Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 28, 2018 3:40 pm 
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A wonderful story that turns out to be horrible

Ultimately discomfiting, the documentary Three Identical Strangers is entertainingly assembled - using some simulations, some necessary, some not. It tells about triplets who were separated shortly after birth and put up for adoption with three unknowing separate families as part of a comparative nature vs. nurture "study" fed its subjects by the Jewish adoption agency Louise Wise Services. These researchers' blinding amorality wasn't far from the Nazi human experiments of Josef Mengele. To top it off, it was supervised by a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Peter Neubauer , a "very distinguished psychiatrist in New York" who had worked closely with Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna . Thus are repeated by the victims the worst of what was done to them - as is demonstrated every day in the Occupied Territories.

One of the two surviving triplets, now 56, speaking of the experiment they discovered themselves to be part of, without their knowledge or that of their adoptive parents: "Who would think that anyone would be evil enough to come up with something like this?"

That is a resonant question. How could they do it? How could they think it okay? How could they get away with it? That is as much an anomaly and mystery as why the full documentation of their nefarious procedures is sealed at Yale until 2066. Then, some say, we shall learn if the findings justified the means. But can any ends justify such manipulation of human lives, such deception? In any case, what data has emerged seems like "garbage," says one triplet. There is a suspicion that if there had been anything good, it would not have been kept so tightly under wraps.

Wardle's organization of the film into a series of surprises gibes with the astonishment and joy of the triplets when they first discovered each other. The way this happened is itself a remarkable coincidence - two of the triplets enrolling in successive years at the same junior college, so the second one to arrive is taken to be the first (who had withdrawn) by his classmates.

This led to a news story that was widely broadcast, and the result was the appearance of the third triplet. These discoveries were facilitated because the researchers' scheme included placing the three adoptions - with working class immigrants (David Kellman), middle class people (Eddy Galland), and a wealthy family (Bobby Shafran), all within a 100-mile radius.

Once the boys were reunited, they instantly clicked. In TV appearances they acted "identical" - same brand of cigarettes, same taste in girls, same gestures - because they wanted to be. Their new togetherness, their quick love of each other, was, the film suggests, partly a relief of the separation anxiety they had suffered when they were split apart in the beginning. It emerges that, despite the big grins when they got toether, they had all had psychological problems growing up, had banged their heads against the wall of their cribs. And one, Bobby Shafran, the brother raised by a rich family, was implicated in a murder case.

But now they were together. This was 1980. They were nineteen. They were all fun-loving party boys, who traded on their celebrity to live it up together. They went to Studio 54. They moved in together. The married and had children. In 1988 they started a restaurant together, Triplets Roumanian Steakhouse.

At some point, they used library files to track down their biological mother. There was not much there, except she was a drinker, like them only more so, and they meant little to each other: they were the result of a drunken prom night with nobody special. There was no bonding, no followup.

The journalist Lawrence Wright, who was a consultant on the film, now enters the picture. He is the author of articles about "twin studies," including the 1995 New Yorker article "Double Mystery" .

When the triplets' adoptive parents learned about the "study" they went and confronted the Louise Wise agency. Their meeting was inconclusive; the authorities were evasive. It was rainy (a simulation shows us) When Mr. Shafran went back to get his umbrella, he found the directors breaking out a bottle of champagne. They plainly felt they had gotten away with something - the manipulation of lives, the rearranging of twins to be observed separately. How many twins were in the study Wright has been unable to determine.

The triplets' happy life together was disturbed when their restaurant produced conflict. Their "work ethics" (an element of nurture) were different. Bobby left the business, and Eddy, the most volatile, and bipolar, went down a path of mental unbalance and had to be hospitalized for a while. Turns out all were disturbed as kids, all had had psychological problems. It's worse: the twins in the studies all had parents with a history of mental problems, so apparently that was part of the study design. Sadly, Eddy, who had needed the bonding of the brothers the most, took Bobby's departure very hard, and ultimately committed suicide. The most charming and lovable of the three, he was also the most unstable, it appears. Of course, these various "identical" siblings were similar, never remotely identical. Seen at present, David and Bobby look clearly different, and the matching grins are gone.

Half way along the film reveals Natasha Josefowitz, Dr. Neubauer's reserch assistant, now living in SoCal, and full of herself. She found the pipe-chomping Dr. Neubauer "sexy." She claims that the study to contrast "nature" and "nurture" was "monumental" and in those days, considered acceptable (a mere assertion) and that it showed that people are much more predetermined than they want to admit, ergo, not as much free will as we'd like. She has interesting opinions, but knows little.

Lawrence Perlman, who was a young research assistant, is more willing to "go on record" about his personal experience of the research. He acknowledges now that it was ethically challenged. He came on after it was set up and only worked on it for ten months. The researchers knew something of the families because they had placed an older adopted sister in each of the three triplet's households. This is another revelation, which makes David and Bobby feel all the more, now, like "lab rats." The study's interest, Perlman says, was never mental health but differences in parenting. The film strongly suggests that Elliot Galland, Eddy Galland's adoptive father, had a bad effect on him growing up because they were a bad fit. Eddy was sensitive and artistic, and Elliot was remote and a stern disciplinarian.

The film fades in the latter part because it has no solid information on the research to match its initial surprise revelations. As Lawrence Wright points out, his story never had a bottom line, because the research's conclusions are missing, if there even are any. What counts is the feeling that such experimentation with humans used as lab rats, unaware of how they are being used, their adoptive parents also not knowing, is simply wrong.

Three Identical Strangers, 96 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, and showed in 11 other US festivals, plus Sidney. It released in theaters 29 Jun. 2018.

The triplets' story is told in an article in The New York Post.


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