In this age of identity, when so many people are obsessed with their ethnic, racial, religious, or sexual selves, Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers hits like a thunderbolt. Wardle tells the incredible true story of three 19-year-old men in New York, all adopted as children and complete strangers to each other, who discovered that they were triplets and had been separated at birth by a prominent Jewish adoption agency. When their story broke in 1980, the young men—Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman—became a media sensation, appearing on numerous TV talk shows and, inevitably, opening a restaurant together. Divided by class and upbringing, yet remarkably similar in their tastes and proclivities, the brothers were like a case study in heredity versus environment.
In fact, they were a case study. As the young men’s families demanded more information from the adoption agency and journalists began to investigate, the brothers learned that the agency, Louise Wise Services, had been collaborating with a respected psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Neubauer, in a scientific study of twins. None of the adoptive parents was told anything about the study, only that researchers would be visiting periodically to interview, test, and observe their children. More details began to emerge that showed how coldly the researchers had manipulated their subjects’ lives. “This is like Nazi shit!” exclaims Bobby Shafran, now in his late 50s. Purposely or not, Three Identical Strangers strikes at the heart of Jewish identity: Neubauer may himself have been an Austrian Jew who fled the Holocaust, but the more one learns about his study, the more it seems like a psychiatric variant on the barbarous twin experiments carried out by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.
The triplets’ reunion story has been told countless times, but Wardle gives it the crackle and buzz of a good thriller. Bobby, sitting for an interview, recalls his arrival in fall 1980 at SUNY Sullivan in the Catskills, and Wardle, reenacting his story, shoots from behind the bewildered student’s head as guys he’s never met high-five him and girls he doesn’t know run up to kiss him. Michael Domnitz, a fellow student at the time, remembers meeting Bobby and trying to persuade him that his identical double, a fellow named Eddy Galland, was enrolled at the college the previous year. A frenzied call to Eddy from a phone booth on campus and a high-speed auto trip to Long Island culminate in the two triplets meeting face to face; a snapshot of the grinning, bushy-haired boys facing each other in profile communicates the wonder and dislocation of the moment. Days later, David Kellman was alerted to a news story about the reunited brothers and realized to his astonishment that he was the third. “It was not fully believable,” he recalls.
Wardle gradually pulls the grown brothers’ elderly parents and other relatives into the narrative, as his focus shifts from the brothers’ boisterous bachelor life together (scored with a choice array of 80s dance hits and illustrated with TV clips of the boys with Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, and Phil Donahue) to the secrets of the past. Another reenactment shows the six adoptive parents arriving one rainy evening at the Louise Wise Agency, whose assembled staffers explain that the children were separated to make them easier to place. Some of the parents aren’t sure whether to believe this, and afterward David’s father, returning to the offices in search of a forgotten umbrella, stumbles upon the staffers toasting one another with a bottle of champagne. This last bit may be apocryphal, but once the agency’s link to the Neubauer study emerges, one can well imagine the staffers’ relief.
The study came to light through the detective work of journalist Lawrence Wright, who learned that Neubauer, a professor at New York University and director of the Sigmund Freud archive, had arranged for Louise Wise to place numerous twins with adoptive parents for the purpose of psychiatric study. Only the arrogant ascendance of psychiatry in postwar America—warmly remembered by Neubauer’s former research assistant, Natasha Josefowitz—can account for the researchers’ duplicity. Each of the triplets was placed with a family that had already adopted a girl, so the researchers could study the children’s interaction and the parents’ treatment of them. Even more troubling, the biological mothers had been chosen for their histories of mental illness, so that Neubauer might gauge to what degree environment figured in the children’s mental health and identity formation. “Who’d think that anyone could be evil enough to come up with something like this?” asks Bobby Shafran.
Neuebauer’s comparative study of the brothers gives Wardle the opportunity to contrast them himself. Bobby was raised by a prominent physician with little time for his children, whereas David was blessed with a warm and attentive father who treated Bobby and Eddy as family. Eddy’s father, interviewed in the documentary, didn’t connect with his son, who grew more erratic and depressed after Bobby quit the restaurant, and who killed himself in 1995. Bobby and David each struggle to articulate this trauma, and they reveal their own mental health problems as teenagers, which they ascribe in part to the separation anxiety they must have suffered as infants. In fact three confirmed subjects from the Neubauer study have committed suicide.
Numerous mysteries remain. Interviewed for the documentary, Wright produces a microcassette of his only phone conversation with Neubauer, who declines to identify the study’s financial backers except as “private charities in Washington” (the good doctor died in 2008 at age 94). The study was never published—probably because it was so ethically compromised—and when David tries to access the research materials at Yale University, he learns that the files are sealed until 2066 (the university has since permitted the surviving brothers to view 10,000 pages of redacted documents). Lawrence Perlman, a young research assistant on the study in 1968-69, reveals that there are four subjects still unaware they have twins. “I never felt a responsibility,” Perlman declares, though he does admit that, “in retrospect, it was undoubtedly wrong.” When Wardle has Bobby and David watch Perlman’s interview on a laptop, the brothers are dumbfounded.
Hedy Page, David’s elderly aunt, puts the whole bizarre, tragic tale into simple perspective: “Coming from the Holocaust, our family has a knowledge that, when you play with humans, you do something very wrong.” Peter Neubauer may have set out to study identity formation, but after his subjects found out they’d been separated, this became the central fact of their identity. On the eve of adulthood, each man had suddenly been confronted with mirror images of himself that were not him, and uncovered a buried history that colored his entire upbringing. At some point in our lives we all grapple with the question: who am I? It’s a question no one in the triplets’ position could be reasonably expected to answer. v