A documentary about reunited triplets raises the oldest question and offers complex answers
In 1980, when 19-year-old Bobby Shafran drove himself up to Sullivan County Community College in the Catskills for the first time, he was surprised by the warmth of his reception. “Everybody’s being extremely friendly, I don’t mean just a ‘Hi’, I mean claps on the back, high-fives. I was a little bit bewildered,” says Shafran in Tim Wardle’s new documentary, Three Identical Strangers. Then they called him “Eddy”. Can you see where this is going? Shafran couldn’t, but it turned out Eddy was already a student at the college, and also his brother, from whom he’d been separated at birth when they were both adopted. What’s more, publicity about their reunification resulted in a third brother, David, coming forward. Bobby, Eddy and David became a sensation.
The triplets’ incredible story led them to appear on many a talk show, but British director Wardle’s film delves deeper, looking not just at the novel similarities that extended beyond their looks — they all smoked Marlboros! They all wrestled! — but also the differences: the boys were placed in households of varying incomes and with parents who espoused very different ideas about how to bring up children. And if it all sounds like some kind of dastardly sociological experiment, well guess what.
Aided by journalist Lawrence Wright, who wrote a piece for The New Yorker in 1995 about the controversial twins study in the Sixties by psychologist Dr Peter Neubauer, Wardle attempts to discover the rationale that saw an unknown number of Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman were the triplet brothers caught up in a decadeslong psychological experiment in America
twins — and the triplets — being separated in the name of science to provide definitive data on the “nature versus nurture” question. He interviews families affected and scientists who participated in the project; their respective reflections make for a startling juxtaposition.
What did they find? And was it worth it? The answers — and the implications — are shocking and disturbing, even as they throw up more questions. For the latter, it becomes clear early on that only Bobby and David are going to be interviewed. Eddy is absent. So on that at least, Three Identical Strangers gives us a fairly definitive “no”.
Three Identical Strangers is out on 30 November