Saturday, August 18, 2018

Three Identical Strangers: A Review


The 'strangers' in Three Identical Strangers can have more than one meaning, intentional or not.  It relates to three men who were not aware they had two other identical brothers, but it could also relate to the strange twists and turns in a story that seems more the product of mad scientists than anything else.

In 1980 Bobby Shafran goes off to a community college.  He is surprised to find so many people be so friendly to him there, hugging, high-fiving and in a few instances kissing him even though he has no idea who they are.  It isn't until he sees his college dorm-mate that he makes a shocking discovery: he has a double.  That 'double' turns out to be Eddy Galland, who is his hereto unknown identical twin brother. 

Both Shafran and Galland knew they had been adopted, but neither family knew there was a second brother.  Things take a stranger turn when another man, David Kellerman, reads about them and finds these two men look exactly like him!  Turns out the twins are really triplets.

The brothers are thrilled to be reunited and they become media sensations.  The press and public fixate on their surprising similarities: same taste in cigarettes, women, sports.  Their families even, in a strange coincidence, all had an older adopted sister before adopting the boys. They live a grand public life, open a restaurant called, what else, Triplets, and even have a cameo in a Madonna movie.

Image result for three identical strangersAs they live out their lives, they begin searching for their birth mother, who turns out to have been a teen mother and who both drinks too much and has mental health issues.  Little do they know that all those 'coincidences' are anything but.

The triplets find that their lives were essentially orchestrated by Dr. Peter Neubauer as part of a 'nature vs. nurture' long-term study of which the respective families knew nothing about.  Moreover, they were not the only set of siblings who were separated.  This almost Mengele-type experiment on children seems more disturbed when you realize that Dr. Neubauer was a Holocaust survivor and that the Jewish Board of Family Service, which still holds various records in the never-published study, would not release information.

Even though the men were identical, they were not the same.  There were mental health issues leading to Galland eventually taking his own life. The 'coincidence' of each man having an older adopted sister was anything but.  It was part of an almost-deranged 'master-plan', as was placing the boys in a working, middle and upper-class family.  Eddy Galland's father, by his own admission, was a strict disciplinarian, while another brother had an avuncular father. 

While some of the JBFS's records were opened as a result of the film, there is very little information to them.  Dr. Neubauer's own notes, donated to Yale University at his death, are sealed until 2066.

Three Identical Strangers, directed by Tim Wardle, resists the temptation to make this a 'meet-cute' story, even as we see the brothers indulging in celebrity with interviews on Donahue.  It has some reenactments, but most of them are early in the film.  However, they are put to great use, particularly when the three sets of parents go to the Louise Wise Services agency to confront them about why they were not told or given a chance to adopt two or all three.  They report that when Mort Shafran went back to the conference room to get his umbrella, he saw the agency heads opening a bottle of champagne, as if celebrating that they'd 'gotten away with it'.

Image result for three identical strangersWardle, instead, lets the story tell itself with interviews from the surviving brothers and their parents, friends and relatives, along with Lawrence Wright, an investigative reporter who uncovered this crazed science experiment. Wardle and Wright go deeper into a story that becomes more nefarious as it goes on.

Even now, we see that there is still a strange disconnect among those involved in this 'mad scientist' type plan; the surviving research assistants to this 'nature vs. nurture' study, such as Dr. Lawrence Perlman, who conducted on-site visits with the triplets for a brief time, and Natasha Josefowitz, Dr. Neubauer's personal assistant, still insist that the separations of the brothers along with other twins/triplets, was warranted for the scientific information they learned.

The ethics of these endeavors, however, never seems to have either crossed their minds or be of concern now.  It's both fascinating and highly creepy how men and women of science can appear so shockingly myopic on the fact that many lives were damaged, ruined, or even ended as as a result of their own actions.  Just as one is appalled to hear someone rationalize killings by saying 'I was just following orders', one sits these highly educated men and women almost in disbelief when hearing them say nothing on how their studies altered the subjects' lives.  It is almost like equating lab rats with human beings.

Three Identical Strangers touches on this with a comment that one of the brothers relates came from Eddy.  "I don't know if this will turn out great or terrible," one of them quotes Eddy about discovering the other two, a prescient comment given Eddy would be the one to suffer from manic-depression that would eventually lead to his suicide.

The film points out that the public and even the families focused so much on the similarities they failed to notice the differences in each of them.  Moreover, the eternal question of 'nature vs. nurture' is still left unanswered, and not just because the study was never published and the records sealed.

Some moments in the film are brilliant, such as when after meeting their birth mother the brothers are still no closer to knowing the truth.  We see New York City in a fog, and intentional or not, it reflects a literal and metaphorical fog and clouding of the study and the circumstances in their lives.

Three Identical Strangers is in turns fascinating, amusing, shocking, infuriating and ultimately sad yet thoroughly engrossing.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "Science without religion is lame.  Religion without science is blind".  I have always interpreted that quote as meaning that faith should have an intellectual basis in observable, testable reality and that science should be guided by high ethical standards of morality.  From the infamous Tuskegee Experiment to Joseph Mengele's obscene acts on Holocaust victims to the Milgram study to the Stanford Prison Experiment and now this 'nature vs. nurture' study, it appears that Einstein's dictum has yet to be integrated into scientific thought. 

Sadly, this failure led to David Kellman, Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and their families all being wrecked in so many ways.


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