Tim Wardle’s documentary is meticulously researched and thoroughly harrowing; however, I have two questions that the director bypassed.
I must begin this review by highly recommending, the provocative The Anatomy of Violence, The Biological Roots of Crime by Adrian Raine. All the questions you have about Nature vs. Nurture are answered here. It is terrifying and an essential key to understanding this once unfathomable debate.
Nature vs. Nurture is at the heart of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS. This debate is one of the oldest issues in psychology. The debate centers on the relative contributions of genetic inheritance and environmental factors to human development. Does genetic traits handed down from parents influence the individual or does the environment one is raised in supplant genetics?
The film opens with Bobby Shafran telling the story of his first day at a community college in the Catskills in 1980. Everyone greets him warmly, until one student asks him if he was adopted since he looks just like a former student, Eddie Galland. They drive to meet Eddie and realize that after 19 years, they are twins. The story gets picked up by Newsday and – this was before they could become reality stars – the twins become newsworthy scene-makers. When the New York Post ran the story, a third sibling, David Kellman, recognizes himself. He organizes a reunion and their story becomes a phenomenon.
Yes, they are clearly identical, and the instant fame has them on every TV program and magazine. Being 19 years old, they begin living the life of New York celebrities.
You’ve got to cash in on “instant fame” and they do. Named they open Triplets Roumanian Steakhouse in SoHo. They make a million dollars the first year.
Wardle takes us to their families and we see how the brothers were raised. Bobby was adopted by a successful doctor; Eddie’s father was a middle-class teacher and David’s father was an immigrant store owner. As an interesting case study, the dynamics of being raised in an affluent family, a middle-class family or a blue-collar family by identical triples was unusual.
The story should have ended here, but journalist and researcher Lawrence Wright was researching a book on twins and he found vague references of a psychological study that had been done on the still unresolved question: Nature vs. Nurture. Louise Wise Services had supplied the children. And thus, begins the harrowing story of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS.
All the parents of the three young men went to the offices of Louise Wise Services for answers. They were up against the powerful and influential adoption agency for Jewish children. When they realized there was something amiss, they also found no law firm would handle their case.
As the film progresses, the hidden truth of the adoptions come to the fore.
Interestingly, each boy was placed with a family that had already adopted a little girl two years earlier.
Question: Why were none of the sisters interviewed?
The adoptive parents of each boy were told that it was necessary for their son to be studied since the child had shown signs of separation anxiety in infancy. Each boy was regularly visited, tested and filmed for over a decade. They were given aptitude and behavioral tests. One of the researchers is filmed discussing his ten months working on the study. He also kept some notes on the boys. No one was ever told that their son was removed from his siblings intentionally to be studied.
Question: Why did the 3 sets of parents decide to adopt again? It clearly indicates that Louise Wise Services must have contacted them. What were they told about the child they would be adopting? There was a scientific protocol that was designed and implemented: Three different economic environments and, coincidentally, each family had already adopted a girl from Louise Wise two years earlier. The families were chosen; the families did not go looking for another child to adopt.
The evil architect behind the study was Dr. Peter Neubauer, a psychoanalyst and the director of the Child Development Center. He was a Holocaust refugee from Austria. The study has never been released. And, Neubauer gave all his papers to Yale University. His life’s work, and the Twin Study, as it was called, is sealed until 2066.
During World War II, Nazi doctors had unfettered access to human beings they could use in medical experiments in any way they chose. In one way, these experiments were just another form of mass torture and murder so our moral judgement of them is clear.
One of the many Nazi medical experiments, the hypothermia experiments, provided data on people who were immersed in ice water until they became unconscious (and many died). These savage experiments established the rate of cooling of humans in cold water and provided information about when re-warming might be successful.
But this data, and other medical experiments carried out by the Nazis, pose an uncomfortable moral challenge: what if some of the medical experiments yielded scientifically sound data that could be put to good use? Would it be justifiable to use that knowledge?
The film’s most fascinating and provocative interviewee is a colleague of Dr. Neubauer. She was not part of the study but worked in the office. She heard things. Her remarks are chilling. She takes a purely scientific, it happened, so what?, approach to the study. She (I researched and could not find her name) proposes that the study would have answered a lot of questions and possibly was a worthwhile experiment. Living in La Jolla and unabashed with regard to her famous friends, she says the study will never be replicated and the papers will never be released.
When word got out that this documentary was being made, a tiny part of the vast research at Yale, just 10,000 pages of heavily censored information, was released. Yale has a warehouse of audio tapes, film and notes yet to be released. This documentary should change that.
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS is absolutely fascinating – and the guy sitting next to me at the sold-out screening, was furious. This is an emotionally wrenching documentary.