07 July 2015

Identical twin sisters - separated at birth then reunited

I saw the film Twin Sisters created for TV2 and the Norwegian Film Institute in 2011, directed and produced by Mona Friis Bertheussen. Then I read the review below (New York Times 19/10/2014), written by Mike Hale. My third task will be an analysis of the key issues.

Hale said that the Norwegian film “Twin Sisters” seemed too good to be true. The stars were a pair of adorable 10-year-olds, as energetic as they are well-adjusted. The supporting players looked like the four nicest, most supportive parents you could meet. The story hinged on a set of fateful coincidences that profoundly changed the lives of everyone involved. But “Twin Sisters” was a documentary, so there was no need to suspend disbelief.

Bertheussen’s film was an Asian-adoption story. Movies in that genre are typically about grown-ups, often the filmmakers them­selves, seek­ing out the biological families they had never known. “Twin Sisters” turned that narrative on its head. Ms Bertheussen — taking advantage of how Western fathers film and photograph every step of their trips to adopt Asian babies — economically sketched out the amazing background to her story.

The twin girls were found as infants in a cardboard box in a Chinese village in 2003. They ended up in an orphanage in Hunan Province where, apparently, authorities did not know the girls were twins or decided to keep silent about the twinship. A Norwegian couple and an Amer­ic­an couple arrived in the same Chinese city on the same day to coll­ect their new daughters. There was no reason for them ever to meet. But when the two adoptive mothers Wenche and Angela met at the orphanage, each with their new babies in their arms, they saw they had both dressed their girls in identical red gingham dresses. And the babies looked alike and shared a birthday. Despite the authorities assuring them the girls were not twins, the new mothers exchanged contact information and a year later decided to do a DNA test.

Each twin wore a necklace with half a heart on it.
When they got together for the first time, they blended the two broken half hearts into one happy, whole heart.

For years they lived an ocean away from each other, leading very different lives. But when a DNA test confirmed that the girls were in fact identical twins, the families decided to meet again. The film then stepped into the lives of Alexand­ra Hauglum in a snowy, breathtakingly beautiful Norwegian village and Mia Hansen in a leafy Sacramento suburb. Each girl knew all her life that she had a twin halfway around the world, a sister she had not been able to grow up with. In the course of the film, they had a special reunion, when the Hansens made the trip to tiny Fresvik.

Ms Bertheussen laid out the huge differences in the girls’ lives: American Mia was heavily scheduled, played with life-size dolls and, because of her mother’s safety fears, was driven everywhere; Norweg­ian Alexandra tended a pet mouse, tramped around the mountain paths alone and walked to school down a country road before sunrise. Then Bertheussen showed how remarkably similar the sisters were, and how symbiotic, despite the impediments of language, culture, distance and time. The film was short (53 minutes), modest, straightforward and — without being exploitive or overly sentimental — a devastating, emotional wipe out.

After the film was completed and released, the girls were able to see each other a few more times. The update informs readers that the American family went to Norway for Christmas in 2012 when the girls were 9 years old. They really wanted them to be able to spend a Christmas together while they were young. Mia was very excited to have a snowy Christmas - she went sledding and ice skating with Alexandra, they built a snowman and played in the snow together. Mia went to school with Alexandra for a few days.

Then the girls got to see each other in Sweden in February 2014. They were on a popular talk show called Skavlan. They got to see each other again in May 2014 for the Norwegian Emmys. In June 2014 the two families got together in Greece for a vacation, to relax and visit beautiful Skopelos. The Norwegian Hauglums will be visiting the American Hansens next March. The families are very close and get along very well, and not just the girls. The two mothers Angela and Wenche feel like sisters, and the two fathers Andy and Sigmund are great mates.


I agree. The documentary did indeed reveal the excitement of the girls as they prepared to finally meet in Norway. Together with their amazed parents, it was extraordinary to watch the girls develop real bonds during their time together. They looked and acted alike, as identical twins tend to do; in the end the viewer understood that despite language barriers and years spent apart, the two girls were deeply connected. The parents believed that they were fated to find each other and for the girls to bond strongly, exactly as they would have had they stayed together in their original Chinese family.

The day the twins left their Chinese orphanage
for new homes in Norway and the USA

Yes the film Twin Sisters was a moving examination of our notions of family — the genetic ones we inherit and the ones we create. But it opened up a can of worms, worms that were barely addressed in the film. Firstly why did the Chinese authorities split up sibling groups, let alone identical twins? They understood the girls were found in the same cardboard box, shared the same birthday and looked remarkably similar. If babies cannot live with their natural parents for whatever reason, at least the sibling bonds should be protected whenever humanly possible.

Secondly Red Thread said there was no conversation between the four adoptive parents about the girls living together, or even in the same country. I do NOT see the argument that the girls already belonged in their respective adoptive families as a very selfish one. Although it is true to say that the parents ultimately got what they wanted, it is not right to say that Mia and Alexandra “sacrificed” their homeland, language and birth family, and were forced to sacrifice each other for the happiness of their parents. A baby cannot sacrifice what he/she doesn’t know about.

Nonetheless living 15,000 ks apart was horrible for the twins, once they were old enough to appreciate the issue. As living together will continue being an issue, will the American family move to Norway? Will the Norwegian family move to the USA? Will both families stay in their homes and allow the girls to live together, somewhere, for their Gap Year? Or permanently?

Thirdly I have had to revise my theory that nurture is far more important than nature in any study of identical twins separated at birth. Bertheus­sen wrote that these sisters shared something very special; it was as though there was an invisible connection, a clear, close com­mun­ication between the twin sisters that was hard to explain. The parents had believed their daughters’ behaviours and attitudes had been influenced by their adoptive family and friends (nurture), but when they saw the two girls together for the first time, it was clear that genetics (nature) played the major role. Their behaviours and attitudes were so similar that the viewer was tempted to invoke a sense of magic.

Finally we need to ask if the Twin Sister industry growing up around these two families has prepared the girls for any future separation and pain? In the real world, adolescents often start to become rude and defiant. Some previously close parent-adolescent bonds become weaker; some parents divorce and leave the family home; some young adults find themselves drifting apart from the siblings they had once adored.

Many reviewers have reported feeling both elation and heartbreak in watching the film Twin Sisters. I did too, but I am now thinking that the heartbreak might refer to family life over the next 8 years. Finding an identical sister, developing a loving bond with her and then never talking to her again might be more heartbreaking than not knowing about her in the first place.


Elgar said...

I also saw the film. The girls' excitement before the first meeting restored my faith in the power of family ties.

mem said...

Yes this is pretty interesting . I suspect though that if it is framed positively these girls might have the chance of growing up with a feeling of good fortune at knowing of the other . It is to be hoped that both set of parents and the girls themselves will have the personalities to be able to focus on the positives and to not mull for too long o what might have been. I have twin sons who are not identical and who unfortunately have very little in common and don't really have a strong bond . This I think is down to them as individuals and maybe also a reaction to the expectation by society that the WOULD have a close relationship. I hope that in the future when they are a little less self absorbed they will be closer but who knows .

Hels said...


I too felt elated at that moment. After all what is the chance of two young girls, on this planet with 7 billion other people, could find each other. Everyone watching here was in tears.

Hels said...


you make a good point. Just because two people are siblings, even twins, does not necessarily mean that they are going to be strongly bonded.

The amazing thing in this case is not that society would expect the girls would have a close relationship - after all, the two youngsters didn't even have a shared language with which to communicate. But that the girls themselves felt a powerful pull that they did not understand!

So far the two families do not seem to be not mulling over what might have been, had the twins met up earlier. It is a difficult challenge facing the two sets of adoptive parents... I hope they make good decisions.

the foto fanatic said...

I haven't seen the film.

I don't see how rescuing an orphaned child from a life in an institution could be deemed to be selfish.

However I am surprised that more was not done initially to keep the sisters together, and I do wonder that both sets of adoptive parents didn't suspect that the two girls found together in the same box and sharing the same birthday were in fact twins.

In any case, your description seems to indicate that the adoptive parents wish for the sisters to have regular contact and that can only be a good thing, assuming that the two girls also wish it.

Stories such as this can really tug the heartstrings.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

the babies were found in the same box when they were neonates, but they were not adopted from the orphanage until they were (I am guessing from the photo) at least a year old. The adoptive parents knew nothing whatsoever about their daughters' family of origin; the two sets of parents bumped into each other on adoption day totally by accident! If there had been subterfuge going on before the two sets of parents flew to China, it was only by the orphanage.

Do see the film Twin Sisters. The director Mona Friis Bertheussen did not tackle future decision-making by the two lots of adoptive parents directly, but she captured their quiet comments to each other. Heartbreaking.