What Three Identical Strangers Reveals About Human Psychology
Three Identical Strangers quickly shifts to a real-life Truman Show-type train wreck about three lives that were blindly orchestrated for the purposes of social experiments.
By Mary Rose Somarriba / Institute for Family Studies
The recently released documentary, Three Identical Strangers, tells a story that’s at times humorous, at times incredible, and at other times foreboding. The film, directed by Tim Wardle and released across the United States in the past few weeks, tells a story some might remember from headlines in the 1980s: Three college-aged identical triplets—Eddy Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran—each put up for adoption, learn they were separated at birth and are reunited.
It is almost too good to be true. At the time, it was the kind of good news everyone wants to hear. Seeing the three hardy boys together, whether in New York Post photos, on prime-time TV shows, or in person at the Manhattan restaurant they ended up opening, was deeply heart-warming. Everyone wants to belong to a tribe; one can only imagine how powerful it must feel to find two other people who are immediate family; who have ties to you from before you knew; who literally reflect your likeness on their faces; and, who can give you a bear-hug as warm as your own, which you can all but imagine if you’ve ever seen photos of Eddy, David, and Bob together.
It’s a story of the power of nature and nurture. But it’s a story that quickly turns dark when one looks past the lighthearted headlines and comedic banter of TV show hosts, who note how the trio happens to like the same brand of cigarettes. Deeper questions beg to be asked, even if at first by the adopted parents: Why were these boys separated at birth; why weren’t they informed they had biological siblings; and why weren’t any of the adoptive parents informed and given the option to adopt all three?
The answers are worse than we might imagine. As the film details, the Louise Wise Adoption Agency, a prominent child-placement agency for Jewish families, intentionally separated a number of twins and multiple-birth siblings and placed them in homes of different socio-economic levels for the purposes of using the children’s lives for research. Quickly, the movie turns from a humorous run of interviews about how they first met, to a real-life Truman Show-type train wreck about three lives that were blindly orchestrated for the purposes of others’ social experiments.
As the film explains, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst named Dr. Peter B. Neubauer wanted to solve the mystery of nature vs. nurture and decided to use children put up for adoption as guinea pigs for his research. Telling adoptive parents only that they were doing research on adopted children, not on biological siblings separated at birth, the Louise Wise agency facilitated years of research on Eddy, David, and Bob, by sending researchers on house visits. For more than 15 years, they performed psychological testing and took extensive notes and video recordings of the children.
What were the findings of the research? Much is unknown, since the conclusions were never published, and the notes were under seal until 2066. It wasn’t until the documentary filmmakers’ put the pressure on that the Yale officials now holding the research authorized limited access of the psychological files to the studied children who requested access. A number of children have still not been informed they were separated at birth from siblings and studied as a part of the multiple-birth-child research.
It is terrifying to imagine that pivotal aspects of one’s life would be kept secret from them and that their lives would be treated like those of “lab rats,” as one of the brothers described it in the movie. “This is like Nazi sh*t,” another said, who, as a man of Jewish descent, did not choose those words lightly. One family member of one of the boy’s adopted families later said, “coming from the Holocaust, our family has a knowledge that when you play with humans... [things turn out] very wrong.”
Natasha Josephowitz, a former research assistant for Dr. Neubauer, told filmmakers that at the time when the research was being done in the ‘80s, it “did not seem to be bad… it was a very exciting time.” Later in the documentary, however, Josephowitz’s words betrayed an underlying sense that it was unethical. Considering the children out there who still don’t know their origins, the former assistant exclaimed, “these people don’t know they were used this way; they will be so upset!” It was for this reason, however, that Josephowitz seemed comfortable with the idea of keeping the truth hidden instead of bringing it into the open.
Three Identical Strangers offers an empathic view of multiple perspectives throughout the film, but the most salient are those that caution viewers away from intentionally and unnecessarily dividing biological family members.
In terms of healthy child development, Three Identical Strangers offers a number of insights. First, treating children like specimens is a dangerous business and will set them on a challenging life course. This says less about adoption as a general practice—since research like Neubauer’s is fringe and rare—and more about the practices of intentional family fragmentation at large.
Watching the brothers describe their trauma growing up reminded me of Alana Newman’s project, Anonymous Us—an online forum and subsequent books where children conceived with reproductive technologies could anonymously open up about their traumatic experiences growing up with their origins unclear. There, individuals could discuss the hardships of being intentionally separated from biological family members, such as a father they’d never meet if they were donor-conceived, or a surrogate mother they’d never meet if they were hired by a gay couple, for instance. One need only scroll through some of the testimonies to be struck by the common chords.
Messing with nature affected the boys in similar ways as well. The children had identical looks, similar ways of talking, and common ideas about how to have fun together. Sadly, they also had similar struggles with mental illness growing up: all three displayed separation anxiety, banging their heads against the bars of their cribs; all three experienced depression at times, and all three made visits to psychiatric hospitals as teenagers.
The children’s mental-health challenges from being separated point toward the stubborn truth of how biological families are best kept together when possible. Even if their birth mother wasn’t able to take care of them, the boys could have been put up for adoption together as a trio, which would have reduced some of their nature-disrupted challenges.
But the children’s experiences in different families also revealed something most parents know to be true—that parenting styles make a difference. This message came through the triplets’ entwined stories as a tragic turn of events unfolded.
As a part of the experimentation, Louise Wise Services placed the three children in homes within a 100-mile radius of each other in families with a mom, dad, and older sister who had also previously been placed by the same adoption agency. More than factors like income level, the film suggests that the dynamics of a father’s warmth in the home in particular is a key player in the nurture that affected the three boys the most.
David was placed in an upper-class family with a doctor as his adoptive father; he experienced a rather reserved home life where his father was often unavailable. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bob was placed in a working-class home with a grocery-store owner as a father who had a very warm and jovial disposition and later became affectionately called the Yiddish nickname “Bubula” by all three boys. Meanwhile, Eddy was placed in a middle-class family with a dad he often clashed with. A person close to the triplets said in the film, Eddy’s relationship with his dad “couldn’t have been good...otherwise, we would have seen him, or Eddy would have talked about him.”
As the brothers grew up, got married, and pursued their business endeavors, some coped better than others with the inevitable stressors in life that come up. After one of the brothers left their joint restaurant business, Eddy’s behavior became erratic and unpredictable, and he displayed manic-depressive symptoms. After receiving brief psychiatric care, he returned home. One morning, when he didn’t show up at work, a family member went to check the house and discovered that Eddy had shot himself. He was 33 years old.
After the tragedy, the surviving brothers couldn’t help but see differences in how they were raised and how it may have affected their life choices. The elderly father of Eddy even said, still in grief, “I often wondered if I didn’t teach him something…how to live life or something…that bothers me.”
Three Identical Strangers offers an empathic view of multiple perspectives throughout the film, but the most salient are those that caution viewers away from intentionally and unnecessarily dividing biological family members. The story clearly conveys how it never serves anyone well to unnecessarily mess with nature.
The plot somewhat twists at the end to emphasize the greater impact of nurture than nature, especially in shaping the boys’ abilities to cope with hardships. One interviewee notes toward the end of the film, “both [nature and nurture] matter; but I think nurture can overcome anything.” Still, at the end of the documentary, the clear villain is not Eddy’s reserved father but the people responsible for separating the triplets at birth, which would seem to suggest that messing with nature has a greater effect.
Alas, in this case, the adoption agency is guilty of crimes against both nature and nurture, since they failed to live up to their most fundamental and trusted responsibility—to help provide vulnerable children with as nurturing an environment as possible. Needless separation from blood relatives, years of psychological testing the reasons for which were not disclosed—these also played into the nurture the boys experienced.
Perhaps that’s why the researchers never penned conclusions from the unethical study. Had they undertaken this task, which would have involved attempting to measure the effects of nature and nurture, they might have had to face how, for the numerous lives involved in their experiment, they actively damaged both.
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