Imagine it’s your first day of college and, as you walk toward your dorm, students smile at you, greet you fondly, hug you and welcome you back, even though you’ve never been here before. Sounds like a Twilight Zone episode, right?
Yet this is what happened to Bobby Shafran in 1980 when he arrived at Sullivan County Community College in New York to start his freshman year. Even more bewildering: People were calling him “Eddy.”
When he got to his dorm room, another student asked an unexpected question: Was he adopted? Yes, Shafran answered. When was he born? July 12, 1961, he said.
The new friend was apoplectic. Shafran, he said, had an identical twin, and his name was Eddy Galland.
It sounded impossible, but when the two crammed into a phone booth and called Galland, who’d attended Sullivan County the year before, Shafran heard his own voice talking back to him. He drove to the Galland family house in Long Island that night and embraced the long lost brother he’d never known.
The story of their reunion was covered in New York newspapers — one of which found its way to David Kellman’s house. When Kellman saw the photos of Shafran and Galland in the paper, he realized that the boys weren’t twins after all — they were triplets. And Kellman was the third.
So begins the incredible story told in the documentary Three Identical Strangers by Tim Wardle, now in theaters. (Warning to those who plan to see it: Major spoilers ahead.) Using dramatic recreation, archival footage and plenty of interviews, Wardle tells how the three boys, who’d been adopted from a Jewish adoption agency in Manhattan, were unwilling participants in a bizarre experiment.
The agency, Louise Wise Services, was working with Jewish psychiatrist Peter Neubauer, a student of Anna Freud who’d fled the Nazis in his native Austria. From 1951 to 1985, he headed up the Child Development Center of the New York Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, and it was there he collaborated with the adoption agency on a long-term experiment in which twins and triplets were separated at birth, then placed in Jewish families with disparate living conditions and parenting styles. None of the adoptive parents were told that their children had siblings, or that some had been born to biological parents with mental illness.
In the case of the triplets, the experiment started before the boys even arrived; all three families had adopted single girls from Louise Wise years before. When the boys were adopted, the adoptive parents were told to expect regular visits from Neubauer’s researchers as part of an uncontroversial study about adoption. They all agreed.
When the boys first met at 19, however, the study was still secret, and its full contours aren’t revealed in the film until later. First, Wardle documents the early years: While the six parents reeled from the news, their three handsome, curly-haired boys went from The Today Show to Phil Donahue, attesting to their uncanny similarities: They all smoked Marlboros! They all wrestled in high school!
The media darlings moved into a Manhattan apartment together and became fixtures on the New York nightlife scene, with a cameo in Madonna’s first film, Desperately Seeking Susan. They opened a restaurant called Triplets and hosted bacchanalian dance parties into the wee hours. Wardle documents all this animatedly, so viewers get caught up in the feel-good energy. Still, it’s not entirely surprising when it all goes downhill.
The fallout becomes clear as the boys become men and try to live normal lives. As babies, they’d banged their heads against their cribs. As adolescents, they were “disturbed,” as Shafran puts it. As adults, they muddle through in different ways, tortured by what-ifs, especially after they are interviewed in the ’90s by investigative journalist Lawrence Wright for a New Yorker article exposing Neubauer’s research.
One of the triplets, Eddy Galland, was especially haunted, having been placed with a dysfunctional adoptive father who, the film implies, physically abused his son. After years of mental illness, Galland died by suicide in 1995.
Neubauer’s study was discontinued in the early ’80s and he never published any results. This latter fact tortures not only the triplets but other participants, who Wardle also interviews. What was the point of all this, they wonder.
Since Neubauer’s death in 2008, access to the data pertaining to the study has been controlled by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, and the film shows Kellman calling the agency in an unsuccessful attempt to get records. The film ends with a note saying that since production ended, the Jewish Board has provided Shafran and Kellman with selected records, though the brothers have said in subsequent interviews that those records were heavily redacted.
Director Tim Wardle is holding out hope that the Jewish Board will make all the records public. As he told Vice last week, “The Jewish Board has the power to release all the data and make it transparent, which hopefully they are going to do.”
Asked to comment about Wardle’s remarks, a spokesperson for the Jewish Board provided a statement:
“We recognize the great courage of David Kellman, Robert Shafran, their families and all individuals who participated in the film, and we are appreciative that this film has created an opportunity for a public discourse about the study. The Jewish Board does not support or condone Dr. Neubauer’s study, and we deeply regret that it took place. We’re committed to developing a stronger relationship and continued, open communication with Mr. Kellman and Mr. Shafran and other individuals included in and impacted by this study.
“For many years, The Jewish Board has been, and will continue to be, committed to providing individuals identified as part of the study access to their records in a timely and transparent manner. To date, we have provided records to all individuals who were subjects of the study who have sought them. Because of confidentiality laws, as well as the recognition of the enormous human impact of this study, access to records has been extremely narrow, to protect the privacy of individuals who have not given permission for their information to be shared.”