Three Identical Strangers: A Review

Three Identical Strangers is the moving new documentary by Tim Wardle which charts the tragic story of three American triplets who were separated at birth only to discover they were part of a cruel social experiment throughout their childhood.

A prize winner of The Sundance Film Festival, Three Identical Strangers charts the lives of Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman who were the unwitting ‘lab rats’ subjected to a research project on ‘nature v nurture’ headed by imminent New York child psychiatrist Dr Peter Neubauer. The story picks up in 1980, when a 19-year-old Robert Shafran attends college in New York. Receiving an over enthusiastic reception from his fellow students upon his arrival, the baffled Bobby meets his new university roommate, Michael Domitz, who is astounded by how much Bobby resembles Michael’s previous roommate Eddy Galland. Michael sets out on a mission to reunite the two, who eventually come face to face with each other displaying the same eyes, hairstyle, and grin as duplicates.

Born to a single mother on July 12, 1961, in Long Island, New York, the triplets were put up for adoption at The Louise Wise Agency, known as the premier organisation for Jewish families in New York. When a local tabloid runs the story of Bobby and Eddy, a third sibling, David Kellman, recognises his own extraordinary physical appearance with the boys.

Reuniting with his brothers, the triplets soon fall in love with each other, developing an intense, unbreakable bond. Dressing and moving in synch with one another, the triplets finish each other’s sentences and discover that they share similar tastes and traits. They all smoke Marlboro cigarettes, love Italian food, are attracted to older women – and also learn that they have experienced their own struggles with episodes of psychiatric illness, caused by ‘separation anxiety’. The newly reunited triplets capitalise on their growing fame, becoming the new media darlings across America. Posing on the cover of U.S magazines, they charm talk show audiences, hit Studio 54, and have walk on parts in Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan. But their notoriety is soon eclipsed by the devastating impact (and duplicity) of the scientific experiment, conducted by Neubauer, which unearths many more newborn twins and triplets who were separated at birth across the New York state.

Neubauer’s team continued to conduct their studies over two decades, but it was only thanks to the tenacity of Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker, that Neubauer’s study is uncovered (funded by undisclosed sources in Washington). The triplets all had an adoptive older sister as part of ‘the design’, but their adoptive parents also became the forgotten victims, not realising their own child was a triplet. The Louise Wise Agency has subsequently closed down, and no one has been made accountable in the law courts. The adoptive parents had agreed in good faith to participate in a ‘child development study’ every year in Manhattan believing this trip to be a public childhood development project.

Bobby and David remember adults visiting with cameras, and later discover that they were both closely monitored throughout their whole childhoods. Their actions and ‘key milestones’ have been recorded in parallel with one another (showing the moments when the boys learned how to walk and ride a bike) and they each find out that they had to undertake intelligence, behaviour and personality tests. The triplets as teenagers were aware of their parents hurt and anger with the adoption agency, but as young adults, they were too consumed with having a good time in each other’s company. Transferring onto the same course at university, they set up house together in their joint ‘bachelor pad’, and they eventually opened their own restaurant named Triplets. However, as they got older, and the media furore died down, the triplets soon learned that their deep connection as adults showed up their individual differences as businessmen (and as children not raised together in one family unit).

Eddy in particular felt like an outsider in his adoptive family who were conditioned to never discuss their own feelings, headed by a strict disciplinarian father. Their working methods showed the strain, leading to periods of estrangement culminating in Bobby’s resignation from the restaurant. Eddy, a lovable family man who could not combat his manic depression, tragically killed himself in 1995 at the age of 33. Robert and David gradually forged their own identity, with Bobby retraining as a lawyer and David becoming an insurance consultant. Naturally, Bobby and David remain incensed by their inhumane treatment as human guinea pigs and compare their treatment to that of being under the will of the Nazis. The release of Wardle’s documentary has provided some respite for the surviving brothers by bringing public awareness into this massive travesty of justice. Notes into the report have been hidden away, sealed in the vaults of Yale University, to be released in 2066. Now the pair have been granted access to 10,000 photocopied pages into the previously undisclosed report.

Three Identical Strangers is a painfully sad documentary, but it is an excellent piece of filmmaking from Tim Wardle. It calls into question into whether ‘scientific research’ should override ethics, and the film highlights the human cost of such an evil enterprise.

Lynsey Ford | [rating=5]

Documentary | USA, 2018 | 12A | 30th November 2018 (UK) | Dogwoof | Dir.Tim Wardle |Eddy Garland, David Kellman, Robert Shafran | Screening Info