at the movies

Is ‘Three Identical Strangers’ a fair picture?


A critical consensus has formed around the hit documentary “Three Identical Strangers,” which can be summarized in the title of one of its glowing reviews: “‘Three Identical Strangers’ Is as Unnerving as It Is Thrilling.”

This story of triplets reunited as teenagers after being separated at birth, is certainly gripping filmmaking. But I’m not sure I found the dark revelations as “unnerving” as most, at least not in the ways intended by the filmmakers.

The documentary recalls a story from the early 1980s, when identical triplets David Kellman, Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland discovered one another’s existence through a series of coincidences. The three briefly became media darlings, with Phil Donahue and Tom Brokaw eager to share how the boys had been put up for adoption in New York and separately placed in blue-collar, middle class and upper middle class Jewish homes.

The long-lost brothers immediately bond and entertain audiences with all they have in common: They smoke the same cigarettes, wrestle, have the same taste in women. Two of the brothers, now in their mid-50s, appear on camera to describe their whirlwind reunion and the ensuing media frenzy.

Then the film takes a turn when we learn that the parents of the boys were never informed that they were triplets. Bobby and David describe frequent visits from researchers, who would film each boy as he played and solved a series of cognitive tests. The parents were told they were chosen for a psychological study.

Slowly, it turns out that the adoption agency had intentionally separated the children as part of a study conducted by the head of the Manhattan-based Child Development Center, a legendary Freudian named Peter Neubauer. The Austrian-born Jewish psychiatrist sought to understand the connections between nature and nurture. The triplets, and a number of other multiples, were placed in homes deliberately chosen for their economic diversity, and their progress was tracked over a number of years.

Disturbing questions are asked. Why weren’t the parents told the truth about the experiment? Why were the results never made public? How could a Jewish-run agency, fewer than two decades removed from the Holocaust, agree to a study with such manipulative implications? And what psychological damage was inflicted on the boys, all of whom showed signs of deep separation anxiety in childhood?

Galland committed suicide in 1995. In 1978, Shafran was charged with murdering an elderly woman during a robbery and was acquitted on a technicality. Each of the triplets spent time in psychiatric hospitals. Their anguish is undeniable.

But the film also stacks the deck in a number of ways. The boys were born in 1961, before the era of open adoption, when agencies asserted a high degree of patronizing power over their charges. The film fails to mention this, which invites the reader to judge the actions of the Louise Wise agency against modern standards.

Neubauer is the villain of the film. Long dead, he is depicted as a cold-hearted Strangelove with vaguely eugenicist impulses. (It doesn’t help his case that one of the surviving research assistants nervously giggles as he recounts his work with the triplets.) Bobby says, “This is, like, Nazi s--t.”

The film also depicts Neubauer’s study as uniquely sinister when in fact there are a number of studies exploring the similarities and differences of twins raised in separate environments. Journalist Lawrence Wright, a consultant on the film, wrote a book about such studies, which acknowledges that the history of twin research was “one of the most appalling chapters in science” and was “taken to its evil extreme by Nazi eugenicists.”

But in the 1995 New Yorker article on which the book was based, Wright describes the Neubauer study with little of the judgment implied in the movie. He’s entitled to a change of heart, but at the very least, the film could have acknowledged how ethical standards have changed.

The film also demonizes the Jewish Board, describing it more than once as an agency connected to unnamed political power brokers. (Today it is a nonsectarian social service agency, and has put out a statement saying it “does not endorse the study undertaken by Dr. Peter Neubauer and is appreciative that the film has created an opportunity for a public discourse about it.”)

Yes, dividing the triplets among three families, each carefully chosen by class and other factors, was underhanded and imperious. But aren’t all adoptions manipulative? Children aren’t assigned by lottery. Agencies look for the right fit and routinely make matches based on subjective criteria. The current practice is to never split up twins. Was this the standard in 1961? The film should have told us.

The film also cheats a bit on the central issue: nature vs. nurture. As Wright himself once wrote, “These days, even the most dogmatic environmentalist is willing to admit that nature influences nurture. The debate has evolved into a statistical war over percentages — how much of our personality or behavior or intelligence or susceptibility to disease is attributable to our genes, as compared with such environmental factors as the family we grow up in or the neighborhood we live in or how long we attend school.”

At one point, the film suggests that the boys’ mental health challenges would have been better addressed had the families had a better understanding of their medical history. An ominous montage strongly implies that Eddy’s suicide was biologically determined. But the film later shifts gears and places blame on Eddy’s adoptive father, a self-described strict disciplinarian who appears haunted by what he might have done differently.

Don’t get me wrong: The triplets’ story is one that deserves to be told, and their anger, hurt and unanswered questions need to be addressed. The film has sparked some progress in unlocking 10,000 pages of the study that had been stowed away at Yale under a decades-long embargo. Newsweek reports that Shafran and Kellman received a letter of apology from the then-president of the Jewish Board, Alice Tisch.

But for all its ugly ethical lapses, Neubauer’s twin study sought answers to questions that have long bedeviled psychologists, parents and policymakers: Do individuals have free will, or are they prisoners of environment or DNA? What kinds of intervention are effective in managing a mental health issue? How to save the mentally ill from a fate like Eddy’s is exactly what Neubauer wanted to find out.

“Three Identical Strangers” is a cautionary tale about researchers who lost sight of the humanity of their subjects. It would have been even more powerful if it were told with more nuance.