Last month, the independent film Twin Sisters aired on PBS. This documentary tells the story of twin sisters from China who were separated, one adopted by a Norwegian couple and the other by an American couple. The filmmaker does a beautiful job juxtaposing the hustle bustle of life in Sacramento and the quaint, timeless feel of Fresvik, the little town of 234 people in Norway. Moreover, the film captures a wide range of emotionality for the girls – from longing to be together, to the awkwardness of language barriers, to the goofy, free-spiritedness of ten year olds. The film is well-done, and I would recommend watching this film as well as taking some time afterwards to reflect on the situation. Many have found it to be a beautiful story, but I find it more heartbreaking than anything else. This post will discuss the questions raised for me.
For the next three weeks, you can stream the film online here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365338330/
The film begins with a narration by Alexandra (the Norwegian twin), who says, “Even if I run and run, I just can’t stop thinking about her. My biggest wish is that one day she will come here and see where I live. Maybe she would like it here? I think about her every night because I miss her so much.” Within the first few minutes, I was already crying. Alexandra then shows the camera the bed she’s made in her room for her twin, waiting for the day Mia (the American twin) can come be with her. At this point, I thought about how much I longed for my first family when I was young. I didn’t know who they were or where they were, but I knew they were important to me. As I tried to empathize with Alexandra, I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to know her twin, someone she shares 100% of her DNA with, through photographs, letters, and phone calls, yet still not have access that person in reality.
In the next scene both sets of parents discuss their journeys through infertility that led them to adoption and eventually to their daughters. The filmmaker uses the home-footage provided by both families when they first met Mia and Alexandra. As Mia cries, her new American father says, “What’s wrong Mia? We’re here now. We’re going to take care of you for the rest of your life.” Of course there’s something wrong! This baby has just been placed in the arms of two strangers and pulled away from her nanny, the woman who loved her while she was at the social welfare institute, and quite possibly the only caregiver she remembers. To me, that sounds like an occasion to cry.
Another problematic element for me was when Angela, the American mother, says that her daughter was “just the most wonderful gift.” I understand her sentiment, but this phrasing continues the objectification of adoptees. Additionally, a gift implies that there is a willing giver in a celebratory manner. I don’t think child relinquishment is ever celebratory, and I don’t think we can assume abandonment for all children coming from China, given the pervasive amount of trafficking.
When the two families meet and see the girls, who look identical and have identical birth dates and other details, the families talk about their confusion. The orphanage director denied that the girls were twins, but the families exchanged contact information in case they were related somehow and even asked about DNA testing while they were still in China.
To me the most disturbing line of the film is in the clip above, when Wenche, the Norwegian mother said, “I was worried they might start a process to have both girls.” I understand how much time, money, and most of all, emotional energy both couples put into their adoptions, but I fundamentally believe the girls should have been kept together once the DNA results were confirmed.
Interestingly, both couples in this film described adoption as their second choice. While I know this doesn’t negate the love they have for their daughters, a part of me winces every time I hear that word choice. I think my primary objection to it in this case is that biology was so important to these couples when trying to have children. Only because that didn’t work out, they decided to “try adoption.” The American father says that finding out the girls were identical twins was great news for Mia because most girls adopted from China don’t have a biological connection with siblings or parents. And while he’s right about that, I don’t think these parents evaluated the significance of being separated from each other for their daughters, who so obviously long to be together.
The American mother says, “there was no conversation between Wenche, Sigmund, and us about the girls living together because by the time we found out, it was six months after we had been home.” Six months is nothing compared to a lifetime apart. I see the argument that the girls already belonged in each of their families as a very selfish one. In this case, the parents ultimately got what they wanted – children, while Mia and Alexandra sacrificed not only their first country, language, families, but were forced to sacrifice each other for the happiness of their parents.
Alexandra says repeatedly, “I wish Mia and I could be together a lot and not separated.” She even asked her parents to move to the U.S.A. so they could be close. During the process of making this film, the twins were able to spend more time together and see each other twice in one year. Even if the girls were able to see each other 20 times in one year, by not being raised together their relationship has been fundamentally altered.
The birthparent narrative we often tell is that the child’s birthmother loved him/her so much and wanted him/her to have a better life, so she made the ultimate sacrifice by giving him/her up. We often times consider this to be a beautiful and heart-wrenching decision, and we depend on this narrative to continue adoptions. In the horrible situation of these twin girls’ separation, I think the most ethical thing to do would have been to perform the DNA tests as soon as possible instead of waiting six months when they were already settled, and unfortunately one of the families would have had to “make the ultimate sacrifice.” I’m sure this comment will not be well-received, but if we expect first parents to do it, I think we can expect one of these sets of parents could have done it as well, because it was in the best interest of both of the children. Of course the family would still love their daughter, but there were other options. The families could have put pressure on their agencies or the social welfare institute in China. They could have adopted again after they grieved their loss. The twins had no other options or ways of staying together, and I think their best interests should have been prioritized.
A lot of the comments on this film have been praising the adoptive parents, stating how beautiful it is that they’ve kept in touch all of these years. The only beautiful part of this, or the silver lining the girls might be able to see when they grow older, is fact that the two sets of parents meeting was completely coincidence. Since the Norwegian father was ill and they had to process their paperwork with the American group, the two families could have never met. Even more “fate-like” was the fact that the girls were both wearing red and white gingham dresses. Perhaps this is the part Mia and Alexandra will focus on because the alternative, that they could have been kept together had the parents truly wanted that, is too heartbreaking.
In an update from the parents after the the release of the film:
On whether the girls will be seeing more of each other:
It’s hard to say if the girls will see each other more in the future. It’s not easy for our families to see each other considering the cost of travel between California and Norway. Another issue is time off work and school. One of the main reasons we agreed to do this documentary was to provide the girls more opportunities to see each other. It worked out great this year because we got 2 unexpected trips to Sweden and Norway. The girls [use] Face Time every weekend but there is nothing like seeing each other in person.