Three Identical Strangers is a documentary about triplets who were separated at birth and adopted by different families in the New York City area, and then through serendipity stumbled upon each other as adults.
The film includes extensive interviews with two of the three triplets, interviews with family members and various others connected with their lives, a small amount of photos and home movies and such from when they were young, and clips from talk shows and news reports from back when they discovered each other (it was a pretty big story at the time). It also uses an interesting device of recreating some of the incidents talked about in the interviews and narration, but always with the actors playing the main characters shot from a distance, from behind, or in shadows so you can’t see their faces clearly. Nor is there dialogue in those sequences. That’s kind of a docudrama element, but it’s done in such a way that the film never really feels like a docudrama but always more like a standard documentary.
I read only a small amount about this film before seeing it, in part because the little I did read noted that it has one or more major twists or surprises, and hinted that they were of a dark sort, and that it’s better not to know about them going in.
In this piece I’m not going to be able to talk about what I want to talk about without getting into a lot of those specifics, so no one concerned about spoilers should read on from here until after seeing the film.
The early portion of Three Identical Strangers is presented very much like this is going to be a feel-good “odd but true” story. Bobby recounts how he arrived as a new student at college, only to be greeted happily by numerous people as “David.” Hugs from pretty girls—the whole nine yards.
A friend of the real David—who had been a student at that college the prior year and left—is blown away by the resemblance and suspects the truth. He talks to Bobby and finds out that he was adopted and that his birthday is the same as David’s. They contact David, and then drive all night to him because they’re so excited to see if their speculations are true.
We hear from the current David as well, as both Bobby and David describe how exciting and wonderful it was to discover that they were twins, since they had had zero reason to even suspect up to that point that they had a twin.
Except that they weren’t twins. Once their story hit the newspapers, it came to the attention of Eddy, who was also adopted, had the same birthday, and looked just like them. So they were actually triplets.
For a time it was all terrific. They fit together and could communicate as if they had known each other their whole lives. They made numerous media appearances—local and national (e.g., Phil Donahue)—delighted in telling the same stories over and over of how they had found each other and how extraordinarily similar they were in so many even mundane respects (e.g., they all wrestled in high school, they all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, they all were attracted to the same type of women), and even had a bit part together in a Madonna movie. They got a bachelor pad, and proceeded to enjoy their youth together as active participants in the New York nightlife (this was the early ’80s, the heyday of Studio 54 and all that). They opened a restaurant together, called, appropriately if unimaginatively, “Triplets.”
The families for the most part were all excited and happy about this too. They were a mixed bunch certainly—an upper class family headed by a doctor, a middle class family headed by a teacher, and an immigrant working class family—but they got along, and the working class father especially was welcoming of the surprise siblings and became something of a second father to them. They often all hung out together—he and the three boys.
One thing that bothered the families, though, is that they had never been offered the option of adopting all three. None of them ever even knew the child they adopted was one of triplets.
They sought an explanation from the adoption agency they had all used—Louise Wise Services, a large and prestigious agency serving primarily a Jewish clientele—but didn’t get what they considered a satisfactory response, just being told that, “Oh, you know it’s too difficult to place three triplets together because adopting couples just want one child” and such. They even explored the possibility of a lawsuit over the information being withheld from them, but found that all the biggest, most prominent law firms in the city wouldn’t touch it because they had a conflict of interest in not wanting to piss off the agency, since they all had attorneys or clients who were or might in the future be trying to adopt through that agency.
That’s obviously a little disturbing, that this entity could be legally untouchable because their potential legal adversaries don’t want to risk opposing them. Then again, I’m sure not everyone in the legal community would refuse to take them on; the film doesn’t explain why the angry parents didn’t check with any law firms other than the biggest, most prominent ones.
The brothers, though, really weren’t involved in that fight. They were aware that their parents were unhappy about how the agency had handled the adoptions, but they were too busy living their lives and enjoying their time with each other to give that much thought.
Then that changed, for two reasons.
The first is that problems arose among them. For a time the giddiness of participating in this novelty, feel-good story about the triplets who found each other tended to crowd out anything else. But once that settled down, they remembered that they had each had at least somewhat troubled childhoods, and they found that they weren’t always so happy together and able to get along after all.
I get the impression that the phenomenal communication and instant connection and all that had been in part a self-fulfilling prophecy. They expected that as triplets they would have an incredible bond and would have this nearly supernatural mind meld thing going where they understood each other’s thoughts and finished each other’s sentences. It made for good talk show chatter, along with all the ways they overlapped in habits and tastes and such, so they got used to talking that up and believing it all themselves.
But in time, the respects in which they truly were strangers, and the areas of incompatibility became impossible to any longer ignore. As one of the interviewees in the film notes, they hadn’t had years or decades together as brothers to work out the family dynamics, to know how far you can and can’t push this brother in this way, what subjects to avoid with this brother, what tends to work to bring this brother back from the brink when he is about to lose his temper, etc.
It’s not like they were at each other’s throats all the time now, or hated each other, but they had their issues, their conflicts. They weren’t fairy tale triplets; they were real people who had imperfect relationships.
And it wasn’t just their present relationships with each other that were problematic. As children, each had received at least some mental health care. I think they mentioned that each had even been briefly institutionalized.
They also remembered, or remembered being told, that at least two of them as very young children had dealt with some kind of depression or anxiety by banging their head against the wall.
They decided that these troublesome effects needed a troublesome cause to explain them, and that’s when they came around to their parents’ view that there had been something inappropriate, and damaging, about the way they had been separated as infants.
Again as one of the interviewees comments, imagine you have spent the weeks and months of your existence lying side by side with two other beings almost identical to yourself, and then all at once, for reasons that of course you do not know and could not understand if you were told, that ceases and you are alone: surely that has to be traumatic to an infant.
The second reason that they became convinced that they had been wronged to be separated as they were is that more and more disturbing information came to light about the circumstances of their adoption.
It turns out that psychological researchers into childhood development, headed by a well-known Freudian named Dr. Peter Neubauer who had escaped from the Holocaust, had arranged with the Louise Wise adoption agency to intentionally separate twins and triplets and place them in different households so that they could be studied and valuable data collected as to what is baked into us by genetics and what can change due to environment. (In the film they sometimes seem to equate environment, or “nurture,” with free will, and genetics, or “nature” with things that are out of our control, but surely this is not correct. Free will, if it exists at all, is something over and above nature or nurture. If the environment in which I was raised makes it inevitable that I will grow up to assassinate the President, then that isn’t an act of free will any more than it would be if my genes (or any combination of my genes and my environment) makes it inevitable that I will grow up to assassinate the President.)
Researchers did indeed hover around all three triplets when they were young—visiting them at home and administering various psychological tests to them, filming them at school, etc.—which you would think would tip off the families that something was going on. But the adoption agency told them that it was for some research into adopted children in general; nothing was said about twins or triplets.
But furthermore, not only were they—and certain other sets of siblings—separated as infants for the purpose of this study, but the specifics were manipulated. They were purposely put into households of different classes, with different parenting styles. There is even some evidence that only sets of twins and triplets were used who had had mental illness in their family, presumably so that it could be studied if mental illness in the children would emerge in any environment as something inherited.
The more the brothers learned, the more they felt, as one of them puts it in his interview, “like lab rats,” which greatly bothered them.
They also didn’t appreciate how secretive it all was. Not just during the study, but after.
The study went on for about twenty years, ending, probably not coincidentally, shortly after the triplets found each other and people started asking questions. But no findings were ever released, no journal article ever written, no data made available to other researchers. The very existence of the study was kept hidden until dogged journalists discovered it. But even then the people responsible for the study remained tight-lipped about it. All the relevant data from it was eventually turned over to a university, to be kept sealed for several more decades.
The filmmakers did succeed in finding and interviewing two research assistants—one now a pretty famous scientist herself—who participated in the study, so we get to learn at least what they knew of it from their limited perspective. But mostly it remains a mystery.
It’s like they chose to forego the benefits of disseminating their findings because they didn’t want to deal with the backlash from those who would criticize them on ethical grounds for how the study was conducted. Or maybe there was something flawed about the study design or something that resulted in no usable findings being generated.
Things didn’t get any better for the brothers as time went on. Bobby got disgusted with the conflicts and left the restaurant. Eddy fell into a deeper depression and committed suicide. The present day Bobby and David, as interviewed for the film, seem like reasonably sane, personable folks, but when they are finally brought into the same room together, though they are civil and borderline friendly with each other, you get the impression they are no longer actively involved in each other’s lives.
It’s pretty obvious that the documentary sides with the brothers and their families in their indignation against the adoption agency and the psychological researchers. It shows how things went downhill for them, and it offers an explanation as to why: The researchers were inhumanly indifferent at best and sadistic at worst in manipulating innocent children and their families in the pursuit of abstract research data, and their actions ruined the lives of these triplets. The film is intended as an exposé of grievous wrongdoing.
From the little I’ve read about the film, I get the impression that critics and viewers take it at face value as a successful such exposé. My experience at the theater was consistent with that. The murmuring I heard from people as the film let out was all along the lines of how it was one of the saddest tales they’d ever seen, it was unconscionable that those people had implemented such a study, they were like the Nazis who performed ghastly experiments on human subjects, etc.
I feel at least some inclination to dissent from that seemingly obvious conclusion. I’m sure at least some of that is due to my contrarian nature—if everyone is on one side, there might well be something wrong with that side—and some by my rebelliousness in the face of polemical or manipulative filmmaking (or polemical or manipulative nonfiction storytelling in general). In the end, I might even come down on the same side as those who condemn the researchers, making this more of a devil’s advocate exercise than a genuine disagreement. But at the very least I think it’s a morally closer call than I take it the filmmakers want you to believe.
I just think it’s a stretch in general to so confidently attribute anything bad that happened in the triplets’ lives to the adoption process and this psychology study. I think viewers are being invited to commit a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
OK, so they hit their heads on the wall as toddlers, and had other behavioral problems. How does that prove they suffered from some kind of separation anxiety due to being split up from each other as infants? I mean, maybe that traumatized them and caused their problems, but how do we know that?
Is it known that they were constantly together before being adopted, that they all slept in the same crib together? If they had been adopted together, wouldn’t they have had to stop all sleeping together at some point—I’m assuming they wouldn’t all be sleeping in the same bed at age 80—just like kids eventually stop sleeping in the same bed with their parents and have to overcome that “trauma” just as a part of growing up?
Aren’t there plenty of kids who were never separated from a twin or triplets who have emotionally troubled childhoods? Who hit their head on the wall, or even if not that specifically, who cut themselves, have particularly bad tantrums, become bullies, use drugs, whatever? Even who are briefly institutionalized during childhood, or commit suicide as adults? So how do we know the triplets’ problems came from these evil scientists and their Nazi experimentation?
Indeed, the film itself provides clues of possible alternative explanations. We’re told that mental illness ran in their (biological) family. Isn’t that at least as likely the root of their struggles with depression or other problems as trauma from being separated from their siblings as infants?
A particularly tantalizing possible explanation for Eddy’s emotional problems and suicide is suggested late in the documentary. Of the six parents, his father was the most strict, the one who was a stern disciplinarian with his kids. Not abusive in the classic sense of brutally beating his children or anything like that, but just more rigid and rules-oriented in kind of a militaristic manner. Eddy reportedly never adjusted to that; he was a sensitive kid who couldn’t handle that kind of pressure.
So you have triplets with at least some genetic predisposition toward mental illness, and the one with the drill sergeant type father ultimately succumbs to depression and commits suicide. Maybe it really was the peculiar adoption process that was in whole or in part responsible for his problems, but that’s far from certain given that there’s a quite plausible alternative explanation.
Again, the triplets themselves initially didn’t share their parents’ objections to how the adoption agency split them up. I mean, to some extent they wished they could have spent their childhoods together as well, but it wasn’t until later, when things went sour with them and they were looking for someone or something to blame, that they decided that they suffered from depression, etc. because of the Louise Wise agency and Neubauer and his minions. So apparently it was not self-evidently evil.
There’s also the matter of looking at the benefits of such research rather than only the harm. Isn’t there some value in better understanding the effects of environment and of different parenting philosophies on kids and how they develop? That’s the kind of social science thing that’s extremely difficult to study with any rigor; twin studies constitute a very rare opportunity to hold the genetic factors constant while observing the effects of other factors that differ. Is it equivalent to the precision of studying inanimate objects in ideal laboratory conditions? No, not even close. But it’s far better than is typically possible with social science.
That’s why it’s particularly unfortunate that for whatever reason this particular study was never completed, and no findings or even the raw data were ever made available to the scientific community.
Wouldn’t it be valuable to know, for instance, if, to a statistically significant degree, when genetically identical kids are raised differently, the ones raised by strict disciplinarian parents are more likely to be fucked up? Or to know that the reverse is true, and that the case of Eddy is a fluke and in general kids turn out better when raised with a firm hand like that of Eddy’s father?
In the end I don’t know how much such research will really tell us, because it’s just such a difficult sort of thing to study. Even if studies like the one in Three Identical Strangers continued, we’re still talking about a very small sample size, and a lot of uncertainty and subjectivity in compiling and analyzing the data (what constitutes being “strict,” or “depressed,” or “well-adjusted,” or whatever?). But I have to think such research can take our knowledge of human nature forward, even if only some very modest distance.
And it’s not like such knowledge would only have value as satisfying intellectual curiosity (though surely that’s a legitimate value in itself). The more we understand how nature and nurture affect us, and how different kinds of nurture affect us, the better we can make practical decisions as far as how to raise children and such.
I’m not at all saying “the end justifies the means,” that it’s cool to sacrifice these kids to advance science. I’m saying in assessing what’s right and wrong here you should look at all the benefits and all the costs. It seems to me that you have possible (but I’d say highly speculative, at least as far as the case made by this film) damage to the twin and triplet subjects of these studies, and potentially valuable knowledge gained that could benefit countless other people. All of it should be taken into consideration.
So I don’t know. Like I say, partly I’m just playing devil’s advocate. I agree the methodology of studies like the one in Three Identical Strangers is troubling. Maybe troubling enough that it ought not be allowed. But I think it’s a close call, and that if you step back and think critically about the film rather than go where it’s trying to take you emotionally, it really hasn’t made as compelling a case as it at first appears.
Even aside from the question of the morality of twin studies conducted in this manner, this is an interesting and thought-provoking documentary.
One thing it caused me to think about is just how much such siblings overlap. It’s not something I’ve ever really studied, but, I suppose like a lot of people, I hear the occasional tidbit in the mass media, usually in the form of anecdotes—like in this movie—about twins separated at birth and then it turns out as adults they’re similar to a spooky degree.
What surprises me about such stories are how specific the similarities are. That is, I really wouldn’t be surprised if they said, you know, here are a pair of twins raised separately in very different environments, and yet they both have quick tempers, are drawn to high-risk activities, have below average IQs, etc.—general stuff like that. But instead it seems like it’s always, “Butch and Clem both got married at age 22 to blonde women whose names begin with ‘A’ who had been their high school sweetheart, have two kids, a boy and a girl, do construction work, and drive imported cars.”
It just seems weird that so many narrow things like that could be a matter of genetics, since I would think there’s a huge amount of chance and luck that go into the particulars of your life like that. I mean, even if I had some genetic predisposition to prefer blondes, or if for that matter I was consciously trying to find a woman whose name begins with ‘A,’ there’s no guarantee that I’d succeed in marrying a blonde whose name begins with ‘A.’ It’s not like we automatically get our first choice in life, or get whatever our genetics most inclines us toward. We settle. We take what life offers. Maybe I never even meet a blonde named Allison or Amy who has the slightest interest in marrying me, even if my twin brother does. How would my genes cause circumstances and especially the choices of other people to change such that the outcome is always the same for me as for my twin?
That’s the stuff that gets me: the crazy specific overlaps.
But in thinking about that after watching Three Identical Strangers, I wonder if those similarities aren’t overblown. I mean, they’re consistently presented in the mainstream media and on talk shows and such as if they couldn’t possibly be coincidences, but maybe some of them are precisely that.
Here’s what I mean: OK, Bobby, David, and Eddy all not only smoke, but smoke the same brand of cigarette, cross their legs the same way, wrestled in high school, chose the same community college to go to (at least two of them), are attracted to the same type women, had an interest in going into the restaurant business, etc., in spite of having all been raised in different families of different socioeconomic levels in different overall environments. That suggests that even the particulars of our lives are genetically determined, right?
Well, not necessarily. Maybe these stories focus on such similarities because that makes them more entertaining and intriguing. What we aren’t told is that the brothers buy their shoes at different stores, got different grades in math in 8th grade, lost their virginity at different ages, have different tastes in movies, have different type pets, vote for different political parties, have bosses who differ as to race and gender, have different sexual fetishes, etc. Because no one is going to ooh and aah if Phil Donahue says, “And get this folks. Bobby buys his shoes at Payless, and David buys his shoes at Sears, but Eddy buys his shoes at Macy’s!”
I mean, what if you took three guys born the same day, raised in the New York area by different families, who were completely unrelated to each other? Surely there would be at least some overlap. If they didn’t all smoke the same brand of cigarette, maybe they would all chew the same brand of gum. If they didn’t all wrestle in high school, maybe they all took a brunette who lived on the same block as them to the senior prom. And so on.
There are a virtually infinite number of ways lives can overlap. It’s not surprising that there will be several for any people you might choose to compare, but it can seem surprising in a context where those overlaps are highlighted and all the ways the people don’t overlap are ignored.
I’m not saying three random New Yorkers of the same age will overlap to the same degree that these triplets do. That would indicate that nature is of zero weight and nurture (and/or free will) is all, and there’s plenty of reason to disbelieve that. I’m just saying it’s easy to overrate how amazing the similarities are when you’re influenced by how these cases of twins separated at birth are reported informally in the media.
Finally, another thing this film brought to my mind is the idea of discovering a twin or some long lost relative like that. Actually that’s addressed explicitly in the documentary as one of its themes: What if you turned the corner one day and ran into yourself, like Bobby arriving at his community college and discovering that he’s not the only him?
I’ve periodically had fantasies like that. I usually think of them as positive things, no doubt because I had a mostly miserable childhood and felt largely like an outsider in my family. So, I always thought it would be great to find out I was adopted, say, and I had other parents, other siblings, whatever, out in the world that I could discover. Perhaps it could be a way of starting over with this family thing and getting it right this time. (Alas, there was never any realistic chance that I was adopted or any of that. We’re talking solely about fantasy.)
Or certainly I’ve thought about what if there was another me out there, a twin or a clone of some kind. Wouldn’t it be utterly fascinating to meet such a person, to find out how their life had played out differently from my own, what different choices they had made and what the consequences had been?
Or even more fancifully, I’ve thought about meeting an older or a younger version of me. Leaving aside the paradoxes of time travel and all that, I’d love to be able to go back and observe the 15 year old, 20 year old, whatever, version of me, and tell him whatever I think would be of most value (which would basically be, “Hey, don’t fuck up by doing x, y, and z like I did”).
We kind of do that with child raising and teaching and such already. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to kids and young people in general I think. It’s like I want whatever I’ve learned through life experience and such to have some value for someone other than just me, to survive in some form by being passed on to people who can most benefit from it.
Three Identical Strangers shows that there can be an important dark side to something as bizarre and unexpected as discovering as an adult that you’ve always had a twin sibling (or triplet siblings). But there’s also a reason that such a case is fodder for talk shows and such as a feel-good story sure to draw in audiences. In spite of all that follows, for me the feel-good aspects of Bobby initially telling that story about his discovery of his triplet David never fully left me. There really is something magical about it, and I’m still not fully convinced that all things considered the triplets would have been better off had they never known of each other’s existence, or even had they all been raised in the same household.