This story beats love at first sight. Two people longed for each other, though they may have never met. They felt connected though they may never have touched. They'd even been given the same first names, though their families were strangers. By the time Meredith Grace Rittenhouse and Meredith Ellen Harrington were finally introduced, love was almost beside the point. Their bond was more mysterious, more fundamental. The Merediths are Chinese fraternal twins who were adopted by two different American families. The girls found each other almost six years ago, when they were 4, and haven't let go since.
Jiangmen, China, is a subtropical city, but during the winter it can cool off quite a bit. It was on an early December day that Meredith Grace's birth mother left the newborn baby girl outside and said goodbye. In China, children who are abandoned by their parents are often left in public places where they are found quickly. Meredith Grace's mother chose a busy part of town, the entrance to Holiday Park, across the street from an orphanage. If anyone knew how long Meredith Grace waited on that sidewalk or heard how loudly the baby cried, it might have been her own mother—women who abandon their babies have been said to wait nearby, still watching over their children, unable to do more than see who comes along.
Meredith Grace was taken in by the Jiangmen City Social Welfare Institute on Dec. 8, 1999. She was described as weak upon arrival in the single typed page of history the orphanage gave her adoptive family. The administrators guessed she was 1 week old and gave her a birthday of Dec. 1. Two weeks later, another baby girl, also found nearby, arrived. She was given a birthday of Dec. 16, though now she celebrates on the first day of the month.
During the nine months the two girls lived at the orphanage, they likely did not have much contact. As far as their American adoptive families know, there was no reason for the institute to suspect that the girls were twins. They lacked a strong physical resemblance then. At the orphanage, babies slept in stainless-steel cribs lined up end to end. They were taken out to play on bamboo mats placed on the pink tile floor, but the infants would have been too young to interact much. Their adoptive parents believe, however, that the girls were cared for by the same two nannies, which would suggest that their cribs were in the same room. When they were 4 years old, both girls were able to remember who was the "nice" nanny and who was the "mean one" when they looked at a picture of the women (even though the "mean one" was smiling). Such is the detective work of families hoping to find clues that their daughters knew each other from the beginning.
When she was 10 months old, Meredith Grace moved into her new home in suburban Chicago with Jim and Susan Rittenhouse, one a science-fiction buff and the other a dog lover, and now, together, parents. Meredith Grace was an early talker, and like her father, an enthusiastic one. Bubbly and smart, she developed a passion for geography and soon was drawing maps of the continents and begging for a globe. She adjusted to her American life well, but she was obsessed with the idea of sisters. She used to tell her preschool teacher about the one she had in China; her parents took this to mean that she wanted one. Asked to complete the sentence, "When I grow up I want to be a … ," a 3-year-old Meredith's answer was "sister."
One month before the Rittenhouses adopted Meredith Grace, Leigh Anne and Mike Harrington had named their little girl Meredith Ellen and taken her home to Birmingham, Ala. Soon after, Meredith Ellen spoke her first words. When she was 2, she asked for a globe and started studying the continents. Meredith Ellen was quieter than the sister she didn't yet know about in Chicago, and she went through periods of melancholy. When she was 2 she told her parents, "I'm so lonely. I wish I had a sister." Leigh Anne and Mike decided to give her one—they adopted Ally when Meredith was 2 and a half, but the gloom didn't fade.
In Chicago, the Rittenhouses were getting ready to adopt a sister for their Meredith when a Yahoo group posting caught Jim's eye. He was skimming over a listserv connecting parents who'd adopted kids from the Jiangmen Social Welfare Institute at the same time. He rarely bothered to read messages anymore, now that it was almost four years on, but one posting was from a family he'd once exchanged a few friendly messages with during the lead-up to their adoptions. He remembered that they'd chosen the same name for their daughters. Now the other family was posting a recent photograph. Jim moved his mouse and clicked. That little click turned out to be a kaboom. There on his screen was what looked like his own daughter's face. His wife was in the next room. "Honey?" he said.
Soon the families were swapping photos and stories. One picture of Meredith Grace in front of the dollhouse she'd gotten for Christmas that year, her head slightly cocked into an apostrophe, was the clincher. Leigh Anne thought the girls looked exactly alike and asked Meredith Ellen, who tended to tilt her head in a similar way, what she thought of the picture. "That's me, but I don't have that dollhouse or the dress," the 4-year-old said. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Susan Rittenhouse's casual observation "Wow, they could be sisters" had acquired new punctuation: "Wow, they could be sisters!" A DNA test eventually told them what they already knew.
Here were two young children with shared DNA being raised apart, a near-perfect nature-versus-nurture experiment. Because twins allow researchers to look at the same or similar DNA in various environments, they are already the source of much of what we know about the role genes play in who we are. But so far the science has been limited by two realities of family life. One: twins are usually raised together in the same environment. Two: in the rare cases where they've been separated, they typically don't find each other until later in life. So any information about their early lives is filtered though the cloudy glass of memory.
But now the two Merediths are giving researchers a chance to study young, separated twins in real time, and therefore, more accurately. Nancy Segal, the director of the Cal State Fullerton Twin Studies Center, has collected 10 sets of twins (five fraternal and five identical sets) adopted from China by different families, including Meredith Ellen and Meredith Grace. Her groundbreaking prospective study (as opposed to a retrospective study) includes a control group of 30 additional sets of Chinese adopted twins (27 of which are identical) being raised together. (Quick biology refresher: Fraternal twins occur when the mother releases two eggs, which are then fertilized by two different sperm cells. Identical twins result from one egg, which, after being fertilized by one sperm, splits. The term "identical twins" is actually outdated because their DNA, once thought to be exactly the same, has been found to have some variations. Monozygotic, meaning "one egg," is now preferred in scientific circles.) Segal is taking a broad look at her subjects, watching the twins' intellectual and personality development, how they've adjusted to adoption, and whether they become more or less alike as they age.
For all the evidence twins can offer about genes and environment, little is known about what goes on between twins themselves. Dr. Thomas Bouchard, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and a former colleague of Segal's, is the godfather of twin research, having run the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart for two decades. More than 130 published papers later, he admits he has no clue what bonds twins together. He remembers watching two 18-year-old male monozygotic twins, who'd been raised by separate families, meeting for the first time. Their connection was so intimate at that very first moment together that they held hands and walked off, talking. "I almost thought it was a miracle," Bouchard says. "I'm not a religious person. It's just a profound sort of thing. "
While it's still early in Segal's research, the initial wave of data regarding the first time the separated twins in the study met is already shedding some light on the twin relationship. Meredith Grace was introduced to her sister in the parking lot of a Birmingham hotel. Both girls had been told only that they were from the same orphanage. Days before, the 4-year-olds had spoken on the phone. Before hanging up, Meredith Grace whispered "love you" to the sister she'd never met. And now here she was. Across from Meredith Grace was the same glossy black hair and khaki skin color she'd seen before in the mirror, but never recognized in her own family. The girls circled each other for just a moment. When they finally released each other from that first hug, they took each other's hand, Meredith Grace on the left, Meredith Ellen on the right. Meredith Ellen told Meredith Grace, "I think we were born together."
Most of the twins in Segal's study who were older than 18 months when they were reunited experienced a similar instantaneous attraction when they met for the first time, their parents said. A couple of parents used the word "magnetic" to describe the children's overpowering pull toward one another. Others used phrases like "connected at the hip," "totally focused on each other," and "understood everything the other one said." Little 22-month-old monozygotic twins who'd never interacted much with their peers went off to sit at their own table to talk, feed each other, and discuss how "yummy" everything was. Segal believes that the twins' apparent immediate and profound connection comes in part from their shared DNA. "They perceive similarities and it draws them together, like with most people," she says. We already know that spouses tend to have similar intelligence, values, even height. Segal's research shows that even at a very early age people are attracted to people like themselves, and that DNA likely plays a part. "It's another piece to the puzzle of who we connect to and why," she says.
The corollary to the Merediths' elation at finding each other is the devastation at having to separate again after visits. Grief unspools into tantrums. "Worse than I've ever seen before in her whole life," Jim Rittenhouse wrote in his online journal after the girls' first reunion. "One night last week, she got to the point of taking an ice cream whatzit and throwing it with as much force as she could at the table. (*splat*smash*)." Since that first meeting almost six years ago—the girls are now 10—they've seen each other about a dozen times. In between visits, they don't speak on the phone because it makes them too sad. But Meredith Grace has told her parents that she thinks about Sissy, as they call each other, 10 times a day. Visits are arranged out of necessity, when the yearning becomes too much. Their mothers start seeing it at the same time. Meredith Grace's attitude flares. Meredith Ellen will cry at night, saying, "I miss Sissy." Sometimes she just starts wearing glasses, which she doesn't need; her twin does. So the word goes out. "Mer is missing Sissy a lot right now. She has even thought tonight that she wishes they could both be back in China together," went one email from Leigh Anne to her counterpart in Chicago. Travel Web sites are checked for sales. Dates are put on the calendar. And the emotion immediately rights itself.
And so it goes for the "twin-laws"—the families' term for one another—who find themselves in an arranged marriage with an entire group of strangers. Extra money goes toward airline tickets between Chicago and Birmingham. Family vacations are spent at a suburban home 700 miles away. But for both the Rittenhouses and the Harringtons, the joy at seeing the girls together outweighs the challenges of reuniting them. They've developed a warm, respectful relationship. (Other twins in Segal's study haven't been so lucky. One twin's family cut off communication with the other twin's family two years ago. This, after the twins had been in contact for several years, visiting and reading each other Dr. Seuss stories via Webcam. The remaining twin, who is now 8, asks her dad, "Do you think I could see my twin one last time?" The father is optimistic that when the girls get a little older they can be in touch on their own terms.)
Despite the emotional stress on everyone, both Merediths say they feel complete now that they've found each other. Meredith Grace became more confident, her mother, Susan, says. She faced her fear of dogs because her twin had five of them, and got over her aversion to putting her face in water because her twin could. Meredith Ellen's blues disappeared. "I feel close to Sissy because she has been with me since the beginning and when we were put in orphanages I knew that it was sort of hard but I knew that I would find the missing piece in my heart. I found the missing piece," she wrote in her diary. The parents found themselves reoriented, too. "We have always felt that family bonds are not dependent upon genetic connection. It is the foundational belief of our family," Leigh Anne, a family therapist specializing in international adoption issues, wrote in an e-mail to a friend right after the Merediths met. "However, there is no denying that these girls share something beyond. It is amazing."
Their reunions at the airport have become a ritual. On a warm morning this past June, Meredith Grace was too nervous to eat. On her way to Chicago's Midway Airport, she clutched her stuffed dog, Scruffy, along with a Ziploc of bologna for when the hunger kicked in. She was wearing a navy T shirt and cargo pants, the same thing her sister would have on: outfits are coordinated weeks in advance. When Meredith Grace spotted her sister coming through security, she dashed into her arms. The clock ticked and ticked. Then they pulled back and gazed into each other's eyes, heads tilted, just like in the picture that brought them together. You almost wanted not to look, the way you'd avert your eyes from two people kissing in the street. Then they were two little girls again, one admiring the other's necklace, both jumping up and down and screaming "Yay! Sissy!" in unison. Taking off to get the luggage, they held hands. Meredith Grace was on the left, where she's been for years. Seeing them united, you understand why the two won't settle for talking on the phone, an experience Jim calls "pretty thin gruel."
And so their visits are cram sessions: jumping on a beanbag, karaoke, tickling, Uno, poking, sharing earbuds, playing teacher, posing for pictures, hide-and-seek, pillow fighting, swinging, giggling, swimming, digging a hole in the sandbox. This was just one afternoon during their most recent Chicago visit. Not every second is bliss. Like all sisters, they can get on each other's nerves—"Would you literally stop that?" and the sibling classic "Get your butt off me!" Always, they are in physical contact, as if to reassure each other that they're still there. "Absolute radiant joy," is how Jim describes seeing the girls together. "Seeing them is like sitting by the fireplace and feeling the warmth," he says. What does being together feel like for the girls? "A present," says Meredith Grace.
A couple of years ago Meredith Grace drew her dream house: two townhouses next door to each other for their families, with the girls' bedrooms connected by a door. Her latest idea for getting the Harringtons into the neighborhood: "We could have that old man move out." Though the Rittenhouses and Harringtons have thought about moving closer, for now the girls will have to settle for visits, like a recent joint trip to Disney World. Standing in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, the spookiness was getting to Meredith Grace. When their boat pulled up, Meredith Grace climbed in between her mother and father while Meredith Ellen shared another row with her family. But as soon as they were off, Meredith Grace scrambled over the seat to clutch her twin for comfort. There, next to Meredith Ellen, she was right where she was supposed to be.