US triplets in callous experiment
A callous experiment in which these brothers were separated as babies is put under the spotlight in a new documentary
HE FIRST became aware his life wasn’t what he’d thought it was when he went to university. Complete strangers kept calling him Eddy and girls would run up to him and greet him with a kiss. Then a friend asked him if he might be adopted because he looked exactly like another student. “I think you might have a twin,” he said. “Call him.”
So Robert Shafran called the stranger – and was shocked to hear the voice on the other end of the line sounded exactly like his. They arranged to meet and when Eddy Galland opened the door, Robert felt as if he was looking in the mirror.
But that wasn’t the end of it: on the other side of town another young man, David Kellman, saw a newspaper report about the reunion of Robert and Eddy and couldn’t stop staring at the picture. The two guys were carbon copies of him.
He arranged to meet them – and so began the unravelling of a bizarre story that made headlines in America in the ’80s.
The triplets were separated as babies 57 years ago and given up for adoption as part of research to test the effects of nature versus nurture, the New York Post reported. Would they display similar characteristics because of the circumstances of their birth – or would their upbringing dictate their personalities?
The trio’s tale is told in a new documentary, Three Identical Strangers, which delves into the shocking psychological experiment and how it affected the lives of its subjects.
Initially the dramatic reunion of the triplets intrigued America and the young men became minor celebrities, even appearing in Madonna’s 1985 movie Desperately Seeking Susan.
But what no one knew at the time was that their reunion would eventually lead to tragedy – and one brother would even be driven to suicide. T HE triplets were born on 12 July 1961 in Queens, New York, and were six months old when their teenage mom surrendered them to an adoption agency in Manhattan. Their fates were forever changed when Dr Peter Neubauer, a well-regarded child psychiatrist, had his research assistants contact the agency.
Neubauer was researching the development of twins and triplets who’d been raised separately, says Natasha Josefowitz, one of Neubauer’s research assistants at the time.
Back then Neubauer was working with Anna, the youngest child of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.
“They made it a condition of the adoption,” Tim Wardle, the documentary’s British director, said to USA Today of what prospective parents were told.
“They were like, ‘ This boy’s already signed up to be a part of this normal childhood development study. We’d really like it to continue.’
“They didn’t say, ‘You have to do it.’ But it was implied that if you didn’t you wouldn’t get the kid.”
For the sake of the experiment, David was placed in a working-class family, Eddy in a middle-class family and Robert in a wealthy family. They all lived within 160km of New York City.
In the first two years Neubauer and his team saw the boys four times. Later it became once a year, Wardle says. “Psychology at the time was trying to establish itself as a new science, and people were pushing the envelope.”
It was difficult to persuade David and Robert, the two brothers who are still alive, to take part in the documentary, the director adds. “They’ve been messed around a lot. People have promised to tell their story so many times. I think they have a hard time trusting people as well because of what happened to them.” And rightly so – because the story that emerges in the documentary has all the makings of a dark psychological thriller.
Life before the brothers found each other at the age of 19 hadn’t been kind to Eddy.
He was the one who struggled most with fitting into his adoptive family and would often come to blows with his adoptive dad about the older man’s ideas around masculinity.
David described his dad, a grocery store owner, as loving, while Robert said his dad, a well-off doctor, was reserved and often absent.
Soon after they were separated, all three developed problems. As babies they’d repeatedly bang their heads against the wooden bars of their cots.
“It was absolutely separation anxiety,” David says in the documentary. What makes him angriest is that the psychiatrists observed the danger signs. “They could have helped . . . and didn’t.”
Growing up, all three brothers struggled with mental health issues and Eddy and David were in and out of psychiatric hospitals as boys.
In 1978 Robert stood trial and was provisionally released after he’d confessed to being involved in a robbery in which a woman had been killed.
WHEN the brothers were reunited in 1980, it seemed at first as if their mental health problems and separation anxiety disappeared overnight. “We were sort of falling in love,” David recalls.
They became popular guests at parties and in 1988 opened the restaurant Triplets Roumanian Steakhouse in SoHo, New York. The restaurant did well but a few years later Robert left the business.
This brought Eddy and David closer as the remaining restaurateurs, but Robert drifted further and further away from them. Robert and David in January at the premiere of the documentary about them, Three Identical Strangers, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in the USA.
The restaurant closed in 2000. But the worst was yet to come.
On the surface Eddy was doing okay. He never managed to improve his relationship with his adoptive parents but once he was reunited with his biological siblings he formed close relationships with them.
He carried on with his life and even bought a house across the street from David and his family in Maplewood, New Jersey.
But bipolar disorder had always cast a long shadow over Eddy’s life and in 1995 he committed suicide in his home.
After that Robert and David’s relationship deteriorated to the point of nonexistence – until the documentary brought them back together, Wardle says.
Robert is an attorney in Brooklyn, New York, and David is an insurance broker living in New Jersey, about 80km from his brother.
The documentary alleges between five and 21 sets of twins and triplets unknowingly were part of the same psychological study – lives destroyed for no good reason because the findings of Neubauer’s research, conducted while he was at Yale University, were never published.
After his death in 2008 at the age of 94 his experiments on the children were declared confidential until the year 2065. But Robert and David persuaded a court to release the research specific to the three brothers so it could be used in the documentary.
Included is video footage of the boys as toddlers building puzzles or staring at whoever is behind the camera.
Research assistants sent to evaluate the boys told the parents their procedures were “standard”. “The question then becomes, ‘How far can you go as a scientist to further human knowledge?’ ” Wardle says. “When I tell people the story, they don’t believe it,” Robert says at the start of the film. “There’s still so much we don’t know,” David adds. “I have more questions than
Triplets (from back) Robert Shafran, David Kellman and Eddy Galland were reunited only at 19. ABOVE LEFT: Child psychiatrist Dr Peter Neubauer had the triplets adopted separately as a nature vs nurture experiment.
LEFT: Robert and Eddy soon after meeting at university. ABOVE: Robert, David and Eddy’s teen mom gave them up for adoption when they were six months old.