There’s something about Katy (and Lizzy)

I found Corey Kilgannon’s Saturday Saturday New York Times story to be worthy of note and thought readers might find it of interest. Kilgannon’s story is variously headlined “Long separated, sisters have a college reunion” (in the paper, where it caught my eye) and “2 women moved to write stories uncover a surprisingly personal one” (online).

I found it a touching story with plenty of material for further reflection. Here is how it opens:

Lizzie Valverde and Katy Olson were strangers when they enrolled at Columbia University a few years ago. Ms. Valverde is from New Jersey, while Ms. Olson had grown up mostly in Florida and Iowa.

Their lives crossed in January 2013, on the first day of a writing class, when they took part in one of those familiar around-the-table introductions that by the end had led them to a stunning realization.

These strangers were sisters.

The two women had come to Columbia to learn the finer points of storytelling and wound up in the middle of a doozy: an intertwined tale of their own that they say they could never have conjured.

Their shared story line — a chance reunion three decades after being born to the same troubled mother in Florida and then raised by adoptive families in different parts of the country — has been knitted together by years of curiosity on both women’s parts about their origins.

The “coincidences” do not end with their crossed paths in a writing class at Columbia. Both have pursued an undergraduate degree long past college age from Columbia’s School of General Studies. One sister is majoring in creative writing at the school; having already received her undergraduate degree, the other is pursuing her master’s degree in creative writing. Both had moved to New York City to pursue careers and decided at around age 30 to study writing full time.

And we also have this:

The two sisters grew up very differently. Ms. Valverde enjoyed a comfortable life in Bergen County in northern New Jersey, where her father was a television news editor. Ms. Olson, who has mild cerebral palsy, spent much of her childhood coping with physical challenges, including several medical procedures.

But from an early age, both were relentlessly curious, driven and passionate about writing, though they both also dropped out of high school and did not follow the conventional college-to-career path.

Kilgannon lets his story do the talking. He offers no theories beyond the reflection of the sisters’ birth mother:

For her part, Ms. Parker said that being reunited with her daughters had been inspirational, moving her to start healing rifts with her mother and siblings.

“I’m glad I chose to have them and gave them the chance at life,” she said. “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, but if you don’t believe in a higher power, you would, when you heard their story.”

I believe in a higher power too, but I wouldn’t attribute the convergence of the twain to the higher power in this case (at least in the sense Ms. Parker means). The sisters’ story is not unlike that of the stories found by University of Minnesota Professor Thomas Bouchard in his longitudinal study of twins reared apart. Even though I got to know Professor Bouchard slightly when we both served as board members of the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Scholars, I learned of his (famous) study in Daniel Seligman’s excellent book, A Question of Intelligence.

As I recall them from Seligman’s book, the stories discovered by Professor Bouchard in the course of his study are full of the kind of coincidences presented in Kilgannon’s story. Having misplaced my copy of Seligman’s book, I found this summary of Professor Bouchard’s study to be useful:

In 1979, Thomas Bouchard began to study twins who were separated at birth and reared in different families. He found that an identical twin reared away from his or her co-twin seems to have about an equal chance of being similar to the co-twin in terms of personality, interests, and attitudes as one who has been reared with his or her co-twin. This leads to the conclusion that the similarities between twins are due to genes, not environment, since the differences between twins reared apart must be due totally to the environment.

Case in point:

One example of the amazing similarity of twins reared apart is the so-called “Jim twins.” These twins were adopted at the age of four weeks. Both of the adopting couples, unknown to each other, named their son James. Upon reunion of the twins when they were 39 years old, Jim and Jim have learned that:

•Both twins are married to women named Betty and divorced from women named Linda.
•One has named his first son James Alan while the other named his first son James Allan.
•Both twins have an adopted brother whose name is Larry.
•Both named their pet dog “Toy.”
•Both had some law-enforcement training and had been a part-time deputy sheriff in Ohio.
•Each did poorly in spelling and well in math.
•Each did carpentry, mechanical drawing, and block lettering.
•Each vacation in Florida in the same three-block-long beach area.
•Both twins began suffering from tension headaches at eighteen, gained ten pounds at the same time, and are six feet tall and 180 pounds.

Kilgannon’s story of the separated non-twin sisters is obviously at some remove from that of separated twin siblings, but it seems to me to present an interesting variation on the same theme, including something of the inexplicable mystery of life.