Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Written and Directed by Tim Wardle
Neon Films
2018
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 96 minutes
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On a rainy night in 1980, Robert Shafran’s father realized he’d left his umbrella behind. He and his wife were one of three adoptive couples that had just met with the Louise Wise [adoption] Agency Executive Board. They met with the board to ask whether it had known that three children, each of which the agency had placed with each of the three couples nearly two decades earlier, were actually identical triplets, deliberately separated at birth, without the adoptive families’ knowledge. The members of the board replied that yes, they had known that the triplets were separated, and when asked why, the board’s spokesman responded reasonably enough, that the agency found it easier to place individual siblings with three families, rather than a set of triplets with one. When, after the meeting, Shafran returned to retrieve his umbrella, he came upon the board members breaking open a bottle of champagne, celebrating having nipped in the bud related and potential legal problems that could have placed the agency in jeopardy. It was then that Shafran began to suspect that his and the other two families could be victims of an orchestrated deception by an agency so highly placed that it was virtually untouchable.

“Three Identical Strangers” is a Sundance Institute award-winning documentary film that opens a window on the secret collusion of the New York-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services with the Louise Wise Agency, the premier East Coast adoption agency for Jewish children, to separate identical siblings at birth. The film’s opening scenes recreate an earlier time in Bobby Shafran’s life, in 1980, when he is driving his beat-up Volvo to Sullivan County Community College to attend school there for the first time. He is the adopted teenage son of a doctor father and lawyer mother. Self-mocking, he sneers at the bottom feeder education he is expecting to get at SCCC. His first day on campus instantly turns bizarre. Complete strangers greet him warmly, slap him on the back, kiss him on the lips, and finally, a fellow student hails him as “Eddie.” Inside of an hour, he realizes that he has stumbled upon the existence of his identical twin, confirmed just hours later in a meeting with this twin brother Eddie, at Eddie’s Long Island home. When Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, runs a photo of the reunited twins, alongside its cash cow of a human interest story about them, yet a third sibling surfaces, and the triplets reconnect. Footage of staged talk show and tabloid reveals of the “uncanny” resemblance of the three, noted in mannerisms, preferences and other behaviors, can make you yawn, but then comes the umbrella incident, and the gradual exposure of a Machiavel scheme meant to reduce certain human beings to the sum total of their genetic makeup. Your blood may run cold, but you now find yourself pinioned to the story.

The three brothers, Robert Shafran, Eddie Galland, and David Kellman have been raised under very different circumstances. Robert’s parents are professionals living in Scarsdale, New York, one of the wealthiest U.S. suburbs. Eddie’s father is a Long Island schoolteacher, and David’s parents own a small New York City grocery store. The three families share one more thing in common. Each has, in addition to their triplet son, an older adopted daughter. Once Bobby, Eddie, and David find one another, they waste no time in making up for lost time. They pal around New York together, clubbing at Studio 54 and find themselves invited, thanks to their media-conferred biology-is-destiny brand, to the hottest society parties and events. As their celebrity grows, they are groomed to learn that it pays to emphasize their similarities, and set aside any distinguishing characteristics that have shaped their prior individual identities. They decide to capitalize on their genetic renown by opening up a destination restaurant in Soho, which they christen “Triplets.” As time goes on, they marry, and raise families, but the pressures of owning a high-profile business close in on the trio, and the personality differences that have so recently gone discounted or suppressed, begin to reassert themselves. As the pressures become more complex, telltale signs of mental illness appear in one of the triplets, affecting the business, and engulfing the family in tragedy. The bright lights turn into their opposite: darkness, depression, and despair.

The film introduces a New Yorker reporter, Lawrence Wright, who contacts the families. In the process of researching a story on identical siblings, Wright has come upon the Peter Neubauer study of identical siblings separated at birth in order to determine whether and to what extent mental illness in parents is passed on to offspring raised apart. It turns out that in the instance of the triplets and at least six other cases (including that of female twins Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, separated and placed by the Louise Wise Agency), a birth parent has been diagnosed and treated for mental illness as serious as schizophrenia. That the disingenuous separation and study of these children took place under the supervision of an Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Neubauer, reveals that the anti-scientific, racialist and deterministic atrocities we have been groomed to associate with fascism, can secretly insinuate themselves into the everyday lives of innocents, under a system whose guarantors of democracy serve at the whims and fancies of the rich. In this case, a doctor suffering from a Stockholm Syndrome-engendered obsession, enlists the aid of a secretive foundation in Washington, D.C. and two that operated openly in New York, to not only turn science on its head, but the lives of the families involuntarily associated with his study, into a Frankenstein-like nightmare.

Wright then locates two researchers associated with the Neubauer study, Natasha Josefowitz and Lawrence Perlman. In an afterthought during Wright’s interview with her where she has characterized Neubauer’s study as “monumental,” Josefowitz wonders aloud whether it’s really in the best interests of the study subjects to know that they are related, and were born to parents deemed mentally ill?
In his first job as a social psychology intern, Perlman assisted Neubauer for ten months. It was he who conducted the home visits, administering psychological and intelligence tests to the children. He confesses that during these visits, it felt strange to think to himself, “I just visited your brother, whom you don’t know,” Yet, Perlman never felt compelled to inform the families of the other boys’ existence or felt any moral compunctions about deceiving them.

As their introduction to the trade, one of the first caveats electricians learn is that between 20 and 24 milliamps are sufficient to stop a heart upon contact. This number, it turns out, was gleaned from experiments conducted by the Third Reich on concentration camp populations to find the sweet spot for cutting costs in the extermination of Jews. Similarly, a nurture vs. nature inquiry carrying a reactionary bias, yet posing as science, has electrifying ramifications. Consider for example the (eventually discredited) 1909 Cyril Burt Study of Twins, a British endeavor to support the hypothesis that IQ is inherited, and the subsequently-discredited findings by two Harvard professors, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, published in their 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” which advances the notion of a “cognitive elite.” It collected enough academic support to become the credible justification for the political meritocracy that actively propagates and advances theories supporting the superiority of the capitalist economic system.

Cherry-picked data from these inconclusive or outright rejected studies, where class and race are implied or cited factors, invariably point to a hereditary, mentally impaired underclass. Its members, the studies conclude, should not be entrusted with important responsibilities that certain constitutional, civil, and human rights confer on the rest of us. These include but are not limited to: voting, bearing or raising children, holding certain jobs, living freely among the general population, etc. “Not in my backyard!” is its rallying cry. Josefowitz, now a professor of business, is an ardent fan of the meritocracy leadership exemplified by the Obamas, and while leading the film crew on a tour of her La Jolla condominium, points out photos in which she is pictured alongside ex-President Barak Obama and his wife, Michelle.

The unnamed and unidentified study that the triplets unwittingly became part of, was presented as a kind of curio comparison of siblings raised apart. In actuality, it zeroed in on children born of parents with serious mental health defects or disorders. The perversion of science that characterizes such studies, swathed in secrecy, renders them a subjective and toxic social engineering tool for use by one class against another. For this reason, or perhaps some others yet to be disclosed, Neubauer, now deceased, ordered the study sealed until 2066, when, as Josefowitz points out, all participants and their family members will be “long dead.” Yale University agreed to accept and house the sealed study. Neubauer, Jewish Family Services, and the Louise Wise Agency, colluded in hiding its existence. If its findings replicate those in other similar forays, it is likely to have proved exactly nothing. That Yale lent its facilities and imprimatur to its suppression, serves to indict the most highly placed and prestigious U.S. institutions for playing a turn-key role in promulgating a form of Mengele-like anti-science that we associate with the grist of the holocaust and its fascist-spawned genocide. The ethics at work here, embraced by the likes of Harvard, Yale, and a politically favored meritocracy with ties to well-healed and insular social agencies, should cause us to consider whether just because a question can be asked, should it be dignified with an answer? This is especially germane when the circumstances, usefulness, and questionable veracity of experimental findings, aim to achieve only one goal: undermining of the constituents of human solidarity and goodwill. It should be noted that because of the investigative work by Wright, Yale agreed to release some fraction of 10,000 pages of heavily redacted documents in the sealed study.

If we value the show-don’t-tell approach to documentary filmmaking, isn’t “Three Identical Strangers” a story that cannot help but burst through its aesthetic bindings to tells us more about our pauperized culture than we think we know? Here is an outsized account of criminal deception visited on seemingly random individuals, with the complicity of a nationwide social layer that answers to no one but its inner circle. The cry to “drain the swamp” seems tin-horned, if not futile, next to a story asking us to see an entire nation’s premier institutions as infested with parasites enriching themselves off the misery and deception of innocent bystanders.

It’s fascinating how this parasitic layer dovetails so amiably with the culture that distorted the individual lives of the triplets and their families. Their party-animal celebrity and a society’s cultivated narcissistic obsession with gene pool super stars, enabled these three young men to extrude the kind of billboard life that had in no way been in the offing for them before. The whole trifecta was sold, repurposed, and redesigned by the tabloids’ squaring of the boys’ identical looks with a confected identity for all three. When they decide to go into the restaurant business, they must suck it out of their thumbs as a kind of minor league Dubai industry. It becomes the funnel for their now-indistinguishable lives, those of their pre-existing families, and the wives and children they acquire. They seem unconcerned about the consequences of the seating of its touchpoints in both voyeurism and tourism. Nor do they consider that their pet project sits on the very foundation of the malfeasance that commandeered their initial separation and the caricature of a life thrust upon them. The ultimate abandonment arrives not from a mentally incompetent birth parent, but from the centrifugal force exerted from the concentric circling of wagons around a hidden misanthropic study that has spit them out as viciously as it pulled them in.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.