Spoilers for the documentary Three Identical Strangers follow. You have been warned.
The ideal way to watch the documentary Three Identical Strangers, out in select theaters Friday, is to not know one tiny, single detail about the strange case of Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman. That said, Tim Wardle, the documentary's director, realizes shrouding his movie in mystery is a near-impossible task. "The hardest thing about publicity is that it's a weird paradox: I need to promote the film, but the more cold people go in, the better," Wardle said at Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered to rave reviews, in January. "It's really hard to sell this film without giving away too much."
But if you’re like me, the kind of person who reads the Wikipedia plot for a horror movie before seeing the movie, or who reads the article about the true story before seeing the documentary, then we're here to scratch your primordial itch for spoilers. And the spoilers, let me say, are juicy, dark, and frankly, hard to believe. Three Identical Strangers tells one of the most singularly fascinating and devastating stories about brotherhood, the nature vs. nurture debate, and powerful people with God complexes interfering with the lives of others.
In 1980, 19-year-old Robert Shafran headed to his first day at Sullivan County Community College. Though he was just a coltish freshman, he was received like a king on campus. People called him “Eddy” and asked all about his summer. As it turns out, Shafran looked just like Eddy Galland, a would-be sophomore who had just transferred to Nassau Community College. With the encouragement of Galland's best friend, Shafran drove to Galland’s Long Island home that night and pieced together the truth. Shafran and Galland, who were both adopted through the Louise Wise Agency, were identical twins. The “long lost twins” became a media sensation.
The story gets stranger. Staring at a newspaper article about Galland and Shafran, 19-year-old David Kellman was alarmed. He realized he looked just like them. Yep, that’s right: the three men were triplets. Immediately after meeting, the three brothers found they shared uncanny similarities. “They found they laughed alike and talked alike. Their birthmarks and their IQs (148) were identical. They even claimed to have lost their virginity at the same age — 12,” People reported in 1980.
The boys’ reunion made for a fantastic story — but it also brought up a glaring question. Namely, why had they been separated in the first place? Here’s where Three Identical Strangers veers from a tale of lovely serendipity to one of a deliberate, unethical tampering with people’s lives. The twins were separated at birth as part of a (legal!) study led by psychoanalyst Dr. Peter Neubauer of Manhattan’s Child Development Center throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, which involved separating identical siblings to settle the role of nature and nurture in a child’s development once and for all.
“Here was an opportunity to look at twins from the moment they were separated, and to trace them through childhood, observing at each stage of development the parallel or diverging courses of their lives. Because the [triplets] shared the same genetic makeup, one could evaluate the environmental effects on the twins' personalities, their behavior, their health, their intelligence,” wrote Lawrence Wright, the author of Twins, And What They Tell Us About Who We Are. Wright interviewed Neubauer for his book.
To measure the effect of the environment on their growth, each triplet was given to a family of a different socioeconomic level. For years, researcher assistants dropped by, studying the boys in their homes — and outside of them, too. “It’s clear from some of the study records that the scientists continued to follow from a distance and collect data on the triplets’ progress for many years after this," said Wardle. The boys' parents were told this was the Louise Wise Agency's general procedure. The families were not aware the child they had adopted had two other brothers — none of the parents in the study were. As you’ll see in the documentary, the trauma of this separation had grave reverberations in the triplets’ lives. Galland especially struggled with mental health issues and eventually died by suicide in 1995.
Neubauer died in 2008, and, according to Wright, remained unapologetic for his role in shaping the boys’ lives, and the lives of at least 10 other kids. After all, Shafran, Kellman, and Galland weren’t the only identicals separated. It’s estimated 13 children were separated from their siblings by Louise Wise Services, an adoption agency in New York catering to Jewish families, for participation in Neubauer’s study.
Other victims of the study have gone public with their stories. In 2007, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, who reunited at age 35, published a book about their experiences called Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited. In November 2017, Justin Goldberg, a successful entertainment executive, was introduced to the possibility of a long-lost twin when his daughter ran into his doppelganger at a fruit market. Surprise — Goldberg, too, was matched to his adoptive family by the Louise Wise Agency. He’s still tracking down his (potential) brother’s identity
While the existence of Neubauer’s study was public knowledge, any major attempt prior to Three Identical Strangers to uncover the extent of the unethical study had been squashed. “There had been at least three attempts on major U.S. networks — two in the ’80s, one in the ’90s — and each time they got shut down. And no one could tell us why they got shut down. There’s a multiple Pulitzer-winning journalist who made a film for a major U.S. network in the mid-’90s, but it it got pulled from on high. He never got an answer as to why. That made us quite paranoid,” the director of the documentary told Vulture.
Three Identical Strangers certainly got farther along than these failed projects, but was unable to crack the final mystery. The documentarians were unable to obtain the actual results of the Neubauer's study, which will remain sealed at Yale until 2066. This twist gives the kids’ forced separation a degree of futility. They’ll never learn the findings of the study.
Still, we have an idea what it may contain. Three Identical Strangers — and Neubauer’s study — raises the disquieting implication that genes are more important in the development of personality than home environment.