Identical strangers: shocking story of triplets split up by science
New hit doccie tells the story of triplets who were part of a secret rogue experiment and then met as teenagers
When Bobby Shafran arrived at Sullivan Community College in New York state for his first day, he was shocked to find people greeting him like an old friend. Girls came up and kissed him, boys slapped him on the back.
Weirdest of all, these strangers called him Eddy.
Finally, one student ventured an explanation. “Are you adopted?” asked Michael Domnitz. When Shafran said that he was, Domnitz told him the exciting news: “You have a twin!”
Domnitz was a friend of Edward Galland, who had dropped out of the college the previous year. Later that day, in 1980, Shafran and Domnitz drove to Galland’s adoptive parents’ house in Long Island, where 19-year-old Shafran found himself staring at a young man with DNA identical to his. They had been separated at six months old.
“It was like the world faded away, and it was just me and Eddy,” Shafran recalled 37 years later. Many have entertained the idle fantasy that they have a doppelganger – twin from whom they have been separated at birth. But triplets? That’s too far-fetched, surely. Except, in this case, it wasn’t.
A few months later, David Kellman, a student at Queens College in New York City, saw two faces like his in an article about Bobby and Eddy. He phoned Eddy’s adoptive mother, and said: “I think I’m the third.” Shortly after they met, these grown men, according to Kellman’s aunt, Hedy Page, were “rolling on the floor like puppies”, grasping at the childhood together that they’d never had.
These events comprise just the first few minutes of Three Identical Strangers, a low-budget film that has recently become the most lucrative British-made documentary yet at the US box office and is tipped for an Oscar. The rest of the film lays bare the extraordinary and devastating events that unfolded after the men’s reunion.
Their families discovered that they had all been part of a rogue, top-secret scientific study. A team led by child psychiatrist Peter Neubauer had worked with a Manhattan adoption agency to split up the triplets – born to a teenage girl in 1961 – and place them with families from different socio-economic backgrounds. David had gone to a working-class family, Eddy to a middle-class household and Bobby to parents who were upper-middle-class. The adoptive parents had been told their children were part of a “routine childhood development study”.
During the next 10 years Neubauer’s team regularly filmed the boys doing cognitive tests, puzzles and drawings. Their parents thought they were helping a legitimate scientific endeavour. In truth, Neubauer wanted to know how three boys with identical DNA, who had never had any contact with one another, would be affected if they were brought up in different environments.
“[The researchers] lost sight of the human impact of what they were doing,” says Tim Wardle, the film’s British director. “That era, the 50s and 60s, [was a] Wild West period of psychology when people were doing all kinds of crazy things. People were pushing the envelope, and they were losing sight of the ethics of what they were doing.”
Wardle’s film shows for the first time the unbelievable degree to which the triplets’ lives were meddled with, and traces the impact of their subsequent fame. In 1980 the boys’ reunion received wide coverage. David’s adoptive mother told The New York Times: “They talk the same, they laugh the same, they hold their cigarettes the same – it’s uncanny.’’
The brothers, who moved into an apartment together in Queens, proved such popular guests on chat shows that stadium-sized studios were booked out for them. They appeared in matching clothes and answered questions in unison. “We were falling in love with each other,” Bobby explains in the film.
Not yet 20, they partied in Studio 54 and made a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan, after they were spotted on the street. They founded a restaurant in Manhattan called Triplets and made a million in their first year. “All we wanted to do was be joyful and play and catch up,” Bobby tells me, on the phone. “But,” adds David, who is standing next to him, “a lot can happen in 37 years.”
It soon became clear that Eddy, who had a strained relationship with his adoptive father, had mental health problems. In 1995, he shot himself, a few weeks after receiving treatment for manic depression. The suicide marks a gut-wrenching shift in the film, and in Bobby and David’s relationship.
The remaining two brothers, who had by this time married and had children, drifted apart and, in fact, weren’t speaking when Wardle, a former head of documentary development at the BBC, began work on their story in the early 2010s. Persuading them to take part, says Wardle, was “the single biggest challenge to getting the film off the ground”.
“Neither David nor I had any interest in any kind of interview after Eddy died,” Bobby says. “Things were a mess. Our lives were in such disarray.”
In the end, both brothers felt a responsibility to air their story. In the mid-1990s, Neubauer, who died in 2008 without having published his study, admitted to the New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright that Bobby, Eddy and David were not the only siblings who were separated. The exact number of twins and triplets who were studied is still not known.
“That the adoptions took place under the circumstances that they did, that there were other people involved besides us, made it even more compelling that we exposed it,” says David.
Years ago, the brothers did investigate the possibility of suing those responsible for their separation, but could not find a law firm that would take the case. “Some firms told the parents they had partners who were trying to adopt from the agency [the now defunct Louise Wise Services] and they didn’t want to damage their chances,” Wardle told a journalist earlier this year.
“It was frustrating,” David tells me now. “We didn’t make any gallant efforts to find out more, and it was kind of a dark time in our lives.”
Neubauer never showed remorse, but he left orders for all documents related to the research to be placed under lock and key at Yale University until 2065. Other psychologists who worked on the study are still practising, but refused to talk to the filmmakers. Now, as more people see the documentary, pressure is growing on them to explain their actions.
As for the brothers, they say they have been “blown away” by Wardle’s film. It has also brought Bobby, a lawyer, and David, an insurance broker, closer together. “If you watch the film you can see there is a real awkwardness between them when they are together on screen,” says Wardle. “But, since then they have been asked about their relationship and have described it as a work in progress.”
Bobby, David and Eddy’s children – who are not just cousins but also genetically half-siblings because their fathers were all born with the same DNA – have also grown close. “That’s one of the lovely things about this,” says Wardle. “It’s beautiful that that’s happened as a result of the film.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited