The bizarre story of triplets separated at birth finally gets told
Their mind-boggling reunion in 'Three Identical Strangers' is one of a series of explosive reveals in the Oscar-tipped documentary
“We heard a lot of conspiracy theories and we met a lot of people who said: you’ll never finish this film.”
In September, 1980, Robert Shafran arrived at college in upstate New York where he was warmly greeted as “Eddy” around campus by people he had never met before. One phone-call later and Robert found himself standing in front of a long-lost twin, Edward Galland.
The story makes local, then national news, when a third brother, David Kellman, emerges, after his mother spots the twins in a newspaper article. The 19-year-old triplets, separated at birth, become an overnight sensation, appearing on chat shows, and score a cameo in the Madonna movie Desperately Seeking Susan. Answering questions in front of an adoring audience on an early 1980s episode of the Phil Donahue show, the boys move in synch, finish each other’s sentences, and reveal that they have the same taste in women. Cashing in on their new found celebrity, they open a restaurant in New York called Triplets.
My first thought was: I have to make this film. My second reaction was: why has nobody told this story before
“Those were some great memories,” recalls David Kellman. “We had a great time, it was kind of a double life in that we were still attending college, so you’re telling your professor you have to leave abnormal psychology early because you have a flight to LA.”
The triplets’ mind-boggling reunion is only the first of a series of explosive reveals in the Oscar-tipped documentary, Three Identical Strangers. The film, which tonally snakes from meet-cute to tragedy to conspiracy, is directed by Tim Wardle, who, years after he embarked on the project, remains astonished by the brothers’ story.
“A producer brought the story into the company I work for which is an independent production company called Raw based in London,” explains Wardle. “I’m kind of like the ideas guy for that company. I’ve done that job for loads of different companies including the BBC where I used to be head of documentaries development. And in that job you get very cynical. You see a million ideas. A big turnover. But instantly I could see that this was the best documentary story I’d ever come across. My first thought was: I have to make this film. My second reaction was: why has nobody told this story before.”
In fact, three major US networks had previously attempted to air the story.
“There were two projects in the 80s and one in the 90s,” says Wardle. “A Pulitzer-winning journalist made a film for a major network in the mid-’90s, but it got pulled from on high. And he never got an answer as to why. This was a big organisation – like BBC-sized. We heard a lot of conspiracy theories and we met a lot of people who said: you’ll never finish this film. They’ll shut you down.
“Making the film made us quite paranoid. When you’re making a documentary you’re already very careful about who you approach and the order that you approach them. We had a couple of instances where we spoke to people on the phone and they were like: ‘Great! I’d love to talk to you!’ And then they’d go completely dark and we wouldn’t hear from them again. It definitely felt like someone had got to them.”
“There are some very powerful people involved,” says Kellman. “Typically, large organisations that have large donors are pretty influential. There are some questions that will never be answered unless somebody steps forwards ands says: hey, we tried to do this. But nobody has so far.”
The brothers were, unknown to them, being studied by Dr Peter Neubauer, a prominent psychiatrist at New York University’s Psychiatric Institute, as part of an ambitious nature versus nurture twin study. In the late 1950s, Viola Bernard, a prominent New York City psychiatrist, had persuaded Louise Wise Services, a Jewish adoption agency, to send twins to different homes, without telling the respective adoptive parents that the children were part of a multiple birth. The brothers were filmed and monitored throughout childhood by visiting psychologists and doctors.
“It was strange but it was accepted because it was part of the package,” says Kellman. “We didn’t know anybody else that was being filmed in that way, But it was happening from before we could remember. As we got older, and became cognisant our parents told us: ‘Look, when we brought you home we agreed that you were going to be part of a study’. So that’s what we knew.”
Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited, a 2007 memoir written by reunited identical twins Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, noted that of the 13 children involved in the study, three sets of twins and one set of triplets had discovered one another.
Neubauer, who died in 2008, references his findings in the 1990 book, Nature’s Thumbprint: The New Genetics of Personality, but the results of the study are restricted until 2065. The fragments that have been released are heavily redacted.
I don’t regard the people who conducted the study as evil. But the brothers have a very different opinion
“That’s one of the frustrations I think the brothers have,” says Wardle. “That all this was done to them and nothing is going to come of it. My personal feeling is that there isn’t that much of merit in there, because it was psychoanalysts trying to do a scientific study.
“And from what little I’ve seen and from talking to people who worked on it, those two things didn’t particularly fit together. Psychoanalytic theory isn’t scientifically rigorous. The data I’ve seen is a mix of hard data – birth-weight, IQ, things like that – mixed with psychobabble about stages of development.
“There’s a lot of experimentation in the 50s and 60s in psychology that would be considered unethical now. You look at things like the Milgram obedience experiments and realise it was kind of like the wild west back then as psychology was trying to establish itself as a science. I’m really interested in those grey areas of human behaviour.
“And why good people can sometimes do bad things. I don’t regard the people who conducted the study as evil. But the brothers have a very different opinion.”
Wardle and his team have drafted in impressive contributors including the investigative journalist Lawrence Wright (who first publicised the twin experiments in a 1995 New Yorker article), and Natasha Josefowitz, a 90-year-old research assistant who contributed to Neubauer’s study. It required four years of meetings and calls to the brothers – long enough for Wardle to get engaged, married, and have a child – before they sat down on camera.
“We were always honest with them about the sort of film we wanted to make,” says the filmmaker. “There are moments when we bring up sensitive and difficult issues. So they appreciated that honesty. I think being British helped. We’re outsiders so they were a bit intrigued. It was a really long, painstaking process: meeting all their friends, all their family. But trust is everything on documentary making. You can’t do anything without it.”
David Kellman says he’s pleased with the film. He revels in the attention to detail taken by the production: they rented a rain tower, like any Hollywood production, for a brief snippet of dramatisation. It’s still a tough watch.
“It was difficult to do,” he says. “Many people ask if it was cathartic and it was anything but. But in terms of the film, and what they did and how they did it, I’m delighted. Tim came out to each of our homes to show us the film before the premiere.
“Within the first ten minutes, it didn’t look or feel like a documentary to me. It looked like a real movie. The music. The tempo. The turns. We didn’t expect that. It’s not as difficult to watch now. I’m desensitised somewhat by seeing it as often as I have. But they just sent me the DVD and I went through the director’s commentary and was amazed again by how talented he and Michael Harte, the editor, is. And then there was a photo gallery that wasn’t in the film. And I watched that and I’m bawling again.”
Three Identical Strangers opens November 30th