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.

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