Omne trium perfectum goes the Latin maxim: Everything that comes in threes is perfect, a mnemonic aide familiar to fairy tales, worship rituals and public speaking. It also provides the enigmatic title of Tim Wardle’s documentary, Three Identical Strangers, one of the most compelling, and disturbing, American documentary family portraits since Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 film, Capturing the Friedmans.
Wardle’s film, five years in the making, begins in the fall of 1980, when 19-year-old Robert “Bobby” Shafran arrived at a community college in upstate New York to an effusive reception from complete strangers. He soon learned he was mistaken for a former student named Eddy Galland. Bobby and Eddy met, compared backgrounds and concluded they were twins, separated at birth in 1961. When their story was reported in the newspapers, a third brother, David, came forward and the three were reunited.
The triplets, all of whom had high I.Qs, liked wrestling, Marlboro cigarettes and older women, were adorable-looking, with matching barrel-chests, curly mops of hair and cherubic smiles. They were featured in People magazine and The Phil Donahue Show and had a cameo in the 1985 film, Desperately Seeking Susan, collectively ogling star Madonna. They shared an apartment and opened a restaurant called Triplets. As one of the boys’ aunts says, it all seemed “a miracle.”
Or, too good to be true. The dark side of the triplets’ astonishing story wasn’t uncovered until the mid-‘90s, by New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright (author of the Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book, The Looming Tower: Al-Quaeda and the Road to 9/11). In an article on twins, Wright came across a reference to a study in a science journal to a secretive study, conducted in co-operation with a Jewish adoption agency, Louise Wise Services, which separated five sets of twins and one set of triplets without informing the adoptive parents.
A renowned child psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer, who had been educated in Austria and Switzerland before fleeing the Nazis to the United States, supervised the unpublished study. Researchers were sent to the boys’ homes to test and videotape Bobby, Eddy, and David, who were placed, respectively, in a wealthy family in Scarsdale, a middle-class family in Long Island, and a working-class family in Queens. Their adoptive parents believed that the visits were part of a normal adoption follow-up, not that they, and their children, were being monitored as if they were lab rats. “This is like Nazi shit,” growls Bobby Shafran in the film.
Wardle first came across the triplets’ story when he was a head of development for the UK production company, Raw (The Imposter, American Animals), which creates documentaries for broadcast. When his colleague and one of the film’s producers, Grace Hughes-Hallett, brought the story of the triplets and the secret study to his attention, he decided this was a feature he needed to make.
After a couple of years struggling to get financing in England (he says British backers kept wanting to know the film’s ending) he ended up going to the United States and striking a deal with CNN Films, who co-produced along with Raw and England’s Channel 4.
Wardell’s film investigation begins where Wright’s work ended—gaining the stories of the brothers, their families and the few researchers who will go on the record. Much of the purpose and method of the study remains shrouded in darkness. The study was never published and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (where Neubauer served as director under its previous title, the Child Development Center) placed the research in the Yale University archives under seal until 2066 (subsequently revised to 2065). The families eventually got access to a heavily redacted copy of part of that material. Although they refuse to release the study, the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services has issued apologies to the triplets, and the twins that were subjects in Neubauer’s work (A separate documentary about Neubauer’s sibling experiment, Lori Shinseki’s The Twinning Reaction, aired on ABC’s 20/20 in March of this year).
Two months before Wright’s article was published, Eddie, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide. All three of the triplets had behavioural problems in their teens and the film speculates on the possibility that Neubauer was studying inherited mental illness. To this day, they don’t know the answer.
While the story is chilling, Three Identical Strangers is also unapologetically entertaining, bringing together elements of celebrity, conspiracy, and a miscarriage of justice, all as a prelude, as Wardle says, “to the big questions of identity and free-will”. Wardle is a big fan of Errol Morris’s highly aestheticized documentaries, with their stylized lighting, evocative music and re-enactments. But he also studied the way thrillers dole out information for maximum suspense, including Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers, the Bourne movies and, somewhat unexpectedly, a 1987 Herbert Ross comedy, The Secret of My Success, starring Michael J. Fox as a hustler using a secret identity to get ahead in business.
Wardle sees Three Identical Strangers as a hybrid of two distinct documentary traditions—one emphasizing design, the other chance. Part of the film is about the assemblage of archival material and the judicious use of re-enactments, to tell a story that seems to have a familiar satisfying shape. Then there’s the other “present day” part of the film, primarily the third act, which is in “the verité or actuality tradition”—a story that is ongoing, and, ultimately, unresolved.
While there’s drama, there’s no one-dimensional villain in the story. Wardle, who studied psychology in university, says Neubauer’s work should be considered in historical context. (“He did a lot of good. He was considered the father of child psychology in America.”) Mid-century psychology, he says, was “the Wild West” without considered rules of ethical conduct of subjects. He mentions the 1961 Yale-based Milgram experiment studies in blind obedience, inspired by the Nuremburg war criminal trials, in which participants selected as “teachers” believed they were delivering ever-increasing electric shocks to “learners” and the Stanford Prison experiment of 1971, in which student participants were divided into abusive guards and their prisoners. Both raised issues around ethics while showing the underlying violence and obedience inherent in many human beings.
Wardle quotes Lawrence Wright, who characterizes these ethical blind spots as “noble cause corruption”. As Wardle’s film shows, the quest for a scientific understanding of behaviour may be liberal and progressive: In one scene, the 90-year-old Dr. Natasha Josefowitz, who worked as Neubauer’s research assistant, proudly shows off photographs of her, taken with the Obamas and Robert Redford. Studying the separated children, she says, was an “opportunity” and, at the time, “was not something that seemed to be bad.”
Yet, it’s impossible to miss the grotesque irony of this history, in which an esteemed Jewish scientist, who fled from Nazism to the United States, ended up conducting secret and devastating experiments on American Jewish children. Does Wardle think of it as a story of the Jewish historical experience?
“I like to think of it as a universal story,” he says, citing the film’s shifting perspective on the relative importance of nature and nurture, but he adds “My wife is Jewish, and she finds the film very difficult to watch, because of the completely horrific history that it echoes.”