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Three Identical Strangers

So, what do we have in wide releases this weekend? Only the most transparently desperate and limp excuse for a “cinematic universe” that I’ve ever seen in my life, and a revenge power fantasy coating multiplexes in racially insensitive miasma. I think the time is right to finally check out an arthouse movie that’s been on my list for a while now. Luckily, this is a movie so critically adored, legitimately compelling, and genuinely good that it’s still selling out at my local arthouse so many weeks after release.

Three Identical Strangers is a documentary about David Kellman, Eddy Galland, and Bobby Shafran, all born on the same July day in 1961. The three of them are identical triplets, separated at birth when they were given up for adoption. One went to a wealthy family, one went to a middle-class family, one went to a blue-collar family, and all three of them went to families that had already adopted a daughter from the same agency. There is nothing coincidental about any of this, but we’ll get back to that.

(Side note: Wikipedia tells of a fourth stillborn brother. The movie never brings this up.)

Long story short, two of the brothers found each other by chance, and the third one surfaced after the story went public in 1980. The three of them became immediate celebrities, as America fell in love with this fairy tale story about three young and handsome identical men. The three of them parlayed their fame into massive fortunes, parties all over New York, their own restaurant business, and even a random cameo appearance in Desperately Seeking Susan.

The boys and their adoptive parents developed into a massive and tight-knit family. The boys themselves got married and had kids of their own. And then of course things started to go wrong, in large part because of one simple question: How the hell did all of this happen in the first place?

The answer, alas, died in 2008 with Dr. Peter Neubauer, an Austrian WWII refugee. He was also a pre-eminent psychiatrist and a close personal friend of Anna Freud — the daughter of Sigmund himself. This man was right on the cutting edge of psychological research at a time when psychology was still a brand-new science. So new, in fact, that nobody had yet decided what constituted ethical boundaries with regard to psychological studies.

The upshot is that Neubauer devised an experiment in which identical twins and triplets would be separated at birth and placed in very different parental environments, to monitor the effects of nature and nurture in a child’s development. And none of the subjects or their parents were ever told about this. We don’t even know how many sets of siblings were separated, what happened to them, the extent of psychological damage that resulted from separating identical siblings at such a young age, or even what the results of the study were. Because the study was never published. By all appearances, the experiment was promptly canceled when our triplets first made the news. So when Neubauer died, all 66 crates of notes and recordings from his study were moved to storage at Yale University, where they will stay under seal until the participants, subjects, and financial sponsors of the study are all safely dead.

Incidentally, all of the subjects, their families, and the officials who handled the adoption were Jewish. Because if anyone should be okay with unethical experiments conducted on unknowing and unwilling people (who happen to be Jewish), you’d think it would be Jews with living memory of the motherfucking Holocaust, right?! Moreover, it’s not like we’ve ever had a shortage of antisemitic conspiracy nutjobs in the U.S. — giving them an actual evil Jewish conspiracy to work with doesn’t do anyone any favors.

Ethics in science is a huge central theme of this movie. What knowledge could possibly be worth separating newborn twins and triplets, and not telling them that their own double is out there in the world somewhere? Then again, if it turns out that you were a lab rat for your entire life, would you really want to know? What would you even do with that knowledge?

What’s maybe even worse is that this whole experiment was doomed from the start. If the sample size was too small, any data would be inconclusive and easily written off. Too large, and the public would know that this was happening, and the all-important secrecy aspect would be compromised. Then again, all of this would have to be made public anyway when the study gets published, so all the legal/ethical stuff would have to be addressed eventually. Unless the study isn’t released for another hundred years, and the data would be so old as to be entirely useless. And seriously, nobody thought there was even the slightest chance that our triplets could ever find each other when they grew up in the same 100-mile radius?! It really makes you wonder how such a scientific genius could be stupid enough to not see any of this coming, even from several decades away.

Then we have the other huge wrinkle: As the triplets get older, differences between them start to arise. One of them leaves the restaurant business. Another one gains a lot more weight than the other two. The third one kills himself.

As the story unfolds, the filmmakers submit that the three brothers were so focused on what made them similar — and they very desperately wanted to be similar — that nobody saw the differences until it was too late. What’s worse, the brothers and their loved ones took it for granted that they were all the same, mistakenly thinking that 19 years with the same DNA meant that they didn’t need a lifetime to know each other as any brother would. It leads into this massive discussion about nature versus nurture, so I guess the experiment was a success in that regard, at least.

Of course, we may never know which wealthy and powerful individuals bankrolled this cruel and unusual farce, and they will likely never face any kind of accountability for using newborn children as unknowing lab rats, so there’s that. We may never even know how many separated twins and triplets are out there — the film ends with the chilling statement that any one of us could have a double out there somewhere. At least it would be chilling for any adopted Jewish individuals born in the 1960s who grew up in the New York City area. Anyone else is probably safe, but right to be outraged nonetheless.

If the lingering threat of this experiment seems overblown, it’s mostly because the filmmakers are so exceptionally good at telling this story. The plot is superbly paced, with interviews and staged re-enactments expertly cut together. The film even cuts back to previous scenes when it becomes necessary to bring up some new revelation and highlight the clues, much like any mystery thriller would do. It’s a neat touch.

Three Identical Strangers¬†is a beautifully heartfelt documentary about this bizarre yet loving family. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of chronicling the brothers’ shared nature, their different upbringings, the highs and lows of their lives as celebrities, the outrageously unconscionable experiment that separated them (and others) in the first place, and so many other factors that bring them together and drive them apart. The pacing is fantastic, the editing is wonderful, and the filmmakers use a relatively small subject to make statements about greater topics — in this case, the ethics of science and the conflict of nature versus nurture — as we’d expect of any good documentary.

Definitely seek this one out and give it a watch.

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