Film review: Three Identical Strangers (2018)

This is a documentary about three identical triplets who, in 1979 at the age of 19, found each other by chance. The events depicted are already known and some older readers might recall the case that made such a big splash in the media. The filmmaker has presented it in such a way that it is like a film in three acts, starting out in one way before somewhat abruptly revealing facts in the second act that takes the film in a different direction. The film raises some disturbing ethical issues but I cannot discuss them without revealing what the film is all about which I will do after the trailer.

It turns out that this all takes place within the Jewish community of New York. The Louise Wise Services adoption agency was the organization through which children of Jewish mothers given up for adoption were found homes in other Jewish families. Some time in the late 1950s or 1960s, a secret study was conceived that took twins given up for adoption and then deliberately placed them in different families without telling the adoptive parents of the existence of the other twin or even offering them the opportunity to adopt both. The children were then regularly visited by researchers who told the parents that they were simply there to observe how children fared in their adopted homes. The children were subjected to a battery of tests and filmed during each session. It was clear that this was a study to investigate the ever-popular nature-nurture question of human development.

The study was shrouded in secrecy, no doubt because the idea of secretly separating twins without their knowledge was ethically highly problematic even in those days and if word got out, it would have been shut down. Its principal investigator was Peter Neubauer, a Freudian psychologist at New York University who had emigrated to the US as part of the exodus of Jews escaping Nazi Germany. He was a specialist in mental illness. The study was run under the auspices of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Service and funded by Jewish foundations and organizations in New York and Washington.

The study was abruptly shut down in 1980, perhaps as a result of the news about the triplets hitting the media. Neubauer sealed all the records and gave them to the Yale archives with instructions that nothing be released until the year 2066, unless it was authorized by the JBFCS. The board apparently consists of very powerful people and they have determinedly resisted all efforts to unseal the records, apart from very recently revealing some highly redacted documents about the triplets following the release of this film.

As a result, we are still left with a lot of unanswered questions, the main ones being: What was the specific feature of the nature-nurture spectrum the study was seeking to investigate? Why were the results of the study never published? There are various pieces of information that have emerged. The adoptive parents were deliberately chosen to be of different socio-economic backgrounds. For the triplets, one family was that of a wealthy physician, the second a middle class school teacher, and the third a lower-middle class shopkeeper. So were the researchers looking at the effect of socio-economic status? Each of the families that were chosen had already adopted a child from the same Louise Wise agency and thus the researchers had had time to observe the families before the twin was adopted. So were the researchers looking at the effect of parenting styles? It also seemed like each of the biological mothers had some mental issues, that was Neubauer’s specialty. So were they looking into the heritability of mental issues? Without access to the research proposal, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

Most puzzling of all, why would the leaders of the Jewish community of all communities, given their experience of being used as human guinea pigs by Nazi scientists less than two decades earlier, fund and support a secret study that used Jewish children and families as unwitting subjects? To deliberately deprive a child of the opportunity to grow up with a sibling, let alone a twin or a triplet, is cruel. Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein were twins who had been separated at birth who only discovered each other in 2004 at the age of 35. There are still adopted children who do not know of the existence of their twin. Releasing the documentation would enable such people to be reunited. New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, who appears in the film, wrote about what was known about twin studies back in 1995

Although the film starts out in a lighthearted way, it is ultimately a sad and tragic story. It is also a cautionary tale of how scientific researchers can get so carried away with their sense of how important their research is that they do not allow ordinary feelings of decency and compassion and empathy to get in the way.


  1. says

    The study was shrouded in secrecy, no doubt because the idea of secretly separating twins without their knowledge was ethically highly problematic even in those days and if word got out, it would have been shut down.

    It sounds like the intent was in service of a particular form of ‘scientized’ racism, perhaps to “prove” that there is something special about particular ‘gene-lines.’

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