A Loss Like No Other

In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, son of Nelson A. Rockefeller, Governor of New York State, disappeared at sea. His father and twin sister, Mary, embarked on a 
futile public search, only to settle into a uniquely private grief. From the book, Beginning with the End: A Memoir of Twin Loss and Healing.

By Mary R. Morgan, published July 3, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

On a Sunday in November 1961, we gathered at our country home in Pocantico Hills, New York. It was barely two months since Father had separated from our mother. Just days before, he’d called a press conference, publicly sharing his affair and decision to remarry. Now Father held a yellow cablegram in his hand. “I have troubling news: The State Department received word from the Dutch government in New Guinea; Mike is missing.”

Missing. The ‘s’ sound: Like a thin knife, it slipped deep inside me. No resistance, just a sharp, knowing pain and then silence. I could feel it spread, numbing any feeling or sensation.

Father had a plan. He would leave for New Guinea that night. There he would help to coordinate the search efforts, and he would charter a small plane to visit the coastal villages where people knew or had heard of Michael. Father wanted to see for himself, to talk to the villagers.

“I want to go with you,” I said. Michael was my twin; we were just 23 years old. We would search and we would find him. I could even see him—disheveled, valiant, and even a bit surprised at our concern.

Late that evening, Father and I left for San Francisco and then on to Hawaii.

The news of Michael’s disappearance had quickly spread, and in the Honolulu airport we were surrounded by journalists. My eyes widened and blinked into a sea of noisy, aggressive faces. I felt Father’s protective arm as we climbed up and away from the reporters into the safe belly of the plane heading to New Guinea. Instead we found ourselves within a new group of strange, staring faces; the expectant silence spread up and down the aisle as we found our seats.

Father turned and spoke again, welcoming the reporters, telling them about the journey ahead, revealing our private, now public, search for Michael, our Michael—and, I thought fiercely, my Michael, not theirs. I felt that these reporters, with their questions and analysis, were stepping on and into our very private lives, into “our mission,” as if they were trying to claim it.

I didn’t dare ask Father why we had to charter such a large plane or why he had to play host to this swelling group. His arrangements confused, dispirited, and angered me. As a family, we’d gotten used to the publicity that surrounded us since he’d become governor of New York. I had mixed feelings about the public attention; I became an exciting somebody, but I found this attention fickle and invasive, and I was becoming aware that any public image I had acquired had little to do with the person I was inside.

At one point five reporters surrounded me. Their ties askew, shirts sleeves rolled up. “How does it feel to know that Michael might have been eaten by a shark?” “We heard about the head-hunting in the Asmat, do you think the natives killed him and took his head?”

I cannot remember how I got away from them and what I said.

When we reached Merauke, south of the Asmat region, there was a sense of urgency. We refueled and took off, this time flying low over the New Guinea coast. The jungles were seemingly uninhabited; there was no clear boundary between land and ocean. How could Michael find his way if he made it to shore?

Shortly after, we met with René Wassing, the Dutch anthropologist and interpreter who was with Michael on his expedition. According to his account: They were joined by two teenage Asmat boys, hired as local interpreters. The group headed south, aboard a catamaran, along the coast to the Eilanden River delta. In the delta they encountered rough seas created by the river’s outflow mixing with the ocean’s incoming tide and currents. A large wave swamped the boat and disabled the outboard motor.

Frightened, the two Asmat boys left to swim ashore. Shortly thereafter, the catamaran capsized in the strong outflowing current. Few boats and planes traveled there, so the chances of being seen were remote. Food and water supplies had floated away or sank. After Michael and René spent the night on the vessel, Michael decided to try to swim ashore for help. Meanwhile, the boys had made it to land and notified the nearest missionary; the Dutch government dispatched a navy rescue plane. By the time the rescuers found René, a day after Michael swam away, the boat was 24 miles offshore.

Dutch and Australian naval and air units sent helicopters and boats, and villagers combed the small rivers. President Kennedy even offered to send a ship with marines. Father declined his offer.

For the first time in my life, I noticed worry lines creasing Father’s brow and moments when he stared into space. He drew comfort from late-night calls to Happy, his future wife. I would wake to hear the murmuring through my door. It created an added barrier between us and brought stabs of anger, betrayal, and extreme loneliness that pushed me deeper into isolation and numbness.

During those grim days, we received news that a searcher had picked up a red gasoline can floating near the shore. It was similar to the type that Mike had used as a water wing. Father combed the area’s rivers and shoreline by plane, stopping at villages that lined the riverbanks.

Nothing came of those trips.

We stayed in the Asmat for a total of 10 days. There was no evidence of Michael or his whereabouts, only the one rusted gasoline can. The search ended.

When I returned home, I saw my mother standing in the front hall waiting for me. Like a child, I ran to her. She hugged me, and I clung in a tearful embrace. Mother’s body stiffened. She straightened then and pushed me to arm’s length and said: “You must get a hold of yourself, Mary. The one thing we cannot do now is cry.”

Also on my return, my then husband Bill was attentive.“I know Mike survived,” he stated. “They’ll find him. You’ll see.” I really tried, but could not receive his optimism. His well-meaning gestures left me feeling more alone and isolated.

Rumors and stories of Michael’s having made it to shore—of his having been captured and killed by head-hunting villagers—have persisted for over 40 years. Even today, those rumors fuel the imagination and help line the pockets of storytellers, playwrights, filmmakers, and the high-adventure tourist trade.

Meanwhile, I remained in pain and limbo. At one point, my therapist directed me to move on: “You are only a fraternal twin, no closer to Michael than your other siblings.” It’s true that my siblings long accepted his death. I had been living my life—but I had not been able to move on.

Yet how could my therapist know what it was like for me? I needed to find some explanation for my feelings. I realized I knew little about twins, so I immersed myself in research. A few findings shouted at me: The early nurturing environment for twins sets the tone, quality, and intensity of the twin bond, whether they are identical or fraternal; male and female twins carry out their separate gender roles, while also maintaining a strong connection and deep loyalty to each other; it is not unusual for fraternal twins to have deeply bonded relationships.

Knowing this, I went on a fact-finding mission and spoke to people from my youth—my mother, my nurse, and close friends of mine and Michael’s. I found out that, at a young age, I had difficulty engaging in endeavors without my twin brother. Everything began to make sense.

In the late ’80s, I ventured to the Rocky Mountains for an extended wilderness walk, or a vision quest. This rite of passage is practiced in some Native American cultures; you live, walk, and fast, spending days in quiet solitude. The purpose is to bring clarity to one’s life through letting go. This rebirth tapped a nerve: I wept tears I had held back for so long. The journey pushed me to finally let Michael go.

During that solitude I formalized my decision to become a psychotherapist. I knew I had something to give. I went to Columbia and earned a social work degree, after which I opened my private practice. Two years into my practice, I met a twinless twin. Brian came to me at the request of his father. He had been present when his twin brother had been murdered. Brian waited six months after his father called me before making an appointment. In my office, he said: “How would you know what I feel? You have no idea what it is like to lose a twin.”

A therapist is discouraged from sharing personal experience with clients. I took a deep breath: “I can’t know your unique experience, but I can share that I am a twin, and that my twin died. Also, that I had a lonely, painful, and protracted healing journey, partly because I met no one who understood me, and no one who shared the experience of losing a twin.”

I realized that I should be working with bereaved twins. After September 11, I came across a profile in the paper: Stephen Hoffman died in the first tower; his twin, Greg, gave a moving tribute in the article. I contacted the reporter and told her I was a psychotherapist who had lost a twin; I asked her to pass along my name. A few weeks later I started working with Greg; he and his wife, Aileen, went on to look for other twinless twins as a result of 9/11. They had found 11 other surviving twins in the New York area. (A total of 46 twins died in the disaster.) She asked if I could lead the group.

With a grant, we started a 9/11 twin bereavement group in May 2002. We met once a week for two years. At our first gathering, the twins sat in a circle and began to share their stories. They immediately trusted one another. The twins did beautiful work. They shared not only the many positive memories of their twinship, but also their deep experiences of pain and disappointment and their feelings of anger, regret, and guilt. Bonded by their twinship, they found they could also share happy memories. The feelings of extreme loneliness coming from their loss and the misunderstandings of family and friends were appreciated and understood.

I remembered the times when I felt misunderstood, especially by my therapist. It gave me pleasure to identify with these twins and to help prevent any denial of their reality. The power of their interconnection prevented the isolation that marked my own experience. But as with the loss of Michael, most of these twins would have no physical closure; the bodies of their twins were never found. When one twin dies, the surviving twin must begin his life again, starting with what truly feels like the end.

Mary R. Morgan is a NYC psychotherapist specializing in working with twinless twins.  She lectures on the subject of twin loss and led a bereavement group for twins who died in the 9-11 World Trade Center disaster.

Adapted from the book Beginning with the End: A Memoir of Twin Loss and Healing by Mary R. Morgan (Vantage Point Books, 2012). Copyright 2012 Mary R. Morgan.