This stranger-than-fiction documentary about triplets who were separated at birth will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Starting off like a Disney fairy tale, Three Identical Strangers becomes a sinister conspiracy thriller. With its echoes of Nazi medical experimentation during the Holocaust, the film is like a blockbuster idea from writer William Goldman (Marathon Man), rejected by his agent for being too outlandish.
Talking head testimony from the brothers, their families, friends and others, are often accompanied by dramatic reconstructions of the events they describe. There are chatshow clips from 1980, their walk-on part with Madonna from Desperately Seeking Susan, as well as home video footage. This documentary rarely pauses for breath, but when words fail, zen-like images help us digest the human fall-out from this drama. “My brother Eddie could light up a room with his smile,” says David. Cut to the evening sunlight going down behind a chimney stack.
Robert Shafran tells the story of how he first met his brothers. It was his first day at college and any nerves soon turned to stunned surprise as a succession of strangers greeted him like a returning hero. Girls kissed him and asked him how his summer was. “Eddie! How are you?” One of Eddie’s friends phones the real Edward Galland up and they drive to Long Island in the middle of the night. “The door opens … and here I am. His eyes were my eyes.” They looked exactly alike and moved as if they were looking in the mirror.
“Then it went from being amazing to being incredible,” narrates Robert. After a journalist covered the story David Kellman’s wife saw a photo of the twins and the three brothers were reunited for the first time since their birth in 1961. “They knew each other. There was no need for introductions,” says Eddie’s grandfather, “I watched three lives becoming one.”
When they compared notes, it turned out the brothers all had the same taste in booze, cars and women; they all smoked Marlboro cigarettes and wrestled. In 1980 this ‘fairy tale’ reunion went viral and became a media circus. Soon they were living together in New York, dancing at Studio 54 and mixing with celebrities. They opened a restaurant called Triplets and life was like “a big barmitzvah.”
But as the brothers begin to ask questions about their past the dream turns into a nightmare. Why were they separated at birth, when experts knew it would result in separation anxiety and terrible deprivation? There is anger directed at the elite adoption agency, Louise Wise, which specialised in Jewish babies
Journalist and author, Laurence Wright, begins to research an obscure scientific study which separated babies at birth for the purposes of psychological study. He discovers that the three infant brothers were intentionally placed with families at different economic levels – one blue-collar, one middle-class, and one wealthy. Their progress was then monitored by assistants, who would visit them periodically to film them and conduct tests. The shocking truth was that they were ‘lab-rats’ in a science experiment. It was “like some Nazi shit … it felt like our lives had been orchestrated by these scientists.”
What was the aim of the study? Psychiatrist Peter B. Neubauer felt that this was an opportunity to ‘prove’ once and for all which was stronger, nature or nurture. A research assistant admits that “in retrospect, it was undoubtedly ethically wrong”.
Why did the boys’ lives turn out so different? “I saw it at first hand,” says Wright, “it’s all about nurture.” There were many superficial similarities between the triplets, but deep down they were different. Their lives were not proof that ‘biology is destiny’, but that ‘nurture can overcome nearly everything’.