‘Three Identical Strangers’ takes the idea of ‘stranger than fiction’ to a new level

Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran pose for a photo shortly after meeting in 1980 at age 19. — still from ‘Three Identical Strangers’

Note: This article contains mild spoilers for Three Identical Strangers. However, no major details are discussed that weren’t highly publicized surrounding the case of the long-lost triplets.

I had to take an introductory psychology course in my freshman year at the University of Iowa, and I remember the professor briefly discussing the story of three triplets separated at birth. They were adopted out to three different New York families with three median incomes — upper middle class, middle class and blue-collar — and surreptitiously studied over the course of a decade for some sort of nature-versus-nurture psychological research.

Eventually and almost miraculously, the three identical brothers met, learning of each other’s existence for the first time. After the thrill of the reunion subsided a bit, the boys and their adopted families expressed shock and anger at having been deceived by the adoption agency and the enigmatic researchers, who had occasionally visited their homes during the ’60s and early ’70s to film and take notes under the false pretense of gathering data on adopted children. It turned out there were several sets of twins who were separated and studied by the same team of researchers.

As I recall, my professor didn’t bring up the triplets’ story to discuss the findings of the study (for good reason — the findings had not been published), but as an example of unethical research. Today, no psychologist would dream of proposing a study that involved the separation of siblings and the deception of their families. The case is a dark — but unquestionably fascinating — footnote in the history of psychology, much like the Milgram experiment, the Monster Study (led by University of Iowa researchers) and, of course, experiments conducted by the Nazis.

A cursory glance at the story prompts a thousand questions, perhaps the prevailing one being, “Where are they now?” Enter Three Identical Strangers, a documentary that takes you through the triplets’ story detail by detail. The exceptionally engrossing film is now showing at FilmScene.

Three Identical Strangers starts with the mind-boggling, joyful and quite humorous moments when Bobby first connected with Eddy and then David with the other two after finding a newspaper article about the “long-lost twins.” It’s appropriate that a Freudian concept, that of the uncanny, hangs over the narrative. It’s certainly uncanny to see old photos and videos of these three strangers who look almost exactly alike, from their curly brown hair to their saucer brown eyes to their meaty hands, but uncannier still to witness their shared mannerisms and interests.

As one of the film’s commentators observes, “they were more like clones than brothers” — the 19-year-olds took to each other immediately, completing each other’s sentences and mirroring movements in talk show appearances shortly after their reunion. Their similarities clearly go beyond looks. It could only be genetics or coincidence that they ended up with so much in common, down to their taste in cigarettes, sports and women.

Then the film delves deeper, exploring the circumstances that lead to their separation; the beautiful and heartbreaking relationship between the long-lost siblings; the cultural climate of New York City in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s; the fight to obtain the results of the twin study; and the answer to a tragic question that hangs over the film from almost the very beginning. The story is far from mere human interest.

Had this documentary been made by a first-year film student, it would still be fascinating, but director Tim Wardle doesn’t rest on the story’s inherent allure. He balances numerous issues — adoption, identity, fame, family, trauma, mental health, conspiracy — without descending into sensationalism.

The reenactments are excellent and restrained, complementing the stand-up interviews with the brothers, their friends and family, and a couple of darkly eccentric psychologists connected to the twin study. Lawrence Wright is perhaps the most auxiliary personality featured, but a welcome one. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer behind The Looming Tower and Going Clear had spent years looking into the twin study for his 1997 book Twins: And What They Tell Us About Who We Are; his academic approach to the case is a nice foil to the more emphatic and emotional retellings of the triplets and their classic New York City Jewish families.

I left the theater with a few questions still buzzing in my brain, but I believe this is a credit to the film, not a failing. It’s a classic case of “stranger than fiction,” and like most true stories, it’s not tidy. This exceedingly complex story doesn’t reach any grand conclusions, but there is a sense of justice in it being told in the first place — in bringing to light an abuse of power and its subsequent cover-up by a group of self-interested scientists and bureaucrats.

And damn it if it didn’t make me look at my own genes differently. What parts of my life were predestined, or at least suggested, by my DNA? How much agency do I have over my own character? Who would I be if I had grown up with different parents, different siblings? One thing’s for sure — the answers to these questions are not worth the price.

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