Three Identical Strangers: a compelling documentary on a chilling psychological experiment

Tim Wardle, “Three Identical Strangers” (2018)

That a set of triplets should be separated at birth and farmed out to three different families, each representing a different socioeconomic level (upper middle class, middle class, working class), by the same adoption agency without telling the families that the children they were adopting belonged to a set of identical triplets, seems unbelievably callous and stupid; but the fact that the children were deliberately separated and given to the families as part of an ongoing secret scientific study, funded by powerful political interests with a secret agenda and conducted by a scientist who had survived the Shoah during World War II, is truly disturbing. “Three Identical Strangers” tells the story of three identical triplet brothers, Edward Galland, Robert Shafran and David Kellman, born to a Jewish teenage girl who put them up for adoption with an adoption agency in New York that specialised in placing babies of Jewish background with adoptive Jewish families. The brothers discover one another by accident when one of them, Robert, enrolls in a community college and is surprised to be greeted familiarly by other students there who call him Eddie. The two are quickly acquainted with each other by a student and the story of their meeting is written up in a local New York newspaper. The third brother David reads the story and sees the photograph of the pair and contacts the newspaper. The three reunited young men are feted by the news media and appear on talk shows; they are even offered cameo roles on the film “Desperately Seeking Susan”. Ed, Bobby and David discover they have many quirks, habits, likes and dislikes in common, which they and everyone else find very weird; this would seem to suggest that genetics plays a huge part in determining a person’s personality, identity and character.

Having found one another, the boys locate their birth mother but their reunion with her does not go off very well and the birth mother soon disappears from their lives. While the boys set up home together and embark on a partying lifestyle,  their adoptive parents descend upon the adoptive agency to demand answers as to why they were never advised that the babies they adopted were part of a triplet set. The agency fobs them off but not before one of the parents finds its senior officers toasting one another with champagne after their meeting, a scene that strikes him as peculiar.

In the 1990s, an investigative reporter, Lawrence Wright, uncovers evidence that from the 1950s on, child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Peter B Neubauer began a long-term project that involved separating sets of identical twins and the set of identical triplets, and placing each and every child with a different family. None of the families was told that the children they were adopting had identical siblings or that they were all being studied. The families that adopted the triplet boys were not told that they had been specifically selected by Neubauer’s research group and the adoption agency to take the boys as they all already had adopted older girls of similar age.

The film develops its theme and the story of the triplets through interviews with two of the triplets – viewers are left to guess as to what happened to the absent triplet – and their family members, wives and friends. Old family photographs and archival film footage are also used to trace the direction of the triplets’ lives as they mature. Lawrence Wright discusses his research into the science study and two people who briefly worked on the study are tracked down by the documentary makers and interviewed. These two admit that the study was unethical but defend it by saying that when the study first began, the cultural climate was very different and the study was informed by the famous “nature versus nurture” debate of whether human behaviour is mostly determined by environment or by genetic inheritance. The documentary makers also interview a set of identical twin sisters, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, also adopted out to different families by the same adoption agency and who discovered each other by accident, who then set out to find Dr Neubauer themselves.

The “show, don’t tell” approach draws viewers deeply into the film and manages to keep viewers on side and attentive the whole way through, despite the rapid pace established in its first ten minutes when all three triplets are reunited. After the boys are back together, the pace seems to slow down a little and the film coasts along, retelling parts of the threesome’s lives and revealing that all three had troubled childhoods and experienced mental health issues; one of the three eventually is diagnosed as manic depressive. However the film becomes truly upsetting when the triplets and their families discover that other sets of identical siblings also experienced mental health problems to the extent that a couple of people committed suicide.

The film tends to be uneven and is rushed in its last few minutes. It does not make a very good case for stating that nurture trumps nature in determining human behaviour; if anything, the experiences of the triplets, and in particular the different father-son experiences they had, suggest that innate genetic tendencies will or will not manifest and become part of a person’s usual behaviour and make-up depending on the environment in which that person grows up. The film does a good job of showing the connection between having a supportive father and a close relationship with him on the one hand, and how this relationship affects the child’s future mental well-being when he becomes an adult.

One is really curious as to what Neubauer had hoped to achieve or demonstrate with the long-term study – he decided to shelve it and never published the results, instead placing the papers with the Yale University Library and sealing them with an expiry date of 2066 – or what the unnamed interests also hoped to learn from them. One possibility that the study was to serve an agenda beyond child development is that the triplets were placed with families of very different socioeconomic levels. If the boys had turned out much the same, would that not suggest that people’s behaviour and intelligence are unaffected by different environments, and that therefore attempts to enrich children’s environments, provide youngsters and their families with social and financial support, and invest in their education and healthcare are all unnecessary and should be abandoned? The answer to this questions enters the realm of political ideology, in particular the ideological battle between those advocating for socialism and those preferring a society dominated by small elites who also command most of that society’s wealth and natural resources for their own self-interests. Also unanswered is the question of how and why a survivor of the Shoah, who must have been well aware of the Nazis’ own experimentation on sets of twins, should have set up his own long-term (and ultimately flawed) study of groups of identical siblings without the consent of the families who adopted the children .