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.