Tim Wadle’s new documentary “Three Identical Strangers” is shocking. What is even more shocking is that we have to wait until 2066 for the scientific ending. This is a closure that I will not live to see, and neither will the triplets, Bobby, David, nor Eddie. Wadle, a British film wonder, starts the story from its mid-point and captures us in its follow-the-dot-geometry.
The film relies totally on interviews, news clips, and videos. The first speaker is 56 year-old Bobby Shafran . He tells the story of when at 19, he discovered an unknown twin. His first day at a small community college in the Catskills would bewilder and then ,ultimately, make him famous.
If college students in 1980 led to one brother, ( Eddy Galland, who had attended the same college the year before) , the press played up their reuniting. Another sibling saw his face doubled in the newsprint, and his birth date, July 22, 1962, led to the triplets reuniting. Eddy’s adoptive mother joked, “oh, my god, they are coming out of the walls!”
David Kellman joined his brothers and they became the press’s darlings. On every late night talk show, they even had cameo appearances with Madonna in the film, “ Disperately Seeking Susan” (1985). They were twenty-four-years-old at the time. Enjoying their fame and their togetherness. We see them at Studio 54, and partying galore.
Even in the middle of all the distractions, coincidences kept surfacing. All triplets lived within a hundred mile radius. Bobby, Eddy, and David each had an older sister, 21. Each smoked the same cigarettes; all were wrestlers.
There were difference, too. Bobby’s adopted family was the most affluent. His mother was an attorney and his father a Long Island physician. Eddy was raised in a middle class milieu with teachers. David’s family bridged the class divide as immigrants and store keepers. None of the Jewish parents knew that their son had siblings. After the initial joy of reunification ebbed, they became irate that they were not told at the time when the boys were all adopted at six months. One parent said he would have adopted them all to keep them together.
The Louise Wise Jewish Adoption Service was the agency all three family’s used. All six of the triplet’s parents went to the agency to get answers together. It was a rainy night, and David’s father returned to retrieve his forgotten umbrella in the agency. He saw the Board of Directors toasting each other with champagne just like they had “dodged a bullet”. Something was amiss.
Lawyers would not take the case. They had too many clients using the agency. The boys, too, were curious. Eddy led the search for their birth mother using the public records in the New York Public Library. They met their alcoholic mother, but it was not a romantic story: “a prom night knock-up”.
We see the triplets each marry. We meet their wives, and see Bobby, Eddy, and David start a SoHo restaurant. One brother commits suicide and things get very dark. A New Yorker magazine writer, Lawrence Wright, does some story research and opens a psychological study out of Columbia University funded by many powerful entities ,though it is not made definitively clear.
Abuse of power and investigative journalism now turn this film into a thriller that leaves you angry and incredulous. A Nazi-like experiment helped by a renown Jewish adoption agency abounds in irony. Families used like guinea pigs jars the psyche, especially, when Natasha Josefowitz, the famed Dr. Peter Neubauer’s research assistant, tries to justify their work as part of the times. A scientific community who put their needs in front of that of children never published the results of their monumental study. Sixty-six boxes of tapes, test results, home visits, charts etc.. were sealed and restricted. Yale University has Dr. Peter Neubauer’s research data to be opened for viewing in 2066.
Nature or nurture debates, mental health heredity traits, all could have been the purpose of the decades long study. Playing with the lives of humans is very wrong may be the point of this film. A bizarre interview with Dr. Lawrence Perlman, who was a twenty-four-year-old participant on the study at the time, was willing to go on record that the project was ethically wrong. He still has his notes, but he left the study after twelve months. People were lab rats in the program’s design. Wadle’s documentary tells us that there are more controlled separations out there all done in the name of science. What we see is manipulation of innocents by ego-driven entities. A sad tale well-told.