The first day of college can be daunting. Will people like me? Will I fit in? That didn’t seem to be a problem when one young man began his first day at New York’s Sullivan College back in 1980. Everyone seemed to know him. “Hey, Eddy!” one guy said, clapping him on the back. “Welcome back, Eddy!” said several others. One girl even greeted him with a big smooch. But there was one problem: his name was Bobby, not Eddy.
Meeting one of Eddy’s best friends, Bobby soon realized that he had a twin brother who, like himself, was adopted as a baby. When a New York paper published an article with the two of them smiling from the front page, a third brother, David, recognized himself in the photograph and soon there were three brothers playfully roughhousing, hugging, “rolling around on the ground” (as one observer described their reunion), and mugging for the cameras. “They looked alike, they walked alike, at times they even talked alike,” to quote the theme song from the old “Patty Duke Show,” as they traveled the talk-show circuit, cut the line at the famous Studio 54, hung out in each other’s homes, and eventually started a restaurant together in Manhattan. The photographs from those early years show three smiling, happy-go-lucky young men frolicking like puppies in their joyful rediscovery of each other.
All three adoptive families wanted to know: how could this happen?
Three Identical Strangers, a documentary about these men, is a fairytale story with the makings of Shakespearean comedy. Three brothers, separated at birth, reunite when two of them enroll at the same college. Madcap misidentification ensues, right? Hayley Mills began her acting career with such a concept in The Parent Trap, and Hollywood has offered various riffs on it since then, from the Olsen twins’ It Takes Two to Schwarzenegger and DeVito in Twins to The Parent Trap reboot with Lindsay Lohan and more. Except that in this story, the protagonists, likeable though they are, do not live happily ever after. This is Shakespearean tragedy, not comedy. And its subject is something that actually happened, in the mid-20th century.
All three adoptive families wanted to know: how could this happen? Who would deliberately separate siblings — identical triplet siblings — at birth? When they confronted the adoption agency, the answer seemed innocuous enough: “Twins are hard to place. Few people want to take more than one.” That was bull, of course; most people dream of the magic of having twins, and many adoptive parents, already concerned about infertility, would jump at the chance for a “two-fer.”
The real story was downright sinister: the boys were part of an experiment to discover whether nature or nurture plays a stronger role in determining personality, intelligence, aptitude, career choices, financial success, and so forth. The boys had been carefully placed, one in a working-class family, one in a middle-class family, and one in an upper-class family, to test how they were affected by their environments. And as an example of how carefully the study was planned, each had an adoptive sister a year older than he who had been placed in the family by the same agency.
Each mother reported that her son would bang his head against the bars of his crib at night, as though he were terribly angry or terribly unhappy.
Several times a year the boys had been visited by researchers from the adoption agency who purported to be studying adoptees in general, but were actually studying identical siblings. These boys weren’t the only siblings in the study who had been separated at birth; there had been several sets of twins, and perhaps other sets of triplets, separated for the purpose of studying them throughout their lives. The study was cut short when it came to light in 1980, and at that point no one really knew how many families were involved, or the results of the study, because the study was — and remains — sealed until 2066.
How were the children affected by the separation? Each mother reported that her son would bang his head against the bars of his crib at night, as though he were terribly angry or terribly unhappy. Director Tim Wardle muses, “What would it be like to share a womb and then a crib, and then suddenly — emptiness?” as old black-and-white film of triplets being cared for in a single crib plays in the background.
What makes this story even more draconian is that the study was devised and conducted by noted child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer, a Freudian who worked closely with Freud’s daughter Anna at the Hampstead Clinic in London. And he was an Austrian refugee from the Holocaust! The triplets were born in 1961, just 16 years after Allied forces liberated the concentration camps from the Nazis and discovered the atrocities that had happened there. Americans were horrified to discover the human experiments that had been conducted by Josef Mengele, including studies he conducted on twins. And come to find out, a similar study was happening in our own backyard, by a Jewish adoption agency and a Jewish psychiatrist. Unbelievable.
From the beginning, the study was laughably flawed.
So which is more important, nature or nurture? At first glance the documentary appears to support nature. Although the three were placed in different socioeconomic conditions, they had uncanny similarities. All three wrestled in high school. All three liked Chinese food. All three were smokers. All three smoked Marlboros. All three had cheerful, devil-may-care personalities. “We sit the same way; we have the same gestures and mannerisms; we finish each other’s sentences,” one explained to Phil Donahue. One pair of twins discovered that they were both editors of their high school newspapers and had both gone to film school. “We have the same mannerisms,” they pointed out during a television interview. Ooh. Spooky. Wrestling and mannerisms must be genetic.
But the documentary comes to the opposite conclusion. David, raised by a jovial working class family, clearly had the happiest childhood and seems to have been the most stable. Eddy, raised by a distant, authoritarian father, became clinically depressed. Bobby, raised by a medical doctor, fits in the middle, not as carefree as David, but not as uptight as Eddy. Obviously, environment plays a greater role than genetics in determining personality and happiness, right? (And evidently, the poorer the environment, the better.)
From the beginning, however, the study was laughably flawed, providing convincing support for neither conclusion. The study was small and far from random. Although no one knows for sure how many twins and triplets were studied, logic tells us that it can’t have been more than a dozen or two, and probably fewer. After all, how many Jewish mothers in New York had twins in the decade following World War II and gave them up for adoption? One journalist was told “six or eight.”
The children’s participation in cognitive testing would have influenced and fundamentally changed the very environment being studied.
Another flaw was in the setup of the experiment. All the children were placed in homes within the New York area, so how diverse could those environments be? Wouldn’t placing one in New York, one in the Midwest, and one in, say, the South of France have provided a better test of environmental factors? Other flaws were introduced by the experimental process itself. The children’s participation in cognitive testing, as the researchers came around every few months, would have influenced and fundamentally changed the very environment being studied. By setting the subjects apart from their school peers, who weren’t receiving this kind of intellectual challenge and focus on mental development, the researchers established a strong common ground among the siblings. Moreover, the similarities in the separated siblings weren’t that unexpected. Young men of a certain build often gravitate toward wrestling; the majority of teenage boys in the ’60s smoked, and Marlboro was one of the most popular brands. And their mannerisms can be described as typical of New Yorkers.
In the end the documentary does as much damage as the original study. The focus on Freudian issues, especially parental influence, comes dangerously close to the argument that overbearing mothers and weak fathers “cause homosexuality,” for example. And suggesting that a father’s parenting style contributed to his son’s suicide is just plain cruel.
The diabolical experiment that separated children from their siblings had no possibility of becoming the landmark study Neubauer had hoped to produce. It was a narcissistic curiosity at best and a tragic example of child abuse at worst. The film, too, is a disappointment. It’s fascinating as a human-interest story, and director Tim Wardle masterfully creates suspense and conspiracy in his storytelling. But, like the study, it’s inadequate as an historical or scientific document. Interesting and voyeuristic, but not a study to be quoted.