels. We're trying to get the dream vacation but not pay the high price tag.

Does that catchphrase work for other goods and services, too — like brain surgery?

No, I think for brain surgery the more you pay the better it will feel. You don't want to skimp on brain surgery.