Three Identical Strangers is a disturbing film, documenting the extraordinary lives of three young men, who – at the age of nineteen – discovered they were triplets, separated at birth.
The initial, heartwarming version of their tale is rather well-documented: in 1980, when they first found one another, Bobby, Eddy and David were big news. They gave countless TV interviews, and embraced their notoriety, strutting their stuff around New York, making the most of their newfound celebrity. They even scored themselves a brief appearance in Madonna’s first movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, and seemed to revel in each other’s company.
But there’s a darker side to their story and it’s not comfortable to watch. Because the boys and their adoptive parents were never told that they were triplets; the details of their lives were hidden from them. Why? The adoption agency Louise Wise Services contravened ethical guidelines by withholding this information; what was their motivation?
Science, it seems; or the pursuit of knowledge.
The boys were born in 1961, and nature/nurture was a hot topic. What, Dr Peter Neubauer wondered, could be learned if identical siblings were brought up in different socio-economic circumstances, or parented in contrasting ways? And how better to find out than to collude with an adoption agency, and carefully allocate twins to pre-selected families? Under the guise of monitoring the progress of adopted kids, the similarities and differences in their progress could be observed. Of course he knew he was on shaky moral ground (otherwise, he would have been more open about his plans); nevertheless, the experiment went on. He must have been delighted when the triplets were born.
After an initial third focusing on the brothers’ fairytale discovery, the film goes on to focus on the fallout, the impact on the boys and the men that they became. And it’s devastating really, the effect of Dr Neubauer’s god-complex, meddling with people’s lives to further his own interests.
The doctor himself is dead now, but his assistants’ recollections are chilling, not least because they seem so unapologetic, so unabashed about the nature of their work. The boys all went to decent families; they can’t see the damage they have wrought.
In the main, this is a compelling documentary, dispassionately told, allowing people and events to speak for themselves. I’m a little uncomfortable about the way Eddy’s adoptive father, Mr Galland, is presented, the blame for his son’s problems laid squarely at his door. He was a strict, unemotional parent, for sure, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t love his son, didn’t try his best to do right by him. Director Tim Wardle’s partiality is on show here: he much prefers the way that David’s father, Mr Kellman, brought him up.
Still, that’s my only complaint. Otherwise, this is a shocking story, rightly – if tardily – exposed to scrutiny. Bravo to those who have worked to tell the tale; shame on those who sought to cover it up.
And good luck to the boys – and to the other twins affected by this twisted social research project, some of whom do not yet know that they have a double somewhere out there in the world.