Kevin Fallon writes that a new documentary Three Identical Strangers that just debuted at the Sundance film festival tells the story of three identical triplets Bobby, Eddy, and David who were separated at birth who, in 1980, joyfully discovered each other 19 years later.
Their upbringings, though all three raised in Jewish families in the suburbs of New York City, were completely different, with different economic comforts. Yet they grew up to be so similar, a nature vs. nurture marvel if there was ever was one.
But bubbling beneath this bliss were angering questions. Why were these triplets separated by the adoption agency? Why weren’t their adoptive parents told about their child’s siblings?
This is a Sundance documentary produced by CNN Films, not a Parade magazine article, after all. Darkness was bound to shroud this love affair.
Soon it is uncovered that the triplets were part of a secret study in which newborn identical siblings put up for adoption were separated for the purpose of psychological and behavioral experimentation. The babies all came from the Louise Wise agency, and were monitored for years. The adoptive parents were simply told their children were being followed for a study about the development of adopted children. In reality, it was to determine how much of a person’s behavior is hereditary and how much is shaped by their environment (nature vs. nurture), using identical siblings raised in different households as the control group.
As Bobby says, “This is, like, Nazi shit.”
How many children were treated in this way, as little more than laboratory specimens?
The reviews of the film say that the story takes many surprising twists and turns. This is definitely on my must-see list when it is generally released. Here’s a clip of the director talking about the film.
Here is a clip from the film.
That’s the kind of thing one would have to do in order to provide data to answer the question about nature versus nurture effects, but I’d be surprised if approval were granted for a formal study. It couldn’t possibly get past an institutional review board.
Confession: I didn’t watch the clips.
@ 1 jaxkayaker
It couldn’t possibly get past an institutional review board
Agreed but check the dates. I am not even sure that most institutions had ethics committees in the early 1960’s.
On the other hand it is a bit difficult to believe that we have a mad-scientist type researcher who would be able to subvert some kind of adoption agency and then manage to carefully monitor the three boys for many years.
It could be done, I suppose, but where would the funding come from, how do you muzzle any research staff, and where do you publish?
Adoption rules and procedures were, often, very different in those days. It may be that the three babies were placed with different families as a matter of practical need/policy and a somewhat opportunist researcher took advantage of this and carried out some research. But, again, is this anywhere in the literature?
There is the possibility it was a CIA project, in which case all bets are off.
Ouch. You got it right in the post title, but . . .
Sorry for another comment of nitpicking, but the byline on the pages is “Kevin Fallon“.
Mano Singham says
I have corrected both errors. Thanks!
True. The Declaration of Helsinki which insisted on informed consent didn’t happen until 1964. The revelations of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment which made the U.S. sit up and pay attention to this didn’t happen until 1972. The ‘independent oversight’ amendment to the Declaration of Helsinki was 1975. And in the U.S., regulations requiring IRBs didn’t really get formalized until the 1981 Common Rule.
Of course, the line about ‘This is, like, Nazi shit’: all of the above work was formalization of the Nuremberg Code developed in 1947 after the world wide horror at some of the experiments that had gone on in Germany. So, indeed, it is.