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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Accidental Brothers

The Story of Twins Exchanged at Birth and the Power of Nature and Nurture

Nancy L. Segal and Yesika S. Montoya

St. Martin's Press


Chapter 1

A Dubious Double

Brothers from La Paz

Some twins seem to belong together, but others don’t. Abby and Becky Moore are fraternal twins, but you would never know it to look at them. Abby’s long blonde hair and bangs border her round face and forehead, while Becky’s short red hair accentuates her thin face and freckles. At age seven Abby towered nearly five inches over her sister and was eighteen pounds heavier. When the twins attended a birthday party, a friend’s mother, who did not realize they were fraternal twins, actually introduced them to one another. But Becky looks a lot like her older brother, Adam.

No one would think that the Spooner-Durrant sisters are twins, but Lauren and Hayleigh are a fraternal pair. Lauren has the complexion of their fair-skinned mother, Alison, while Hayleigh resembles their dark-skinned dad. The twins’ physical divergence is striking, but perhaps not surprising since many different genes working in concert significantly affect skin color.1 Each twin apparently acquired different sets of those genes from each parent. In an unusual quirk of fate several years later, Alison delivered her second set of fraternal female twins, Leah and Miya, who show the same contrasting appearance as their older sisters. Bystanders seeing the family walk through a shopping mall or enjoying a Sunday brunch might easily assume that the different children were either adopted or brought together by their parents’ second marriage, but they would be wrong: the children in both pairs are ordinary fraternal twins, conceived naturally like any other pair.

William and Wilber, and Jorge and Carlos, became unwitting members of an extremely rare group of “presumed twins.” Such twins may, or may not, show the skin color contrasts of biracial twins like Hayleigh and Lauren, and Leah and Miya, but they hardly look related. In fact, these presumed twins are accidental brothers and sisters, brought together by a random act of fate—the inadvertent switching of two babies in a hospital nursery. But people believed that William and Wilber were fraternal twins—after all, their mother had a multiple pregnancy and two babies came home. People often tease presumed twins and their families because it is hard to imagine how the same couple could produce two such different children. However, most people know that fraternal twins inherit different genes from their parents, sharing an average of 50 percent of their biological relatedness, just like full siblings—and this bit of knowledge helps them reconcile the differences they see. Still, the extremely divergent looks and behaviors of these twins become a constant topic of conversation, more so as they grow older. That is because genetic influence on individual differences, known as heritability, becomes more important over time, emphasizing the twins’ differences even more. This happens because as adults we move away from our families and gain greater control over our environment, so our choices are better reflections of our genetic predispositions. Genetic effects are amplified as we age.2

A great example of this phenomenon is religiosity (that is, religious interests and activities). Studies of religiosity using high school juniors living at home found that the similarity of identical and fraternal pairs was about the same. However, when studies used twins who were eighteen and older, genetic effects showed up—the identical pairs, whether reared apart or together, were more alike than the fraternal pairs.3 Reared-apart identical twins Sharon and Debbie were raised in different faiths, Catholicism and Judaism, respectively. Both twins are heavily involved in religious activities today, although Sharon now identifies as an Evangelical Christian. Most important, both believe they would have fully embraced the other’s faith had their adoptive families been reversed. Interestingly, neither of the adoptive siblings raised with them has shown the same high level of religious involvement.4

I also got to know reared-apart identical twin firefighters, Mark Newman and Jerry Levey, who grew up in different New Jersey cities about sixty miles apart. The two were occasionally confused with one another—Jerry’s relatives were miffed when “Jerry” walked past them on the street without so much as a nod in their direction, and Mark’s father was falsely informed that “Mark” had been playing hooky from school one afternoon. The twins finally met when they were thirty-one, after a friend of Mark’s spotted Jerry at a volunteer firefighters’ convention—he knew it wasn’t Mark, but it was someone who looked a lot like him. At that time the twins differed in weight by about eighty pounds, but Mark’s fellow firefighters could still see their friend in Jerry’s slimmer version.

They had a lovefest at first as these big burly brothers slid effortlessly into a twin culture all their own. Both were six feet, four inches tall, with balding heads, bushy moustaches, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, and prominent noses. Both drank only Budweiser beer and in huge quantities, even positioning their little finger beneath the can for support in exactly the same manner. They craved Chinese takeout, ordered their steaks raw to rare, and showed zero tolerance for inept servers. Sadly, their bond weakened over the years after Jerry married and Mark moved to the Southwest. But they did have differences—Mark listened to rock ’n’ roll, while Jerry liked country and western; Mark cheered on the Dallas Cowboys, while Jerry rooted for the Washington Redskins—however, both acknowledged that they liked each other’s preferences. Both twins were raised in the Jewish faith and held their separate bar mitzvahs on nearly the same day; while neither twin is religious, both consider themselves Jewish.

Sports participation works exactly the same way as religiosity. Adolescent identical and fraternal twins from the Netherlands did not differ in how often they took part in physical activities. But adult identical twins were much more alike than their fraternal twin counterparts, evidence of genetic effects. Thus we can better understand why both reared-apart identical twins Lucky and Dianne rode and raised horses, Tom and Steve became bodybuilders, and Margaret and Caroline were great walkers—whereas Roger and Tony’s preferred sport was eating. And during Olympic years we hear about identical twin competitors, such as the American skiers Phil and Steve Mahre (1984), Slovakian canoers and kayakers Peter and Pavol Hochschorner (2004), and Chinese synchronized swimmers Wenwen and Tingting Jiang (2008).5

Fraternal twins compete together less often, largely because of their different physical abilities and motivations. Notable exceptions are the US fraternal twin gymnasts Morgan and Paul Hamm—Paul won the overall gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, while each won a silver medal in the team competition. Another extraordinary exception is Dominique Moceanu, an elite Olympic gymnast and a member of the “Magnificent Seven” of the US Women’s Gymnastics Team at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Although she is not a twin, she learned she had a similarly talented younger biological sister who had been adopted away at birth. Amazingly, her sister, Jen, who was born without legs, became a champion tumbler and performer and had idolized Dominique long before she learned they were sisters.6 As full siblings the two share the same genetic relationship as fraternal twins.

Twin research and reports such as these made it important to compare the religious leanings and sports interests of the four Colombian brothers. Would the real identical brothers be a greater match than the accidental brothers? As they transitioned from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, their differences were becoming increasingly obvious to everyone around them. Still, no one imagined that the two rather different children they knew, apparently born to a mother who had delivered twins, were biologically unrelated because one twin was accidentally exchanged with another twin in the nursery.

William and Wilber—Lads of La Paz

William and Wilber grew up in La Paz, in the north central part of Colombia, about 150 miles from the nation’s capital city of Bogotá. La Paz is largely a farming region in the department, or state, of Santander. William and Wilber spent the first five years of their lives in the tiny area of Landázuri until their family moved to the equally tiny area of Vereda El Recreo.

People had marveled at the physical and temperamental differences between the two ever since they were born. William, slight and dark-complexioned, looks like no one in his family, although some people thought he resembled his paternal grandmother, Germina. In contrast Wilber, robust and light-skinned, looks a lot like his parents and some of his siblings. The brothers’ temperaments are also at odds—William is warm and mild mannered, whereas Wilber is reserved and hot tempered. Tendencies toward explosive behavior are characteristic of Santandereans, who also speak at amazingly fast clips, making them hard for others to understand. William, however, speaks in a slower, more measured way than Wilber, even though they grew up together. This is not surprising because genes do partly shape our speech and language patterns.7 I have seen (and actually heard) ample evidence of identical twins’ matching speech. The “Jim twins”—Jim Lewis and Jim Springer—who were raised in different Ohio towns spoke in the same low, hurried, and hard-to-understand way when I studied them in Minnesota or listened to their interviews on TV. The religious twins Sharon and Debbie spoke quickly but clearly, and the voices and speech patterns of the famous firefighter twins were indistinguishable unless I was standing in front of them so I could see who was talking.

* * *

As of 2005, when William and Wilber were about seventeen and would have left for military service, La Paz counted a population of 773, although the greater area now counts about three thousand residents.8 The population of La Paz is actually misleading. The brothers grew up in a farmhouse that stands alone amid the plants and wildlife—festivals and other goings-on are hours away and happen only occasionally. La Paz has several bars and pool halls to choose from, but nothing much changes from week to week—websites that list musical and cultural events in Bogotá do not exist for La Paz.

La Paz now has about one hundred small businesses, such as fruit and vegetable stands, shops for repairing farm equipment, and the bars and pool halls where teenagers like to hang out. The few restaurants, cafes, and markets are often family run and offer the same food, drink, and candy choices. People often lounge on benches at the entrances to these places—older women in long dresses with beautiful gold earrings and young men in high rubber boots and broad-rimmed hats. The bathrooms in these eating establishments are typically tiny, dark, and without toilet paper. Plumbing is uncertain—when we stopped for a bathroom break at perhaps the only shop open late on a Sunday night, the clerk sternly cautioned that we could urinate, nothing else.

To reach these businesses from the brothers’ childhood home requires hiking several hours each way, riding a horse, or combining a one-hour walk with a one-hour ride in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. (Roads are finally under construction today, although many people still do not have cars and transportation.) Walking means navigating uneven terrain and either wading through muddy streams or risking a terrifying walk across an aging rope bridge. From an early age children walk these long distances to and from school—the trip to William and Wilber’s simple, one-story schoolhouse required a one-hour hike each way. Getting there meant putting on high boots and negotiating long stretches of rough landscape. Paths are poorly defined, and anyone unfamiliar with the area can quickly get lost. Facilities at the school were sparse—a sports field looked more like an abandoned lot than a place to play. The school day lasted from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., and when children returned home in the late afternoon they were expected to help tend crops, care for farm animals, and chop and carry wood.

Homes in the twins’ tiny childhood district of Vereda El Recreo lack modern conveniences, such as running water, flush toilets, toilet paper, and electric lights. The twins’ home did not even have an outhouse—instead, the bathroom was in the great outdoors, and bushes afforded (and still do) whatever privacy one can find. Their home from ages five to eighteen was an open, three-sided wooden structure with three rooms, or living areas, and a sort of patio out front, set within nine hectares (twenty-two acres) of land. The walls and floors show signs of age, and what looks like red paint on a crumbling wooden stove is actually blood from the cows and other animals that are slaughtered and prepared for meals. Missing planks let in rain, wind, and sun, so the family has little protection from the weather. William said the house was more rudimentary than others in the area, but Wilber (the native son) considered it about average. Thieves could gain easy access to these properties, but no one remembers any such crimes in a place where everyone knows their neighbors. However, guerillas, the terrorist rebels who fought the Colombian militia from 1964 until 2016, had no trouble demanding crops and supplies when they passed through La Paz and surroundings areas. The paramilitary, the peoples’ defense against the guerillas, also came through some years later and would take cows or charge taxes for owning cows—the more cows, the higher the taxes.

Each family’s relative isolation may partly explain the close relationships that developed among the siblings. William and Wilber have four older siblings. Ancelmo, called “Chelmo” for short, is Wilber and William’s second-oldest brother. He is forty or forty-one and was born on March 30, but he is unsure of the year. Lack of attention to time is typical of residents in the Colombian countryside, especially among those with limited literacy. Like other individuals her age, Ana Delina, the mother of this brood, can barely read and write—she completed only the second grade. Their father, Carmelo, who attended school for less than a year and was just “fooling around” while he was there, can do neither. Ana claims to have been married on All Saints’ Day, which falls on November 1, but that is debatable—her daughter, Alcira, claims that her parents were married on December 28. Regardless, Ana and Carmelo do not celebrate wedding anniversaries.

All the La Paz siblings left school between the ages of eight and eleven to work on the family farm, although all can read and write. But even William and Wilber have trouble listing the ages of their family members, and their responses often conflict. William says that Ana is seventy-eight, while Wilber says she is seventy—it turned out that Wilber is correct, because Ana was forty-five when she had her twins. And Alcira claims to be two years younger than she really is.

Birth dates are printed on drivers’ licenses (licencias de conduccion, or pases), but the family never had any real need for a car because the area lacked roads. Of course, date of birth, as well as name, photograph, thumbprint, blood type, security holograms, and ID number are printed on Colombian government-issued identity cards (cédulas) that citizens must carry at all times. However, La Paz residents rarely use the card in their secluded town where everyone knows everyone else. No one has credit cards and crops often take the place of cash.

Set of Six: Three Brothers, One Sister, and So-Called Twins

Chelmo is Wilber’s older biological brother and William’s accidental one. Chelmo is lean and tan from laboring on the farm that he loves, growing cocoa and corn and raising cows. His short dark hair and imposing moustache are his most distinctive outward features. He wears the uniform of the town—a nondescript button-down shirt, faded blue jeans, brown belt, and brown work shoes. Chelmo looks older than forty (or forty-one), perhaps because of his hard work, constant sun exposure, and infrequent medical visits. He now lives in the house he grew up in along with his partner and children, including a nineteen-year-old son, Stevenson, and sixteen-year-old identical twin boys, Brian and Wilmer—the aging Ana and Carmelo no longer live there, having moved to a location that is closer to shops, but a three-hour walk from the house where they raised their family. Like all the brothers in the La Paz family, Chelmo is an avid football (fútbol) fan and supporter of the team Atlético Nacional. (Football in Colombia and other Latin American countries is the same as soccer in the United States and some other western nations.) Like most rural inhabitants, he speaks quickly, sounding like an answering machine on fast-forward—people from Bogotá (rolos), who speak more slowly, have a hard time understanding him and other people from nonurban areas. The rolos inhabit a city rich with cultural and educational offerings that some have called the “Athens of South America.”9 Rolos are conscious of speech, dress, manners, family names, and other social conventions that define their urban life. On the rare occasions that they go to the city, Chelmo and his siblings feel like outsiders.

Chelmo doesn’t smile often, but he becomes emotional when discussing anything to do with William. Chelmo broke down in tears when he and his family gathered for the first time with Carlos, Wilber’s biological twin. They assured this newest addition to the family that they would never forsake him. William said he did not feel part of this scene, having learned that his biological parents had died several years earlier, so he would never meet them. But perhaps he had spent some precious time with his mother, Luz, in kangaroo care before entering the hospital’s nursery. I hoped so because those moments with his mother would have been his last.

That both Ana and her son Chelmo had identical twins may not be coincidental. Researchers once thought that identical twinning was a random event, happening with equal chance across all families—after all, identical twins occur in only three or four of every one thousand births worldwide. But in the 1990s researchers found evidence that identical twinning may be a genetic trait in some families.10 In fact, large multigeneration families teeming with identical twins have been located in parts of India, Iran, and Jordan. And in August 2017 I met identical Brazilian twins Marjorie and Mayara, who have twenty-four mostly identical female pairs across five family generations, probably the largest number reported in a single family. These twins and their family members come from Rio Grande do Sul, a region of southern Brazil known for its high rate of twinning, which appears to be genetically influenced. Being an older father also seems to increase the chances of twinning, but Chelmo was not an older father when his twins were born.11

Not all the La Paz siblings are married or have partners, so whether they will become parents of multiples remains to be seen. Edgar is closest in age to the twins—he was seven when they were born—and is now single and living with his parents in their new home. In both Colombian cities and countrysides, it is not unusual for family members to live together, even as children become adults, because of the financial and emotional benefits such arrangements offer. Nonetheless, Ana is concerned that most of her children are unmarried and childless.

* * *

Edgar turned thirty-four on February 18, but his year of birth escapes him too. Given the La Paz family members’ relationship with time, it seems incongruous that they always carry their cell phones, even in the field, although reception is spotty. Edgar shares his siblings’ joy in working on the farm, calling it “artwork in the country.” He, too, is lean and tan. He favors the same casual clothing that Chelmo wears. And like his brother, Edgar is not much of a smiler. He seemed uncomfortably quiet unless answering a question posed directly to him, and when he met me in Bogotá for an interview he appeared ill at ease as we ate lunch at a local cafe or took pictures. His reserve may have been largely the result of feeling out of place in a noisy city surrounded by lots of people, traffic, and commotion. However, Edgar seemed more relaxed when his sister, Alcira, finally showed up. Ana and Carmelo’s only daughter is more open and outgoing, and smiles somewhat more than her brothers.

The day we saw the twins’ only sister, she was harried after a long trip in the middle of a strike by truck drivers that had made traveling to Bogotá from her home in Vélez treacherous. The traffic was heavy, even stalled in places, public transportation was operating only sporadically, and fires could be seen on the side of the roads. She also worried about getting home that night to tend to the small market that she owns and operates with her daughter. Alcira loves her work. She also prefers living in a small city to life in an isolated farm area, given the greater opportunities for employment. In fact, she had worked as a nanny in Bogotá when she was younger.

Alcira says she is fifty-four, but she is really fifty-six and the widowed mother of three. Dark-haired and light-skinned, Alcira inherited her father’s prominent jaw and her mother’s slim build. Like many Colombian women, she wears her lovely long dark hair pulled back tightly from her face, but the long dangling earrings favored by virtually all Colombian women are missing—eyeglasses are her only ornament. Alcira favors simple but attractive attire—black jacket, black slacks, black shoes, and a light-colored button-down shirt. She politely lets her wishes be known—she wanted lunch as soon as she arrived at the hotel and informed us that her time with us was limited.

Carmelo did not favor giving his only daughter an education; consequently, Alcira received less schooling than her other siblings, advancing only as far as the second grade, whereas most of her other siblings completed the fifth grade. She attended school between the ages of twelve and fourteen, later than the others, because her parents wouldn’t let her take the hour’s walk across the hills, streams, and mud alone when she was younger—so until that time she worked in the field, harvesting cocoa.

Farm life makes schooling less structured in rural Colombia than in the cities. A student’s failure to show up, or a decision to drop out early, would not cause school officials to investigate, as in the United States, Canada, or Europe. In contrast to Alcira, the accidental twins William and Wilber started school at age seven, because they walked with their teacher, Domidti, who lived relatively close by. But the family could not afford to keep William in school—until 2012 school in Colombia was free only for the first five years.12 This was a huge disappointment to William, who loved doing homework and did well at school. He was, of course, unaware that his true identical twin, Jorge, was a fairly serious student back in Bogotá and he would eventually attend college—living a life that they should have shared. Wilber, however, was not academically inclined and had to be nagged to complete his assignments. He was uninterested in going to school beyond the fifth grade, content to work on the family farm, then get a job on someone else’s farm, and eventually join the military.

Wilber’s attitude fit with Ana and Carmelo’s view that the lessons children learn at home are more important than what they learn at school. But William thought much differently and set his sights far beyond the few years of education that La Paz could offer. The family sometimes wondered about the source of his motivations and dreams—they certainly did not arise from any encouragement at home. Ana would have allowed him to go to school, but the family simply had no money for this purpose.

Book Learning

The La Paz school was a one-room structure attended by children who hiked several miles each way to get there. Class size was about thirty-seven and might mix children of the same or different ages. Students frequently had the same teacher for more than one grade. The school had no kitchen or cafeteria, so William and Wilber carried their lunch from home, wrapped in a plantain leaf. Few students continued past the fifth grade because of money issues, work responsibilities, and family values (like Ana and Carmelo, some parents believed that going to school was not as important as working hard). As expected, both brothers left school when they were eleven to work full time on their family’s farm. Many young boys eventually went to work on other properties to earn some money because working at home did not provide wages. Wilber worked on several nearby farms, but bouts of homesickness kept William close to home. Farm work did not come naturally to this sensitive, inquisitive boy who longed to go to school. Still, years of tending crops, lifting heavy equipment, and walking two hours each day to and from school added muscle and strength to his slight frame.

It was a hard life for both boys, but especially for William, who could not get the education he craved. This remains the greatest disappointment of his life, as it would be for anyone whose life circumstances prevent formal learning. But his regret is compounded many times over by the knowledge that a momentary oversight—an unfortunate mistake in the preemie nursery—cost him the education that would have been his. Nevertheless, William loved his La Paz family and accepted the fact that they could not afford to send him to school. His family did not have enough cash to even buy clothes—instead, they purchased cloth in town and paid a neighbor to make most of their clothing. Of course, they had to buy some things, such as overalls for heavy farm labor and high rubber boots for traversing the muddy hills. Costly shoes, dresses, and slacks were not necessities.

* * *

William and Wilber’s brother Efrain is about four years older than Chelmo. Efrain is also a farmer and the father of two daughters, a one-year-old and an eleven-year-old; both live apart from him and have different mothers. Efrain is twenty years older than William and Wilber, so he was rarely at home after they were born, but he is close to them nonetheless. And Ana and Carmelo had two other older sons whose deaths left a lingering sadness in the family. Luis Angel died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound when he was eighteen, and Israel died in the military when he was twenty-two. Some people in La Paz suspect Luis Angel’s death was a suicide, although analysis and reconstruction of events on that day make suicide unlikely. Israel stayed in the military largely because his mother had encouraged him to do so, which compounded her grief with guilt and regret. The heartbreaking loss of two sons, especially given the public nature of Luis’s accident, has made coping with their deaths extremely trying for Ana and Carmelo. William and Wilber are generally unaffected by these family tragedies because they never knew these brothers—the twins were only about four when Israel died and had not been born when Luis Angel passed away. But they visit their gravesites on occasion, wondering what these siblings might have been like. Surprisingly, neither twin mentioned how their siblings’ deaths affected how their parents treated them. Perhaps Ana’s special attention to William—sleeping with him until his early teenage years and allowing him to stay on the farm instead of taking a job with another farmer—was her way of making sure she wouldn’t lose another son. Most family members attributed the relationship of Ana and William to his sensitive and caring nature, but there may have been more to it.

Brothers at Odds

Throughout their lives William and Wilber have looked and acted nothing alike. Their extreme differences have elicited the surprise and confusion, as well as teasing and taunting, to which twins who are markedly different become accustomed. Their dislike of each other’s work attitudes, household habits, and relationships with girlfriends are at the center of their constant twin-on-twin combat. But despite their perpetual animosity, William and Wilber share a fierce family loyalty as brothers, a bond that was heightened, albeit briefly, during their dangerous stints in the military in 2008. They were in the same unit of ninety-two men and often at risk from guerilla attacks and the dangers of hidden landmines. As the soldier directing communications, William marched in position four, while Wilber stood fifteen or twenty places behind him. During these difficult times they stayed closely attuned to each other’s safety and well-being because of the mortal threats they faced. Wilber often caught up to his brother so they could march together. Once, on a nighttime march in the jungle south of Bolívar, Colombia, William heard Wilber whisper in his ear, “Be careful—may God watch over you.” William recalled: “You could see in Wilber’s face the love he had for me, but then he forgot about it.” Upon returning to civilian life they reverted instantly to their habitual bickering and badgering of one another.

Loyal feelings between accidental siblings, despite their clash of ideas and judgments, are not unusual. I also saw this in Gran Canaria, Spain, in 2010, in the case of the presumed fraternal twins Begoña and Beatriz. On an ordinary afternoon in December 2001 Begoña, a slim, dark-haired twenty-eight-year-old with a taste for fashion, entered the Las Arenas Shopping Mall in Las Palmas, the capital city of Gran Canaria. She wandered into Stradivarius, a popular clothing store chain for teenagers and young adults, and looked around for a while before purchasing a T-shirt. Suddenly, she was approached by a shop assistant who called her by the wrong name (Delia) and seemed puzzled when Begoña didn’t recognize her. That night the shop assistant phoned her friend, Delia’s mother, to complain that Delia had been rude to her and to find out why. But Delia hadn’t been to the mall that afternoon.

Several days passed. Begoña returned to the store to exchange the T-shirt for a larger size, only this time Beatriz, her presumed fraternal twin, was with her. The shop assistant spotted them in the fitting room and wanted to know why “Delia” hadn’t spoke to her the other day. Beatriz answered that her sister’s name was Begoña, not Delia, and that she, Beatriz, was Begoña’s twin sister. The assistant somewhat jokingly replied that Begoña had a real twin sister somewhere else. In fact, the resemblance of Begoña and Delia was so striking that the assistant arranged to have them meet later that day. She also observed that Beatriz looked a lot like one of Delia’s younger sisters. Beatriz didn’t know it at the time, but she and Delia had been switched at birth, so it made sense that Beatriz would resemble members of Delia’s family, to whom she was really related.

The meeting took place in a coffee shop at the top of the Las Arenas Mall. Within minutes it was clear that Begoña and Delia were the real twins, because their similarities were so striking—hands, hair, nails, eating habits, and mannerisms. In fact, when Delia got her first glimpse of Begoña, she was shocked to see that they walked the same way, a gait that Delia describes as weird. The only major difference was that Delia had been diagnosed with leukemia when she was sixteen. Everyone grew increasingly uncomfortable as the truth became inescapable: Beatriz and Delia had been accidentally exchanged when all three were babies in the crowded preemie nursery of the Hospital Nuestra Señora el Pino (Our Lady of the Pine). Beatriz belonged to another family, which explained why she looked so different from her supposed twin, Begoña, and her other siblings. Delia also belonged to a different family, explaining why she looked like neither of her two sisters or anyone else in the family. Begoña was the only sister of the three who grew up where she belonged.

All three lives were about to change beyond recognition. Everyone knew it. Their personal and cultural identities were about to be shattered.13

One’s identity includes one’s goals, values, and beliefs in religious ideology, political leanings, family relationships, and friendship styles. The three young women experienced different, but drastic changes in how they viewed themselves and how others might see them. Suddenly, two were no longer twins and two had acquired a genetic duplicate. And two found themselves with a new set of parents and several new siblings. Cultural identity focuses on cultural values and practices and on how a person thinks about the group to which she or he belongs.14 The switched sisters had been raised in rather different environments—Beatriz in a lively city with lots of opportunities and Delia in the quiet countryside with few. Who each one was and where she belonged suddenly were called into question. Their parents also suffered, knowing they had raised someone else’s child.

Before everyone could fully accept what appeared to be true, DNA tests would have to confirm the genetic relatedness of Begoña and Delia, and the lack of relatedness of Begoña and Beatriz. Not surprisingly, Begoña and Delia proved to be genetically identical, whereas Beatriz was unrelated to both. All three finally understood why they had so little in common with their sibling’s interests and aspirations, and why their discussions rarely ended in agreement. But the two who had grown up as fraternal twin sisters were highly protective of one another.15 Begoña, the more extroverted and confident sister, protected and nurtured Beatriz, who suffered severely from learning that they were not really sisters—Beatriz also worried that their mother would reject her in favor of her real daughter, Delia. But Begoña made certain that their sisterly relationship did not change.

Studies show that the greater loyalty and allegiance we show toward close kin, relative to distant kin or nonkin, are most clearly revealed when something compromises their physical safety or threatens their life. People are more likely to assist close relatives in both ordinary situations (for example, when buying some items at a store) and life-or-death settings (such as saving a relative from a burning building), but the effect is especially strong when the life of a loved one is on the line. Researchers have offered different interpretations of this behavior that are not mutually exclusive. Developmental psychologists would attribute altruistic acts to immediate, everyday events and experiences, such as learned family kindness and devotion. Evolutionary researchers would additionally explain altruistic behavior with reference to such factors as promoting human functioning and survival. They would invoke the concept of inclusive fitness, the idea that because we share higher proportions of our genes with our parents, sisters, and brothers than with our nieces, nephews, and cousins, we are predisposed to benefit close family members whose survival gets our own genes into future generations. Of course, no one does genetic arithmetic in their heads when they act altruistically; they only behave as if they do. We tend to help people we have identified as close relatives, especially when we feel emotionally close to them. Helping close relatives, even at some cost to ourselves, brings us pleasure and happiness, feelings that most likely increase the probability of selfless acts.16

* * *

Two flights above Carnes Finas de Colombia (Fine Meats of Colombia), the butcher shop in Bogotá where William worked until recently and where Wilber still works, is the small apartment that they still share. The hometown friend who hired them owns the butcher shop and the building. Leaving La Paz, where employment opportunities were few, opened up new opportunities for the brothers who were then in their early twenties. Leadership is a hallmark of William’s character, but he is mostly a clever, resourceful, and persistent mastermind. Moving to Bogotá also allowed William to enter a program for obtaining a high school equivalency diploma, the only one of his La Paz siblings to do so. He did this while working full time at the butcher shop, finishing the study program in November 2010, just before his twenty-second birthday.

Neither brother could know that accepting their friend’s job offer began a strange series of events that would lead to the most life-changing event of their young lives. One can also ask: What if the brothers had turned down the offer? They would never have known the consequences of that choice because everyone’s lives would have continued as before.

The brothers call their workplace a shop, but it is really a counter at the rear of La Gran Manzana (The Big Apple), a medium-size supermarket in the middle of a residential street packed with small businesses. To find it, you have to know the butcher shop is there because the big red apple over the bright green awning at the entrance overshadows the smaller picture of a cow that tells passersby that fresh meat is sold inside. The area behind the counter looks like a torture chamber with its collection of strange-looking metal machines for cutting up meat and bones. Sharp knives and electric blades are everywhere, intimidating to onlookers but handled expertly by the brothers clad in white aprons and surgical gloves. Dark blood stains are visible across the white-tiled walls and the floor.

The two would be unlikely business partners if they were not related, but working together and living together works for them. Like many people, they find it more comfortable to share their trade and home with a familiar, trusted sibling than a stranger or even a friend who is less well tested. This is true even when siblings’ work practices and lifestyles clash, and this is especially the case for William and Wilber. William’s relative lack of organization at home infuriates Wilber, who complains that William is always taking his things. Their cousin Brian, who worked in the shop part time while going to school, rolls his eyes when he describes the brother-brother conflicts that unfold on a continuous basis. Brian “often wondered how he could stand them—they fought every day for seven months.” What William and Wilber see as their usual relationship seems fiercely contentious and quite unpleasant to many people around them. They argue about everything, but that is because there is a side of William that only Wilber sees.

William’s childhood warmth and sensitivities became William’s civic-mindedness as an adult. When he learned that the office of the governor of Santander was donating its old computers to schools, William stepped in and took them to schoolhouses throughout La Paz. In October 2015 he stood for election to the La Paz city council, but lost by six votes. Reflecting on this loss, he believes he was too laid-back during his campaign, confident that the support he received would be enough but it wasn’t. Still, William will run for mayor one day to serve the people of his town. “What makes a politician is the will to work and the desire to help the people where you feel a sense of belonging,” he told me. Until early 2016 he was working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, as manager of the Bogotá butcher shop in order to support his mother and the rest of his family. He was also saving money to buy an apartment—and then his unfulfilled dream of getting an education became a realistic goal.

He was convinced that a law degree would better position him as a candidate and public servant in the future. Finding the right law school wasn’t easy, but with a high school equivalency certificate and some assistance he checked out various law schools and enrolled at Bogotá’s Uniciencia in fall 2016. He was able to afford the tuition because he received financial assistance from La Paz’s current mayor. None of this would have happened if William had not met his identical twin brother, Jorge, who inspired and supported him like no one else—and as a college student gave William a glimpse of the professional man he could become. William loves his legal studies and might not have found the right school if he and Carlos, Wilber’s biological twin, had not formed their own relationship; in fact, Carlos accompanied William as he visited law schools. William’s devotion and friendliness to the people of La Paz will never change, as demonstrated by his assisting the mayor in a project for building roads allowing easier access to the remote regions of his former home. He spoke excitedly about the tree-cutting and laying of pavement that have already taken place.

* * *

As the manager of the butcher shop, William made more money than Wilber, so William paid for Wilber’s food and rent—Wilber was his employee and moonlighted at other butcher shops around town. Now, since his brother’s enrollment in law school, Wilber is the new manager and has also become William’s benefactor. Still, the brothers continue to clash over how to run the shop. William believes that serving customers and developing good relationships with them come first, but Wilber insists that maintaining equipment and cleaning up are higher priorities. Of course, these responsibilities are related, but each brother has different preferences. Now that Wilber is in charge, he runs things his way, but William voices lots of opposing opinions.

In fact, their people skills at work and at play are diametrically opposed. William is customer oriented, Wilber is task oriented; William is messy, Wilber is neat. William dates a few women seriously, reflecting his characteristically kind and caring nature. He is sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, and while he enjoys attention from young women, he does not exploit that attention to personal advantage. Wilber dates more women less seriously, and he is passionate about all things female. He is more playful and flirty and, like his true identical brother, Carlos, is not above telling little white lies to hide his tracks if he doesn’t want to see a woman on a particular night. Had William and Wilber not ended up as accidental brothers, it is unlikely that they would ever have become friends. Yet, even as he complains, Wilber insists that he and William get along fine.

* * *

At twenty-six William has retained his sweet, sensitive nature. His small, slim build belies the sturdiness and strength he acquired from heavy farm labor during his childhood and adolescence. His short, dark hair scatters across his head in all directions, although several stray locks look carefully positioned over his forehead. His dark eyes, slightly bumpy nose, and even teeth are less distinctive than his ears, which angle sharply away from his head. His impish grin gives him an endearing, boyish quality, tempered by a goatee that adds a bit of maturity to his otherwise youngish face. William usually prefers to dress in casual shirts, shapeless sweatshirts, and pants. He remains a formidable opponent in arm-wrestling matches, bringing many able arms crashing to the surface in seconds. But when he was in school, he avoided the fights that sometimes erupted between classmates because he didn’t think such combat was right.

* * *

Wilber is taller than William and has a more solid, athletic build. Like his real twin, Wilber looks like he should be stronger than his accidental brother, but he isn’t—and he is less driven than William, which may partly explain their difference in strength. The two also part ways when it comes to hair and clothing. Wilber is appearance conscious—he piles his dark hair fashionably high on his head and has always liked stylish clothes, including tapered shirts, tailored jeans, and leather jackets with lots of zippers. He regularly goes for manicures and eyebrow waxing, indulgences he sees as important and necessary. All this seems unusual for someone born and raised in a remote farming region. Around his neck Wilber wears a charm of the Virgen del Carmen, the patron saint of vehicles, because he likes the way it looks.

Wilber grew up in the right place with the right parents and siblings, but alongside the wrong twin. As a child he was never bothered by the greater affection his mother, Ana Delina, had for warm, sweet William, probably because Wilber was his father’s favorite. In fact, Carmelo defended Wilber in twin-twin conflicts and other matters—Carmelo knew Wilber was bad tempered and did nothing to curb it. In part, Carmelo thought Wilber’s hot-headed outbursts stemmed from being thrown from a horse as a child, because the fall changed the shape of a bone in his head, making it “curvy.” So when Ana complained about Wilber’s behavior, Carmelo would say, “Don’t bother that kid—he’s a little bit cuckoo, so to speak.” Perhaps Carmelo felt responsible for not physically protecting his young son, and so stood by him in his adult years when he needed help. But a more likely explanation is that Carmelo saw parts of his own personality and beliefs in this son. Both become crabby, cross, and exceedingly annoyed when provoked, behavior that escalates easily. Neither father nor son has the affectionate, loving side that defines William, which he unfailingly showed to his mother. (William fell off the horse along with Wilber, but was not injured.)

When he was growing up, William supported Ana when his parents fought, whereas his brother took a more evenhanded approach. When Ana left Carmelo alone on the farm in the heat of an argument, William advised her to stay away and let Carmelo cook for himself. This sounds out of character for a normally mild-mannered child, but he was insightful—perhaps Ana’s absence would make Carmelo’s heart (if not his stomach) grow fonder and set their relationship back on a positive track. In contrast, Wilber believed it was better for both parents if Ana returned because his father’s cooking skills were so questionable. Wilber chose an immediate, but short-term solution that favored his father at the expense of his mother.

The people of Santander have a reputation for being hot-headed. Although he generally is quiet and reserved, Wilber occasionally succumbs to sudden expressions of anger and irritation when tensions reach a certain threshold. William’s constant teasing can unleash such behavior, but William does not back off. William’s sweetness and sensitivity seem to vanish when it comes to Wilber, especially because William is aware of his brother’s volatility.

WILLIAM: When I’m not [in the store], I want him to be the one who is more responsible.

WILBER: But he fights with me when everybody is there.… When I’m in charge of the business, everything is OK.

WILLIAM: If I make jokes he immediately gets mad. And then I try to tease him or whatever and he’s, like, OK, leave me alone. I say, OK, don’t get mad about such a simple thing. And then I would tease him some more. Because he gets mad at such simple little things.

WILBER: I don’t like that when I’m working—they start joking with me and teasing me.… I say, hey, cooperate and let’s finish this [work] first. He starts to make jokes and makes fun of it. And that’s what makes me mad.

William’s pride and pleasure in getting along with others may reinforce Wilber’s premium preference for privacy and independence. William’s teasing may be partly an attempt to get his brother to become more open. Where William is quick to express friendly feelings toward others, Wilber is more likely to convey his love and devotion in extreme situations, such as a military march. During the time we spent with the twins, Wilber was less forthcoming than William about how he felt when he learned about the switch or how he reacted to meeting his identical twin. This does not mean that Wilber was not affected by these events, only that he is unwilling, uncomfortable, or unable to effectively describe his feelings to others.

Consistent with Wilber’s preference for privacy is his refusal to use email, although he text-messages and maintains a Facebook page. This arrangement seems inconsistent—either you are part of social media or you are not—but it may be less complicated and less expensive to rely on texting than to also use email, and Facebook privacy settings can be controlled, preventing views from unknown visitors. Just for fun, Wilber chose “Wilbert Alberto” as his Facebook name; he was unaware that Alberto is the middle name of his real twin, Carlos. Food and women rank high among Wilber’s recreational priorities. As a teenager living with his family or on a nearby farm, he made weekend hikes to La Paz in pursuit of women, frequenting its bars and pool halls—places his brother rarely visited. No such entertainment was available closer to home, and even neighbors had to travel considerable distances to share a drink or a meal.

The brothers do agree on one thing: both are devoted fans of Colombia’s football team, Atlético Nacional, but only Wilber’s bedroom is heavily decorated with banners displaying the team’s distinctive crest. Both Wilber and William developed their taste for football when they were ten, hiking an hour up a mountain to their cousin’s home to watch the sport on TV.

Although he prides himself on his maturity, Wilber bends to the will of others, walks away from confrontations, or erupts in bursts of emotion. And he doesn’t give himself credit for his talents—for example, he is a natural dancer who is fun to watch, but complains that he isn’t good enough. Not surprisingly, like his real twin, Carlos, Wilber moves freely and effortlessly—they are those lucky people whose bodies look good no matter what they do. Wilber performs the same beautiful undulating moves as Carlos, but does so with less abandon and confidence.

After fulfilling his obligations to the Colombian army, Wilber trained as a communications technician, installing Internet, telephone, and television systems. Never an eager student, he still has no interest in furthering his education—instead, he wants to own several businesses, although he is not specific about which ones or how or when he might accomplish these goals. He is task oriented and wants to get work done, but sees no need to add fun or zest to the job at hand. William is just the opposite, engaging friends, customers, and family (except for Wilber) with his charm.

Some people seem bigger physically than they really are, almost filling a room when you first meet them. Wilber is that way, but his quiet character and serious demeanor give way to William’s lively personality and affectionate manner when the two are together. As a child Wilber did not fight back when his brother was quick to physically attack him, a curious difference from their adult behaviors. Perhaps Wilber felt threatened by William’s greater agility, but he can hold his own in their verbal battles.

While William is good at reading others people’s thoughts and feelings, he is less understanding of Wilber, whereas other people, like Wilber’s newly found twin, Carlos, understand him much better. The real reared-apart twins share an understanding without explanation, the finest kind there is. I have seen many examples of the immediate rapport that develops between reunited identical twins. One of the firefighter twins put it best when he said that meeting his twin was like coming back after a vacation—the basis for the relationship was there and he had only to fill in the details. Paula, a female twin in another reared-apart pair, approached her first meeting with her sister, Elyse, with some trepidation. “I wondered what we would talk about,” she told me. Instead, they ended up sitting together in the Café Mogador in New York’s Greenwich Village for several delightful hours, drinking a fruity Spanish wine from the vineyard Marqués de Riscal. They felt like they were seeing different versions of themselves, with their long fingers, delicate wrists, and similar faces that drew attention from a server. The sisters share a love of art films, especially The Piano, Breaking the Waves, and Wings of Desire. As they sat in a cab at the end of the evening, they held each other tightly, reluctant to let go.17

* * *

According to the psychologist Steven Pinker, researchers have largely neglected the role of chance in shaping the people we become.18 In fact, chance played a huge role in the person William would become and is still becoming. Born in Bogotá, he was mistakenly taken to La Paz when he was just a week old—thus William became the accidental son of a farmer, Carmelo, and his wife, Ana Delina, as well as the accidental twin of Wilber. The boys’ toys were cars and trucks made from sardine cans, and their wading ponds and swimming pools were local streams. William, Wilber, and their friends fought faux wars, taking sides as the Colombian militia versus the terrorist guerillas. Sticks, boxes, and even guava were their playthings. Their free time was a quick hour after dinner, just before bedtime—they had no television to watch or computer to use to surf the Internet. Neither William nor Wilber used a computer until his late teens, when both entered the military, but as young kids both learned to use guns for hunting and target practice.

William’s life had changed a lot by July 2016 after the twins’ true identities came to light. Meeting his twin and knowing that his personal destiny had taken an extraordinary detour answered many questions he’d had about why he always felt so different from those around him. This new knowledge was energizing, like taking a great vacation when one is feeling uninspired and overburdened. He enjoys his law school classes and has completed one semester with good grades. “I’m not among the best, but I’m not one of the worst, either,” William said. “Even though I had not gone to school for such a long time, I picked up the pace slowly.” The new apartment he bought with money he saved managing the butcher shop is still being built, but he is crafting plans for making money from it, such as by renting out space. He thinks of himself as knowledgeable about business, not shrewd but always alert to opportunities.

William gained a lot of weight after 2015 by working out regularly at the gym and consuming high-protein concoctions. He now wears more stylish, form-fitting clothes that show off his new physique, and he finds that women are more attracted to him. “I’m yummy now,” he says. William is not a braggart, but his growing closeness to Jorge and more buff appearance may have given him a new kind of confidence.

William enjoys the spotlight, but he seems a little too trusting of people, perhaps because he grew up far from the city in a place where everyone knows everyone else. In fact, trust played a critical role in the first meeting of the real twins, William and Jorge. If not for them, Wilber and Carlos might never have met. “This is all God’s doing,” William said. “He made it perfect for me to be out there for twenty-five years and to make us meet again.”

Manon Serrano, who was accidentally switched at birth with another infant girl in Grasse, France, says, “I tend to never leave anything to chance. Now I even try to anticipate the unthinkable.”19 Perhaps learning he was switched at birth will make William more vigilant in the future, especially when he is about to become a father. George Holmes, one of the switched-at-birth twins from Canada, insists that he will bring a video camera into the delivery room when he has his first child, and it would not be surprising if William does the same.20 Some hospitals inform prospective parents about the procedures they follow to safeguard against accidental baby switching, but because such events are reported infrequently, many families may not take such possibilities seriously. Perhaps they should.

Twins Switched at Birth

Being called the wrong name by somebody you do not know—particularly by someone who is certain that he or she knows you—is sometimes more than a case of confusion. This may be especially true when you have lived your whole life as a fraternal twin. That was how Begoña and Beatriz, the fraternal twins from Gran Canaria, Spain, learned that they were not sisters at all.21 Before meeting Begoña’s look-alike at the shopping mall, neither sister was especially concerned about being confused for someone else, believing that the similarities the clerk saw in the two young women were simply coincidental. But thinking back, Begoña realized she had been confused twice before with someone named Delia—once by a young man at a bus stop who called her by the wrong name, and once by her neighbor who was certain she had seen Begoña at a coffee shop she had never been to. And Beatriz remembered that she was mistaken for someone else whenever she visited the northern area of the island—that person turned out to be Delia’s sister, Gara.22

* * *

Of course, not all fraternal twins called by the wrong name turn out to have an identical brother or sister who was switched at birth. Alex, a somewhat olive-skinned, Latin-looking man in his forties, calls himself a “visibly very fraternal twin.” His appearance contrasts sharply with that of his fair-complexioned, red-headed brother, Bob, so much so that the two were used to being teased about how different they look. But something happened to Alex at a tennis match that bothered him for nearly a decade, and he finally brought it to my attention in an email message, having read Someone Else’s Twin, my book about the switched twins from Gran Canaria. As he was walking past the refreshment stand on his way to the restroom, a woman shouted out a name (not his), so Alex assumed she was calling out to someone else. Later he returned to the refreshment stand and heard the woman call out the same name once again. Realizing that she was speaking to him, the surprised and confused Alex turned around to face her. She said, “Hey, you’re Steven!” He told her he was not Steven. Then she asked if he was a twin and he said he was. She also asked if he was from Kansas. Alex didn’t live in Kansas at that time, but he had been born there. He saw the woman’s expression grow strange—but she never apologized and, according to Alex, did not seem convinced by his replies to her questions. The encounter had upset him. Alex had been mistaken for other people before—could he have an identical twin, and could he have been switched with a nontwin infant in Kansas?

In such cases the recommended test compares the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of two suspected twins or siblings. Mitochondrial DNA exists outside the cell nucleus and is involved in several cellular processes, such as energy production and cell division.23 Because it is passed down intact from mothers to all their children, it is a way to determine whether twins or siblings could have the same mother. It turned out that Alex and Bob could have the same mother because their mtDNA samples matched, and their mother had delivered twin boys. However, this test does not prove shared maternity because first cousins related on their mother’s side of the family could also have the same mtDNA. That is, children born to a woman and her sister would have the same mtDNA because the sisters would have inherited it from their common mother, making the children cousins.

Alex has fathered fraternal twin girls. As a father he can only imagine the pain that a parent might feel upon learning that a child you have loved and raised is not really yours and that someone else has been raising your child all along. He was relieved to have the mtDNA results in hand showing that he and his twin brother matched, mostly to spare his parents the emotional turmoil of finding out that one of their twin sons was not really theirs. It can be painful but can sometimes deepen the love.

* * *

Only nine cases of switched-at-birth twins, including the two Colombian pairs, are in the record books. But I am certain that more are out there because we learn only about the ones that are found. Moreover, independent findings from two medical companies specializing in infant products and services suggest that baby switches are more common than we realize. Those studies estimate that twenty to twenty-three thousand mother-baby mismatches occur each year in US hospitals (e.g., taking an infant to the wrong room), but are quickly discovered and corrected before the babies go home.24 However, it is quite likely that some mistakes are never detected so we only think that baby switches are rare. In fact, every one of the documented switched-twin cases was uncovered because someone mistook one of the switched identical twins for the other. But if some switched infants are fraternal twins—and there must be some—they would be far less likely to be mistaken for one another because of their different looks, leaving their true identities forever unknown.

Switched singletons have even less of a chance of being discovered, although some are, like Manon Serrano. Two Russian mothers mistakenly received the wrong baby boy when the only nurse on duty mixed up the two children. The error wasn’t uncovered until their sons turned two and one of the mothers, Zarema Taisumova, was looking through some baby memorabilia and noticed another mother’s name on her baby’s identification tag. Following a court ruling that the children must be returned to their biological families, both sets of parents struggled terribly with the unbearable task of giving up a child they loved and learning to love their new child all over again.25

* * *

I often marvel at the ordinary events that lead to the amazing discovery that one twin was switched for another. These events include enrolling a child in a different school, joining a college club, taking a youngster to a medical appointment, or walking into a shopping mall. Hundreds of people do these things every day without consequence. But every once in a while such ordinary acts become extraordinary, rewriting lives beyond recognition.

Seven of the nine switched-twin pairs involved an exchange of one identical twin and one unrelated singleton. I keep asking myself: What are the chances that an identical twin would be swapped with another identical twin, as happened in Bogotá? Identical twins comprise only a fraction of births worldwide, and preemie nurseries are the first home to scores of nontwin newborns. I couldn’t begin to calculate the odds.

* * *

Carnes Finas de Colombia turned out to be the scene of the triggering event for William and Wilber. What happened in the butcher shop one day in summer 2013—“confusion at the counter”—also triggered a dramatic turn of events for another set of accidental brothers, Jorge and Carlos, who lived on the other side of Bogotá.

Copyright © 2018 by Nancy L. Segal and Yesika S. Montoya