An unusual case of identity crisis

We have all heard of stories from fiction and real life of infants switched at birth. But the radio program This American Life had a true story with an unusual twist to this familiar tale.

Jason and Randy are identical twins, with Jason being born first and Randy emerging five minutes later back in 1972. Randy had to spend the first few days of his life in an incubator but after that the twins were identical, so similar that even their parents could not tell them apart. To keep track of which was Jason and which was Randy, their mother Annette dressed Jason in blue and Randy in red. As a backup, she would use blue diaper pins for Jason and pink for Randy.

All went well until they went for their six-week check up to the doctor. Annette dressed them in identical fancy outfits an aunt had sent them but kept the diaper pin system in order to tell them apart. But then the nurse took them from the mother, presumably for weighing, and when she returned she proudly told Annette that they had just started using pin-less disposable diapers (disposable diapers that used adhesive fasteners only came out in 1968) and she had put the boys in them, thus making them indistinguishable to their mother

Annette was upset, of course, but there was nothing she could do. Back home, she and her husband Dick stared at the two infants trying to decide who was who in the absence of any distinguishing features or mannerisms whatsoever. She finally chose, based on nothing more than just a feeling, and Dick agreed with her. They did not tell the boys as they were growing up about this episode.

Fast forward twelve years and the boys accidentally overhear a conversation their mother is having with an old friend of hers who had been aware of this issue at the time of the birth. The two were recalling this story and now the boys became upset that they may not be who they thought they were. But there seemed to be nothing to be done about it so they simply suppressed any thoughts and discussions on the topic.

Then a couple of years ago, they stumbled upon something that raised the possibility that they might actually be able learn who was who. Should they try to find out? But this raised profound questions. The twins were now in their mid-forties with families of their own. What if it turned out that Jason really was Randy and vice versa?

In some sense it would not matter. They are who they are. The simplest solution would be to do nothing and just continue as they are. But in practical sense, it deeply matters. Had they, even unwittingly, committed identify fraud all this time? Would they be doing so if they took no action to correct the error? If they decided to rectify the situation, would they have to legally switch their names? Their social security numbers? Passports? But apart from those practical considerations, on a deeper level, would it affect how they viewed themselves and their relationship with each another, with the older twin now being the younger, and even their relationships with their families,

I will not reveal what they found when they decided to go ahead and find out their identities because I don’t want to spoil an engrossing tale. (The audio clip lasts for 19 minutes.)

Since listening to it, I have been grappling with how I would feel if I were one of the twins and discovered as an adult that my story was not what I thought it was. It would be quite unsettling. Would the feelings aroused be similar to that experienced by someone who, as an adult, discovers that they were adopted? Somehow I feel that the sense of identity crisis would be more acute, or at least different, in the case of the twins but I cannot quite put my finger on why I think so. In the case of discovering one is adopted, one’s name does not need to be changed. But in this case if the twins had been switched, their names would have to change. When Juliet says “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”, she may not have envisaged this strange scenario.

Perhaps my difficulty in grappling with this is because both the twins and adoption scenarios are so far outside my own experience that I simply cannot put myself in the shoes of someone to whom it happens.


  1. says

    This is why twins must always be tattooed at birth.

    But seriously, people put too much stock into entirely arbitrary things. The man who goes by Jason is Jason, and the man who goes by Randy is Randy. The only real difference is if that time in the incubator is important health information.

    I suspect this isn’t the first time such a mix-up has happened with twins. It just seems like it’s too easy a mistake to make.

  2. johnson catman says

    I agree with Tabby @1: The only real difference is if that time in the incubator is important health information. The situation occurred when they were six weeks old. If an error was made at that time, it would make essentially no difference since neither would remember anything and they have lived the vast majority of their lives as who they are now.

  3. says

    Since listening to it, I have been grappling with how I would feel if I were one of the twins and discovered as an adult that my story was not what I thought it was. It would be quite unsettling.

    I find it odd that people even care about something like this. What’s the difference? Upon birth parents of identical twins assign two names randomly. If a few weeks later they once again assign two names randomly, who cares if the second time each kid gets a different name?

    Then again, I am somebody who has tried to mentally detach my sense of self from my legal name, because my state insists that my legal name must be a female name and I don’t like the name I was given at birth. People who actually care about what legal name they were given at birth probably feel differently about assigned names than I do (in my case, no matter what name my parents gave me, I still wouldn’t like it).

    Would the feelings aroused be similar to that experienced by someone who, as an adult, discovers that they were adopted?

    Again, I don’t get why adopted kids care about DNA so much. Who cares how much DNA family members happen to share. They are a family anyway. If I were to find out that I was adopted, I couldn’t care less about that.

  4. OverlappingMagisteria says

    #4 Andreas:

    For adopted kids, DNA and family history can matter when it comes to medical issues. Our kids are adopted and whenever we are asked if there they a family history of something we can only shrug our shoulders.

    Adoption can be a big part of someones identity. Some kids are like you and don’t care, but many do. Our kids ask about their birth parents on occasion. They see us as their parents, of course, but their history is important to them. I couldn’t imagine keeping someones adoption a secret.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    This tangentially ties into various other issues such as transgender rights and religion: just what do we mean by “identity”?

  6. anat says

    OverlappingMagisteria @7: In the past adoption was considered shameful, so it was kept secret. My mother’s cousin was adopted, but because the parents did not want it to be broadly known they ended up immigrating to the US when most of the Jewish families in their city immigrated to Israel. I don’t know when the adoptee learned of her adoption, but at some point she did and went on to seek her biological family. It was not a happy story -- turned out her parents had bought her from a Roma family, and when she found the biological parents all they wanted from her was money. I’m glad attitudes towards adoption have changed for the better.

  7. cartomancer says

    As a twin myself, I can say that it really doesn’t bother me hugely whether such a thing might have happened to me or not.

    Whether a identical twin is considered “older” or “younger” than the other one is both an accident of gynecology and an arbitrary cultural convention. From conception both twins are exactly the same age, merely splitting in half in the zygote stage. We in Europe and America tend to assume that the one born first is to be considered the “older” twin, but other cultures assume the opposite. In Japan, for example, the traditional logic was that what came out first was put in last, so the second birthed twin is considered the oldest. Since the Japanese have a system of linguistic politeness and deference that hangs quite considerably on seniority or juniority, this is considered a significant distinction that needs making.

    Personally I’ve never understood what being an older brother or a younger brother is supposed to be like. When there is a significant age gap, like a year or more, I can see how one might have trod the path earlier than the other and assume they have some sort of guiding role to play, but seven minutes, or even seven days, apart is not enough to have any functional difference.

  8. anat says

    Andreas Avester @4: Some adoptees care a lot about knowing the circumstances that led to them being placed for adoption.They feel they were abandoned by their biological parents, or that they need to understand said biological parents. Not knowing is a big deal to such adoptees, and that may be true even if they are happy with their adoptive parents. For some reason they need closure.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Steve @#5 and Rob @#6,

    You are both correct but what if the records of those two things were not created or preserved? That was the case here.

  10. Katydid says

    Because this story is not about adoption, but about identical twins who might have been given the other’s name, I’ll limit my comment to that. IMO, in this case there’s no harm done. The identical twins stayed in the exact same home with the exact same parents, so medical history is not compromised. Both have access to any family tendencies toward any particular illnesses. Since the switch *may* have happened when they were infants, neither one was deprived of anything. For that matter, could they have been switched at any other time while so very young? I’m sure in the history of the world, that has happened countless times with other newborn identical twins. At six weeks, a newborn is an eating-sleeping-waste-disposing unit (the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy) with no sense of itself and no idea what words mean. Clearly they weren’t switched for any malicious reason.

  11. Mano Singham says

    While I can intellectually agree with the sentiments expressed here, we are looking at it intellectually. I should add that the twins themselves (and their respective families) were really unnerved by the possibility that they might have been switched. It really affected their sense of identity. Not knowing a switch happened is one thing. Learning that it happened long after the fact and wondering how to deal with that knowledge is another.

    There is also the legal issue that your birth is registered and you are entered into the bureaucracy with a social security number etc. Is one obliged to change all those?

  12. johnson catman says

    re Mano @14:

    Is one obliged to change all those?

    I would say absolutely not. It would be an unnecessary and impossible task to try to undo a lifetime’s worth of living as a person, not to mention a bureaucratic nightmare. It would take them another forty years to try to undo, and they would probably still fail to cover all bases.

  13. machintelligence says

    Infant’s footprints are routinely included on birth certificates. The process was started in 1920. Did anyone think to look?

  14. Mano Singham says

    The infant footprints were what the twins discovered a couple of years ago when they were sorting through old boxes in their parents’ home. It turns out though that while footprints are kept because they are cute, in almost all cases they are useless for later identification, unlike fingerprints. But it turns out that in this case, there happened to be a particular feature and that was what helped an expert resolve the identity issue.

  15. says

    “Again, I don’t get why adopted kids care about DNA so much.”

    Well, if you’d stop to actually think, Andreas, you’d understand it. There are a lot of conditions with genetic components, and things that run in families (cancer, for one), and it’s important to know these things. Beyond that, it’s also nice to know where you come from.

  16. billseymour says

    I was adopted when I was about three months old.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that, so I guess my parents told me as soon as I was old enough to understand the concept.

    My parents were the people who took care of me when I needed them.  I’m very clear about that.  I do not wonder “who I am”.

    I wouldn’t be opposed to meeting my biological parents if they wanted to meet me, but I have no desire to do so except for the purely practical reason of getting a medical history.  Now that I’m almost 75 years old, it’s probably too late for all that anyway.

    I accept that some folks have identity problems with stuff like this, but like Andreas, I don’t understand that at all.

  17. says

    OverlappingMagisteria @#7

    For adopted kids, DNA and family history can matter when it comes to medical issues.

    Yes, such practicalities are reasonable. For example, if all people who are genetically related to me were dying of cancers, I’d want to know.

    Anat @#11

    They feel they were abandoned by their biological parents, or that they need to understand said biological parents.

    Yes, I have heard that some people feel this way, yet it still sort of doesn’t make sense for me.

    Why care? For example, I know that my sperm donor demanded my mother to get an abortion when he found out that my mother was pregnant with me. Should I care about this fact? Why? I do not keep in touch with my sperm donor and I don’t communicate with him, so why should it matter for me what he thinks or how he feels and whether he wanted me to exist or no?

    Frankly, I see more reasons to care about the opinions of grocery store employees who sell me food. At the very least, I still interact with these people. But I do not interact with my sperm donor, hence he is nobody for me (I don’t know why he chose to distance himself from my mother and me. I never asked, because I just don’t care).

    How much DNA I share with some person is absolutely irrelevant for determining how much this person matters for me.

  18. says

    WMDKitty – Survivor @#18

    Well, if you’d stop to actually think…

    If you don’t want to spend your time on writing a proper argument, I recommend you to not waste those few minutes it takes you to type yet another insult to me.

    Beyond that, it’s also nice to know where you come from.

    1. Why would it be nice to know where I come from? Why should I care about such information?

    2. How is the identity of my sperm and ovum donors related to “where I come from”? The people who raised me, sure, they influenced me. But a sperm donor…

  19. John Morales says

    People have weird anxieties.

    Me, I would not have cared one whit about it, had I been in that circumstance.

    Nor do I care about it as it stands; the net effect was that they may have had first names swapped at six weeks of age.

  20. Steve Morrison says

    From Time Enough for Love, by Robert A. Heinlein:

    “You two are interchangeable parts, and besides, you were mixed up the week you were born, and nobody knows which you are; you don’t know yourself.”

    “Oh, yes, I do! Sometimes she goes away, but I’m always right here.”

  21. publicola says

    A simple tattoo dot on the heel of the first-born, like those they give you before surgery, would solve the problem.

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