Everyone’s talking about the recently released documentary called ‘Three Identical Strangers.’ Why? Well, for one, it’s (in my opinion) probably the most extraordinary and fascinating stories I’ve ever heard. Second, it’s an excellent documentary that depicts the story pretty much perfectly. And thirdly, it’s a true story with real tragedy. Take all those ingredients, and you got yourself the recipe for the perfect story.
So what’s the story about, you ask? Let me start by saying that three identical twins were separated at birth, only to meet ACCIDENTALLY 19 years later. While triplets being separated at birth is already a tragic thing, the story gets even darker as the three eventually find out the real purpose for why they were separated in the first place.
The story begins when19-year-old brothers Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland met, for the first time, in 1980. On his first day at Sullivan County Community College in upstate New York, Bobby arrived on campus. He expected to be the new kid on campus; in a place where no one knows him.
But strangely, he was greeted warmly by students with pats on the back and kisses on the cheek from girls. And to make it even more strange, they were all calling him “Eddy.” He didn’t know what to make of it, as nothing could explain what was happening. “Guys were slapping me on the back and girls were hugging and kissing me,” Bobby told People in a 1980 interview.
Bobby continued on to his dorm room, where he met another student named Michael Domnitz. Michael took one look at Bobby and knew something was very peculiar. As it turns out, Michael was best friends with Eddy, who went to the same college the year prior. But Eddy dropped out the previous semester.
Hence, all the students giving Bobby warm welcomes – they figured he was Eddy! Michael knew right away that he was looking not at Eddy, but his long lost twin brother. After asking Bobby what his birthday was, he knew he was looking at Eddy’s twin as he knew that he was adopted at birth.
And he knew exactly what he had to do next…
Michael decided to take Bobby to go meet Eddy and essentially change their worlds forever. But they didn’t just casually hit the road – they sped in Michael’s car as fast as the car could possibly go, getting pulled over by the cops on the way.
They eventually got to Eddy’s place, and the two twins were in utter shock looking at each other, as you can imagine. And as it turned out, their similarities went far beyond just their looks. Not only did they have the exact same haircut, but their laughs sounded exactly the same. They even had the same IQ (148).
Not surprisingly, the story of Bobby and Eddy, two identical twins who met accidentally at the age of 19, made the newspaper headlines. And while that on its own is a remarkable event, it was really only the beginning of a long and unbelievable story.
The story was getting a lot of media attention in New York. Photos of Bobby and Eddy were being featured in several newspaper articles. And one day, a young man named David Kellman saw one of those articles and was floored, as he too looked exactly like them.
David reached out to Bobby and Eddy and started by saying, “You’re not going to believe this…” The three boys soon met, and after meeting and having the earth-shattering moment of seeing not one but two more of you, the boys started talking and comparing stories.
The three discovered more similarities, including, loving Italian food, regardless of each growing up in Jewish families. They all smoked the same brand of cigarettes and were all attracted to older women.
And the similarities went beyond the “trivial”…
The triplets had a lot in common, to say the least. They had the same medical ailments, including a visual condition called amblyopia. And as it turned out, all three also struggled with mental illness. Each one spent time in a psychiatric facility in their teens.
Aside from learning about each other and being dumbfounded by the entire ordeal, the triplets were loving this new and exciting chapter in their lives. They were just beginning an incredible new journey, and it started when they became national celebrities.
The boys were called “the triplets’ and were invited to pretty much every TV news program in the country. They appeared on ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘Today’ and ‘Donohue’ to name a few. The boys won the hearts of everyone in the audience and at home as they were naturally charming and funny.
They even managed to score a part (albeit small) in Madonna’s movie ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ and also the sitcom ‘Cheers.’ The triplets would show up in matching outfits, spoke in tandem, and poked fun at themselves and at each other. They spoke in tandem, which highlighted their similarities and connection to one another. The media just couldn’t get enough of them.
The young men took advantage of their ongoing fame and opened a restaurant together in New York City called Triplets. And while things were fun and exciting at first, the novelty eventually wore off, and the brothers understood finally what it meant when people would say “never mix business and family.”
Bobby, Eddy, and David loved each other, but problems began to arise. According to David, “the bickering began” because they “never learned how to argue and then make up.”
Eddy reportedly struggled the most…
Eddy was the only one out of the three who suffered from a mental disorder. He was eventually diagnosed with manic depression. Bobby said how Eddy became “so obsessed with being part of this family that he used to… follow [Kellman and his wife] wherever they moved.” David said that Eddy moved with the pair three times.
Things were clearly getting a bit darker. But the triplets were about to find out a lot more about their past and the reason for why they were separated at birth. Once they started digging and doing some research, they started to find things out.
The mysterious story was beginning to unfold…
The triplets discovered that they were born to a single mother at the Long Island Jewish Hospital. After checking records, they also discovered that there was even a fourth infant who passed away in childbirth. So the triplets were actually supposed to be quadruplets.
Then in 1995, New Yorker author Lawrence Wright was a pivotal part of the research. He exposed to the triplets and to the world the reason why the boys were separated at birth. That’s when Eddy, Bobby, and David found out that they were actually part of a secret scientific study.
The young men tried repeatedly and desperately to learn details about their adoptions, but the adoption agency wasn’t cooperating. They refused to give them any information. You might be thinking, “well what about the adoptive parents? Did they know?”
Their adoptive parents didn’t have any prior knowledge of their sons’ siblings as the agency never disclosed the information. While doctors and researchers routinely visited the boys’ homes for years after their adoptions, their parents were just told that the children were the subjects of a “child development study.”
Wright’s article revealed the true nature of the study that the boys were unknowingly a part of. But what he wrote also exposed the occurrences about many other sets of multiple births involved in the same research project.
The article, along with its expose of the truth about their adoptions and the fact that the three were sent to different homes with a specific agenda attached, became public knowledge for everyone to read and digest.
And it all happened two months after Eddy ended his life in 1995…
In 1995, the brothers were torn apart after struggling with the restaurant and their families, but this time it was forever. Eddy chose to take his life at his home in New Jersey. Tragically, he left behind a wife and a young child. At that point, the triplets had spent less than 15 years knowing each other.
Eddy’s passing in 1995 could have been related to the trauma of his childhood and his struggle to make connections and friendships with others. According to the documentary’s director Tim Wardle, Eddy and his adoptive father “had a different idea of what men should be,” and the two fought often.
So what was this mysterious study that led to such tragedy? It all began with a doctor named Peter Neubauer…
The minds behind the study were Dr. Peter Neubauer and his colleague Dr. Viola Bernard. They headed a study at Manhattan’s Child Development Center in the 1950s and 60s that aimed to study the nature versus nurture debate. Neubauer, a Freudian psychiatrist, and Bernard, and psychologist got their subjects for the study from the now-closed Louise Wise Services adoption agency in New York City.
It’s not really clear exactly how many sets of twins they observed, but there were at least 13 children; 5 sets of twins and one set on triplets (Bobby, Eddy, and David) were officially on the record.
According to Dr. Neubauer, separating the twins and triplets from his study was justified, as he claimed in 1997 that they would have been split up anyway for adoption. He said that the adoption agency approached him, and he used their policies as an opportunity to do his study.
The study was both privately and publicly funded; they got financial support from the National Institutes of Health and other independent grants. And if you’re wondering if this sort of study is even legal, apparently it was. Despite the questionable ethics, it didn’t violate any laws or regulations during its run. All the birth mothers signed off on the separation of their babies. In fact, the state of New York didn’t begin requiring adoption agencies to keep siblings together until 1981.
Nature and nurture have been studied for a long time as scientists and psychologists are always curious as to what has more of an impact on an individual. To better understand child development, children with identical genetic makeups (twins) were separated at birth.
Dr. Viola Bernard (from the study) believed that separating twins was the only way to really understand them. Why? Because they grow up in the same environment and are typically treated similarly by their parents, so it can be difficult to determine which of their personality traits stem from nature or from nurture.
Dr. Peter Neubauer had the same perspective. So when the researchers saw that David Kellman, Eddy Galland, and Bobby Shafran were being put up for adoption, it was an opportunity to place the three babies into very different environments and see what role nature was going to play in their development.
David was sent to a working-class family, Eddy grew up in a middle-class home, and Bobby spent his childhood in an upper-middle-class family environment.
The triplets and the other babies in the study were observed from infancy to puberty; they were visited by researchers several times a year at first, but the frequency diminished as they grew up. David’s adoptive mother, Claire, remembered the first researcher giving David “square pegs to put into round holes to see his reaction.”
Claire recalled, “[Researchers] took films of him talking, playing. Later on, they would take him on his tricycle, bicycle. When he was very little, she came with some toys. She would give him a truck, a toy soldier, a doll, and a cradle.” Dr. Morton Shafran, Bobby’s adoptive father said, “Several times a year they would come, test him, photograph him. This went on for many years.”
But the boys made lemonade from the lemons they were given, so to speak…
After David, Eddy, and Bobby met, they were able to form a family of sorts. David’s adoptive father became known as “Bubala” to all three of the boys and was a beloved member of the family. David and Bobby worked very closely with Tim Wardle, the documentary’s filmmaker. They wanted to tell their story and that of their late brother.
“If you see what’s happened to these guys in their lives, it’s not surprising that they’re initially wary when people approach them,” said Wardle. “We’re British people coming in and saying ‘We want to tell your life story.’ And they’ve been messed around a lot by the media. I would be suspicious of people.”
As it turns out, the data that Dr. Peter Neubauer’s team collected was never released. After the documentary was released, the study’s participants were finally able to see some of the study’s information, regardless of how edited it was.
Neubauer passed away in 2008, and his research data is sitting in boxes at Yale University. He gave official instructions that it should be sealed until 2066. His idea was that all the participants would no longer be alive by that time.
So why don’t the brothers take legal action? Well, they did, but …
When the brothers learned about the study, they consulted a lawyer but were told that the statute of limitations might be an issue in the case. The statute of limitations can prevent former study subjects from taking legal action against the Jewish Board.
Therefore, a lawsuit hasn’t been filed. Bobby found it ludicrous, saying: “It’s not like someone left a scalpel in someone’s belly button. How many cases like this do you have to compare it to? What they did to us wasn’t a question of law. These people were entrusted with God-like power and decisions.”
The documentary ‘Three Identical Strangers,’ as fascinating as it is, still has many unknowns…
As they were making the documentary, the team helped the brothers fight for access to the study’s records. “We were driven by the injustice on behalf of the brothers,” director Wardle stated. “(Producer) Becky (Read) spent nine months working with the brothers to access the material … files and footage that should rightfully be theirs.”
After months in pursuit, the brothers got their hands on about 11,000 pages of records – information that hadn’t been seen in decades. But it wasn’t all seen in the film. Why? Because it was released after the film was finished.
“There’s a huge amount of personal stuff in those records that are private for a reason,” the producer said. “To access their records for the first time in years … that, I think, has been an accomplishment to them. To have some sense of ownership of this after having no control for many years over how their lives were orchestrated.”
In the documentary, the brothers talk openly about what it was like to be studied, seemingly unaware that those tests they were given were not part of a regular child development study.
And some of those tests were filmed…
“I remember from a very young age, people would come to the house, usually a young man and a young woman, and they had me taking tests,” David says in the documentary. “I remember the filming more than anything else. … Every single time they came, they filmed.”
When the brothers finally got access to the study’s records, they found hours of video from those childhood home visits. “The footage is like a time capsule, measuring these boys’ lives kind of year by year,” director Wardle said. “I think for the brothers, watching the footage for the first time was an incredibly emotional experience. … They’re seeing their whole childhood play out.”
Wardle and the filmmaking team knew from the get-go that telling this story was going to be a challenge. They had to first earn the trust of the brothers, and then they had to go and track down the truth about a study that was so deeply buried that other projects were even shut down.
“People had tried to tell this story before; we learned of at least three attempts by major US networks, two in the ’80s and one in the ’90s,” Wardle claimed. “In each case, we spoke to people who’d been involved in those projects, and they told us they got a long way through getting it ready to go … and it had been pulled at the last minute by people higher up.”
Having found out that other previous attempts were pulled and left hanging only made this film team as nervous as ever. The entire crew was on edge.
“There was a huge amount of paranoia … people (were) telling us, ‘There’s no way you’re going to be able to make this story, you will get shut down, it will get pulled,'” Wardle stated. He said a major part of making the film was trying to stop themselves from getting paranoid.
Michele Mordkoff and Allison Kanter are twins that were separated by Louise Wise Services back when they were 5 months old – around the same time the triplet boys were adopted. After seeing the documentary ‘Three Identical Strangers,’ Michele decided to look into her biological history.
Fifty years after her separation from her sister, Michele discovered she had an “immediate family member” on the other side of the country. She contacted Allison, and three weeks later the sisters met for the first time. Both women agree that the revelation had a positive impact on their lives. And Allison told CNN: “I think that [Mordkoff and I are] at a point in our lives that it was the right time for us to be together. Twenty-five years ago would have been great, but I don’t know that I could’ve handled this at 18, 19 years old – when the boys [in Three Identical Strangers] met each other.
Dr. Peter Neubauer remained unapologetic about his research, but other professionals in the medical community refused to admit whether or not they were involved in the study. It’s still unclear how many psychiatrists, psychologists, researchers, and technicians were actually involved over the long-running study.
Eventually, thousands of pages from the study were declassified, but they were heavily edited for publication. The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services merged with the Manhattan Child Development Center, and later issued letters of apology to David Kellman and Bobby Shafran.
Their letter said…
The letter from the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services stated that they do “not endorse the Neubauer study, and we deeply regret that it took place. We recognize the great courage of the individuals who participated in the film, and we are appreciative that this film has created an opportunity for public discourse about the study.”
As you can imagine, the exposure of the study led to outrage from the now grown twins and triplets, their adoptive parents, the adoption community, birth parents, and also medical professionals. But the revelation also let to some reunions. The Louise Wise Services adoption agency contacted and reunited three sets of twins who were also part of the study.
Another set of twins that were actually part of the study, Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein, eventually got to meet after 35 years of being separated. While they are obviously aware that they can’t get those years back, they make a point to look to the future.
Despite their different upbringings, Elyse made it clear she can’t imagine her life without Paula now. The sisters documented their whole experience of getting to know each other in a book called ‘Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited.’
Next an interview with the filmmaker and Bobby and David, after the film’s release…
Tim Wardle, Bobby Shafran, and David Kellman sat down with a writer at VICE to talk about what it was like to be in a documentary and share their personal story for millions and millions of people to see and be in awe of. The first question: why did they want to tell their story now?
David responded by saying, “We believed the story should be told, but we were afraid of how it would be told. We didn’t want it to be exploited or sensationalistic.” He also said that he’s ecstatic with how it turned out, saying it exceeded their expectations. “We gave [Tim Wardle and the crew] as much as we could from the heart, and we didn’t know what they would do with it.”
Robert (Bobby) Shafran had this to add to his brother’s previous comment: “At the beginning of the movie I say, “I wouldn’t believe it if someone else was telling this story, but it’s true, every word of it.”
He said how he basically gave them his endorsement to something he hasn’t seen. And in regards to their late brother Eddy, they were very appreciative of how he was represented. Bobby said, “They treated Eddy, who is not here to speak for himself, with a tremendous amount of sensitivity and respect.”
VICE then asked the three men: when did the depths of the conspiracy become apparent? Tim Wardle was the first to answer by saying that it became clear early on. He explained how the story had been attempted many times.
They were asked about finally getting access to some sealed records, and what they learned from it. David said how the records “read almost like individual medical records. It doesn’t give us any hypothesis or updates to go on. We’re not scientists who can pick this apart.”
VICE asked them if there could still be others out there who have no idea they were separated at birth. David responded by saying that they were pretty sure that the sets of twins who chose not to come forward when the film was being made eventually met through social media.
So what about the nature versus nurture dispute? VICE wanted to know what their thoughts were about that. Wardle said his understanding evolved after making the film. “I came in believing very strongly in nurture. I was shocked to discover just how influential DNA is. The idea that you could make decisions in your life for reasons that hinge on your ancestors—that you can’t fight and do unconsciously—it’s freaky,” he said candidly. And freaky it is. Wardle jokingly revealed how when the brothers showed up for the first meeting, they were wearing the same shoes.
VICE mentioned how it’s difficult to watch the film without being incredibly critical of the experiment and the scientists involved. Wardle replied with saying how it’s understandable to be critical about it, but he also had this to say…
“I studied psychology at university, and in the 50s and 60s, it was kind of like the Wild Wild West. There was this paradigm shift where psychology was trying to establish itself as legitimate science. All these experiments were going on, like the Milgram experiments and then later the Stanford prison experiment. They were doing things that today we consider totally unethical.”
Wardle went on to say that he’s interested in the gray areas of human behavior. Not that he’s interested in evil people, but rather good people are doing bad things. And it’s this fascination that sparked his interested in making the documentary.
“Even with the historical context, [people involved in the Twin Study] did know it was wrong because we’ve seen evidence that they approached other adoption agencies that said, No way, you can’t separate twins and triplets. That’s wrong,” Wardle added.
VICE also asked the brothers that if they knew the truth about being a triplet and being studied and susceptible to mental illness, would life have been easier? Bobby replied with a very reasonable answer.
He said: “I can’t go back, nobody can. You can’t undo this, but perhaps if we were together, the rough spots wouldn’t have been as tough. You don’t know what [your damage] is until you’ve found it, and then you find it, and it explains a lot.”
Wardle spoke of how it came to a point where it’s completely unethical, and you have no justification for what was done. He said how when you have information about people that can literally be about life or death and you don’t share that information with them, “you’ve crossed a massive red line,” as he said.
But he commented on how people do it all the time. When you’re focused on a story or experiment, as Dr. Neuhauer and his team were, it’s easy to lose track of the harm you’re inflicting. “But this actually happened to these guys. It’s their life, not just a story,” Wardle said.
‘Three Identical Strangers,’ which came out last year in 2018, has already been nominated and received many awards for its excellence. It was nominated for 43 awards and won 11, including the Critic’s Choice Documentary Awards, Sundance Film Festival Awards, and The National Board of Review.
The movie was also a box office hit, grossing at $12 million domestically, which made it 2018’s third highest-grossing documentary and one of the top 30 most successful documentaries of all time.
According to IMDB, this incredible true story has bizarre similarities to the overall plot and themes of the horror movie ‘Raising Cain’ (1992) as well as the X-Files episode ‘The X-Files: Eve’ (1993).
Bobby and David remain very close, and the making of this documentary only brought them closer. And they have only positive things to say about the film and what it has done for them and for others involved.