Posted in Movie Reviews

Three Identical Strangers

Suppose you encountered a person who not only looked like you, down to the part of your hair, but walked like you, sounded like you and had the same likes and dislikes? Now double that—suppose there wasn’t just one doppelgänger, but two? This was the situation Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman faced in 1980, when these three 19 year-olds discovered by chance that they were triplets who had been separated at birth and individually adopted. Their story, and the machinations behind it, are the subject of Tim Wardle’s excellent and disturbing documentary, “Three Identical Strangers,” now available on Hulu and DVD.

The film starts off on an excited high—young Bobby Shafran arrives at an upstate New York college campus to begin his freshman year, only to be greeted like a long-lost brother (little did he know) by people he had never met. One student swears Bobby is “Eddy,” a friend who had dropped out the year before; this fortuitous meeting leads to a drive to Long Island, where Bobby meets Eddy Galland, his mirror image. When the encounter is reported in various newspapers, David Kellman emerges to complete the trio. As noted in the film, they became best friends immediately, and made the rounds of “The Today Show,” and “The Phil Donahue Show,” among others. Looking at the archival footage shown in the documentary, it’s obvious they were great media bait—a trio of handsome, exuberant young men who delighted in each other’s company and enjoyed the attention. There’s something rather eerily attractive about identical twins, so when two becomes three, the fascination increases tenfold.

It’s not until we’re a good way into the film that we learn that Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency which had placed the boys, had cooperated, if not worked hand in glove, with Dr. Peter B. Neubauer, a child psychiatrist, whose brainchild  was a nature vs. nurture study of twins separated at birth and raised in different homes. Needless to say, he hit the mother lode with the triplets, whose respective upbringings could not have been more different: Bobby grew up in Scarsdale, the son of a wealthy physician; Eddy’s adoptive parents were middle class schoolteachers; and David’s were blue-collar immigrants who had fled Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Dr. Neubauer and his team studied the boys and their unsuspecting families for years after the adoptions, though the true purpose of the constant visits and testing of the children was never revealed. The parents were told this was merely routine follow-up to monitor the boys’ development after adoption. This, in addition to the fact that at no time during their dealings with the adoption agency were any of the parents advised that their son was a triplet (At this point in the film my attorney brain wouldn’t stop screaming “Where was informed consent?”). It’s heartbreaking to learn that when all three sets of parents confronted Louise Wise Services after the triplet discovery, only to hear the agency’s excuse that no one would have adopted all three boys, David’s father immediately responded: “We would have gladly taken them.”

We learn that the lies and deceptions of those initially in charge of the triplets’ welfare have repercussions throughout their lives. Each boy has a difficult childhood and adolescence with psychiatric treatment (In fact David relates that he spent his 16th birthday in a psych ward). Although they ride their high of mutual recognition for several years, the stress of jointly operating a restaurant called—what else?—“Triplets” eventually leads to Bobby’s going his own way. They track down their birth mother who appears to be self-medicating her own mental health issues with alcohol. Eddy is the unfortunate legatee of this: he’s hospitalized for bi-polar disorder and shortly thereafter commits suicide at the age of 33. And eventually we learn that an outcome such as this was far from unique among the eleven sets of twins Neubauer studied. We meet Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein, subjects of the same study, whose birth mother had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. And there were other instances of mental illness among both birth parents and study subjects. Was this the true basis of the study?

This is only one of many questions left unanswered, not to the fault of Director Tim Wardle, but due to circumstance. Neubauer’s study was never published–his papers, donated to Yale upon his death in 2005, are sealed until 2065 (However, as a result of an earlier report on the activities of Louise Wise Services by ABC’s “20/20” and “Three Identical Strangers,” personal records of the study’s subjects, albeit heavily redacted, are slowly being released to the brothers and twins). You want to know exactly what influence if any Neubauer had with respect to the placement of these children, and to what extent the adoption agency took his marching orders.

More importantly, you want to know if the parties involved ever had any reservations about the ethical ramifications of the study and their participation. This is answered to a certain degree in the film: Wardle presents interviews with Natasha Josefowicz, Neubauer’s assistant, and Lawrence Perlman, who as a 24 year-old graduate student conducted some of the home visits and psychological testing of the twins for a ten month period. Neither serves themselves well. Perlman, who still has his notes from the study, reluctantly admits that yes, he was ethically compromised by his participation. He puts greater emphasis on his own problems, namely how difficult it was not to say “Hey, I know your twin” when conducting home visits (In fairness, he’s more forthcoming in the “20/20” program, and he voluntarily made his notes available to all the study subjects who contacted him). However, Josefowicz, who did not participate in the study but who “overheard things” in Neubauer’s office, is a complete apologist (“Well, you know things were very different in the 1950’s and ’60’s…”) and expresses no remorse or reservation whatsoever with respect to her former employer, his deceptions or the study. No one who worked at Louise Wise Services is interviewed in “Three Identical Strangers,” though it did not shut its doors until 2004. Nevertheless, it’s revealed in the “20/20” story that at least one former employee had a troubled conscience about this—dying of cancer, she reached out to several adoptees to inform them that each had a twin. It’s mind-boggling that they otherwise would have lived their entire lives without knowing, and in fact, Perlman admits in the Wardle documentary that to this day there are at least two sets of twins from the study who still do not know that in fact they are twins.

The most chilling aspect of all this is the realization that Neubauer, a Jewish refugee from Hitler, and Louise Wise Services, in its time the most prominent Jewish adoption agency in New York City, were conducting and participating in a study straight out of Dr. Josef Mengele’s concentration camp twin experiments. As Bobby Shafran rightly observes, what Neubauer was doing was “some Nazi shit.” However, the insistence on the separation of twins was a concept of another psychiatrist who served as an adviser to Louise Wise Services, according to the “20/20” story. Her theory was that twins separated as babies would never miss each other, whereas it’s both emotionally evident and scientifically demonstrable that that is simply not the case. So this is what you ultimately take away from “Three Identical Strangers”: no matter their similarities, Bobby, Eddy and David, by being apart for the first nineteen years of their respective lives, could never overcome being strangers to one another. And that’s the greatest tragedy of all.

A note on viewing: While “Three Identical Strangers” is available on Hulu, I’d recommend the DVD, which includes an excellent Q & A with Director Tim Wardle, Robert Shafran, David Kellman and other participants in the film. The questions from the audience are particularly on point, and there’s a thought-provoking discussion of the Mengele aspects of the story.

2 thoughts on “Three Identical Strangers

  1. This was a fascinating and tragic story.

    Coincidentally, Andy Samberg found out on Finding Your Roots that his mother was adopted from the Louis Wise Agency. (Although she’s not a twin.)

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Paula. On a similar note, I remember when my mother’s cousin and his wife adopted a baby in the early ’60’s, and I believe from Louise Wise. Apparently that was the place to go if you were Jewish and wanted to adopt a child.

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