Three Identical Strangers tells the incredible story of triplets , born in 1961 and adopted as six-month-old infants by separate families, unaware that each child had brothers. The separations were done as part of an undisclosed scientific “nature versus nurture” twin study, to track the development of genetically identical siblings raised in differing circumstances. Combining archival footage, re-enacted scenes, and present-day interviews, the documentary reveals how the brothers discovered one another at age 19 and thereafter sought to understand the circumstances of their separation.
The three brothers were born to a teen-aged single mother on July 12, 1961. They were actually quadruplets; the fourth brother died at birth, although this information reported by UPI was not included in the film. At the direction of psychiatrists Peter B. Neubauer and Viola W. Bernard, under the auspices of the Jewish Board of Guardians and the prestigious Louise Wise adoption agency, the three infants were intentionally placed with families having different parenting styles and economic levels – one blue-collar, one middle-class, and one affluent – who had each adopted a baby girl through the same agency two years earlier. The brothers were raised by their adoptive families as David Kellman, Eddy Galland, and Bobby Shafran, respectively. They discovered one another through a coincidental college connection in 1980 and became very close, but all three struggled with mental health issues for years, which ultimately led to Galland’s suicide in 1995.
The media ate it up, a heartwarming tale of three lovable guys who couldn’t seem to stop smiling whenever they were together. They appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and the Today Show with Tom Brokaw, and even had cameos in Madonna’s first major movie, Desperately Seeking Susan. Despite having grown up in very different homes, they danced the same, smoked the same cigarettes and liked the same girls. America swooned.
That’s pretty much where the Disney version of the story ends. By the 1990s, when the brothers were in their early 30s, fissures began to form in their relationships, and the qualities they shared proved to be largely superficial. But the most stunning reveal of Wardle’s film comes later, after a journalist named Lawrence Wright discovered an obscure study on twins in the course of his research for a piece he was writing for the New Yorker, in 1995.
That story, “Double Mystery,” focused on a project that began in the 1950s under the direction of an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor named Dr. Peter Neubauer. Wright learned that Neubauer had worked with an elite adoption agency in Manhattan to track sets of identical siblings through childhood, ostensibly to solve the debate, once and for all, of nature vs. nurture. Essentially, Neubauer used children as his lab rats, an irony that was not lost on the triplets when they learned that they had been party to his human experiment. “That’s some Nazi shit,” says one of the brothers, Robert Shafran, in the film.
Comprising dramatic reenactments, interviews with the brothers and their family members, and even some members of Neubauer’s original team, Three Identical Strangers offers a harrowing and gripping look at an ethically misguided piece of history in the annals of psychology, as well as a reminder to be circumspect about any story that seems too good to be true, no matter how hard the media is selling it. There’s no telling what you might find behind that warm and fuzzy veneer. I believe the film is now on Hulu, if you don’t have an account just get that free trial!