Three Identical Strangers

Unwise research experiment?

Robert Shafran, Eddy Gallard, and David Kellman from Three Identical Strangers

The age-old psychology debate of nature versus nurture has been studied and argued for years, but it’s not super splashy. No Hollywood exec is asking Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to star in an action thriller where he must choose between his friends Nurture and Nature—all while saving a burning building. As far as I know, Nature vs. Nurture: The Musical isn’t coming to Broadway anytime soon. The new documentary Three Identical Strangers, however, plays out like a compelling mystery, leaving the viewers to believe nature wins—only to turn that whole theory on its head in the second half of the movie.

Three Identical Strangers starts when 19-year-old Robert Shafran is attending a community college in upstate New York in 1980. When he arrives, students greet him extra warmly, giving him high fives, hugs, and kisses, even though Robert has never met any of them. While he finds this odd, things become stranger when people keep calling him Eddy. Things take another turn when one student asks if Robert was adopted and what his birthday was. When Robert confirms he was adopted and was born on July 12, 1961, the student tells him that he thinks he has a twin.

David Kellman, another 19-year-old, reads the story and sees that these twins look just like him, and realizes he’s part of the family too.

After a phone call and a late-night car ride, Robert and his new friend end up at Eddy’s house to find that, indeed, Eddy Gallard and Robert Shafran are twins separated at birth. News outlets jump at the chance to relay the amazing tale, and it starts to make its way into newspapers across the country. David Kellman, another 19-year-old, reads the story and sees that these twins look just like him, and realizes he’s part of the family too.

The story of reunited identical triplets becomes a national story. Robert, Eddy, and David share an immediate bond. They discover they have the same mannerisms, smoke the same cigarettes, and share the same favorite colors and same interests. They become inseparable, going on national publicity tours, partying together, and eventually moving in together. In the first half of the movie, nature clearly wins.

While the triplets enjoy their bond, their adopted parents become confused and angry. None of them knew that their child was part of a set of three. They question the directors of Louise Wise Services, the agency that placed all three boys, on why they didn’t tell the parents about the triplets. The movie unfurls layers of mysteries to discover that the placement of the triplets was not a haphazard accident. The agency also split up several sets of twins in the 1960s and ’70s as part of a secretive study by psychiatrists Viola Bernard and Peter Neubauer, who used the identical siblings as pawns in their social experiment. Unbeknownst to the triplets’ families, each boy went to a different household that would provide a contrast to the other two. One went to a working-class family, one to a middle-class family, and one to a more affluent family. Researchers would come to the household every year, and the agency told the families that it was just part of a general study of adoption.

The movie starts to suggest that nurture is potentially more of a factor in a child’s upbringing, but actually makes the argument that in the triplets’ case, the three brothers needed the same environment to maximize their bond. The movie also explores the question of whether Eddy, who eventually took his own life, would have obtained treatment if the adoption agency had disclosed his biological mother’s mental health history.

Filmmaker Tim Wardle doesn’t find all of the answers, but the audience knows it’s not for lack of trying. Bernard and Neubauer never published the study, but Wardle interviews anybody with knowledge of the study (though there aren’t many), and unearths every piece of information he can. The movie is simultaneously a feel-good story and an unsolved mystery in which the brothers are happy that they found each other but still feel like puppets in a play they don’t yet fully understand.

The twists and turns ultimately make for compelling storytelling. Raw Studios (who produced the documentary) announced last week that it will partner with Film4 and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment to produce a feature film based on the triplets’ story. The Rock most likely won’t star, but the narrative is naturally rich enough to attract top-shelf actors. Ultimately, Three Identical Strangers is strong enough as a documentary that there is no need to wait for the feature film.

3.5/4 stars. Rated PG-13 for the enigmatic “some mature thematic material” phrase. Mom and Dad: Yes!


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