PARK CITY, Utah — Three Identical Strangers, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, is a wild documentary, tickling at our obsession with twins and triplets, the nature vs. nurture debate, and the idea of being separated at birth. But it infuses its story with a dark reality, too, sending a frigid chill up the spine of anyone who thought they were in for a jaunty documentary version of The Parent Trap.
There is only a fleeting can-you-believe-it charm along the lines of Lindsay Lohan with a British accent discovering Lindsay Lohan with an American accent. Instead, Three Identical Strangers chronicles the unlikely reunion of estranged triplets and a harrowing series of events involving secret psychological experiments, nefarious cover-ups, crippling mental illness, and even death.
Listen, I’m a twin. I’ve lived my entire life in a spotlight of fascination because of it. Second only to, “How are you?” the question I’ve been asked most in my life is, “What is it like being a twin?”—as if I know any different and can compare. It’s as much an intrinsic part of my identity as having blue eyes and brown hair, which can be strange: your identity becomes a category—“the twins!”—instead of a marker of individuality. (Though there’s also security and comfort in that intimate camaraderie.)
But triplets Robert Shafran, David Kellman, and Eddy Galland didn’t always have that camaraderie. And they’re among the rare multiples who actually do know different, and can compare. It’s their incredible story at the center of Three Identical Strangers.
In 1980, 19-year-old Bobby hopped into his burgundy Volvo, lovingly dubbed “the Old Bitch,” and drove to his first day as a student at Sullivan County Community College in the Catskills. When he arrived on campus, students were absurdly friendly. Seemingly everyone waved an enthusiastic “hello.” Some raved about how glad they were that he was back, which was strange because he had never been on that campus before. Girls even kissed him on the lips, they were so happy.
Finally, someone started calling him Eddy. “Eddy’s back! Everyone thought he wasn’t going to come back!” Then someone started to put things together. “Are you adopted?” a student asked Bobby. He was. “Is your birthday July 12, 1961?” It was. Bobby, it seems you have a long-lost twin named Eddy.
Eddy Galland, like Bobby Shafran, was adopted from the Louise Wise Adoption Agency in New York City. When they finally meet, 19 years after their birth and without ever knowing the other existed, the physical similarities are uncanny: broad builds, megawatt smiles, a mop of Cabbage Patch curls, and distinctive baseball mitts for hands.
The local newspapers had a field day with the heartwarming human interest story, and soon straphangers in New York City had Eddy and Bobby’s faces and story in their hands. Those morning commuters included friends of David Kellman who, my god, they swore, was the spitting image of the reunited twins in the paper.
When David, who was also adopted from the Louise Wise agency and born on that July day, discovered the saga and called Eddy’s mother suggesting that he might actually be a third long-lost brother, she reportedly joked, “Oh my god, they’re coming out of the woodwork!”
There’s an eerie lightheartedness to this part of the documentary—jovial recollections about the shock, gratitude, and joy when the triplets finally meet—that suggests this reunion bliss will be short-lived. But damn if it isn’t fun while it lasts.
Like we said, people are freaking obsessed with multiples, be it twins, triplets, or more. And these guys, whatta story! They were media darlings, with a carousel of TV hosts stunned into silence when they saw how, despite not having grown up together, they shared the same exact mannerisms, even sitting the same way. They were all wrestlers, liked the same colors, had the same taste in older women, and even bought the same brand of cigarettes. Each also had an adopted sister, and all three sisters were the same age.
Their upbringings, though all three raised in Jewish families in the suburbs of New York City, were completely different, with different economic comforts. Yet they grew up to be so similar, a nature vs. nurture marvel if there was ever was one.
But bubbling beneath this bliss were angering questions. Why were these triplets separated by the adoption agency? Why weren’t their adoptive parents told about their child’s siblings?
This is a Sundance documentary produced by CNN Films, not a Parade magazine article, after all. Darkness was bound to shroud this love affair.
Soon it is uncovered that the triplets were part of a secret study in which newborn identical siblings put up for adoption were separated for the purpose of psychological and behavioral experimentation. The babies all came from the Louise Wise agency, and were monitored for years. The adoptive parents were simply told their children were being followed for a study about the development of adopted children. In reality, it was to determine how much of a person’s behavior is hereditary and how much is shaped by their environment (nature vs. nurture), using identical siblings raised in different households as the control group.
As Bobby says, “This is, like, Nazi shit.”
The triplets weren’t the only multiples in the study, the results of which were never published, its full roster of participants never named, and its express purpose never fully elucidated. As Three Identical Strangers digs into the study’s ramifications—and the fact that these men were denied access to information about their biological parents and siblings that could have been life-saving in regards to their mental health (a plot point we won't spoil)—a sweet story becomes a disturbing cautionary tale about the seedy underbelly of science which operates at the expense of humanity.
When you’re a multiple, you can sometimes feel like lab rats. You’d be shocked how many times in my life people have thought it perfectly acceptable to suggest, “I want to study you!”—be it former teachers and professors or garish casual acquaintances. Is there something to be learned about human behavior through the study of identical siblings? Undoubtedly. Dignity would be nice, too.
Three Identical Strangers is more than a spotlight on a particularly curious case. As we incorporate science into reproduction and diversify the ways in which children are raised, questions about nature and nurture are more valuable than ever.
As the film’s triplets—and my own life—can certainly attest, you can share the same DNA and still have lives that turn out dramatically different. It’s astounding how similar Bobby, David, and Eddy were despite growing up apart. But the focus on that once they discovered each other was reductive, aided and abetted by a media looking for a human interest hook.
That my twin brother and I developed similar interests, behaviors, and personality traits should be no surprise. Our bedrooms were on different floors of our house growing up, yet we’d routinely show up at the breakfast table wearing exactly the same outfit. Now 30-years-old, we haven’t lived together in over a decade, yet show up at nearly every holiday get-together wearing similar outfits that we bought for ourselves independently. And that’s just one silly example.
But then there are things about my brother and I that are, like we said before, dramatically different, the least of which is that he is straight and I am gay, and I have survived a major illness that he did not have. (I mean, I never said we shouldn’t be studied.)
The case for nature over nurture isn’t as compelling as you might think. Are you looking for similarities because they’re triplets or twins or what have you, and jumping to conclusions because of that? And are you ignoring or at least not acknowledging their differences?
There are resonant, bordering on existential questions raised here, but so are ones about ethics and morality. Bobby, Eddy, and David were denied information that would have dramatically impacted their lives, the least of which concerned their health. The optics of why they were denied that information also carries a dark implication: Because they were put up for adoption and because they were adopted by Jewish families in the Sixties, their lives were deemed less valuable.
When these brothers were reunited at age 19, the media commoditized them to sell papers and boost ratings. But their agency was taken from them long before that. More, no one knows how many identical siblings out there may be just like them, and don’t even know it yet.