“He’s going, ‘Oh my God!’ and I’m going, ‘Oh my God!’ He’s going ‘Holy crap!” and I’m going ‘Holy crap!’ ” says Bobby Shafran at the start of Three Identical Strangers, the new feature documentary and early Oscars contender from Tim Wardle, out in theaters Friday. Bobby has just described arriving for his first day of school at Sullivan County Community College in the Catskills in the fall of 1980: Guys were slapping him on the back and girls were kissing him on the lips, he says, and for some reason, everyone was calling him “Eddy.” When he finally met his campus doppelganger, he learned they both had been adopted 19 years before from the Louise Wise Services agency in New York City. “His eyes are my eyes and my eyes are his eyes—and it was true,” Bobby says of coming to face-to-face with his identical twin. “It was like the world faded away, and it was just me and Eddy.”
The story gets weirder, though. So much weirder. After news of Bobby and Eddy’s coincidental meeting made the tabloids, a third adoptee—David, their triple-gänger—turned up, too. All three were born in 1961 and sent off to different families with no inkling whatsoever of their siblings. Wardle’s film depicts the viral tabloid fame that followed: The boys were briefly fixtures on the club scene; they appeared in magazines, photographed by Annie Leibovitz; they had walk-on roles in a movie with Madonna; and they made the rounds on television, doing interviews with Phil Donahue and Tom Brokaw. And then—here comes the movie’s big reveal—it delves into the boys’ discovery, with the help of New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright in the mid-1990s, that they’d been kept apart for science.
As Wright had learned, the boys were part of a secret study led by two prominent Freudian psychiatrists, Viola Bernard and Peter Neubauer, that was supplied with infants by Louise Wise Services. In the 1960s and 1970s, sets of twins and triplets—it’s never been revealed exactly how many were involved—were split and sent to separate homes, then followed up through puberty. Bobby, Eddy, and David had been sent, respectively, to a well-off family in Scarsdale, a middle-class family in Long Island, and a working-class family in Queens. In the years that followed, researchers showed up from time to time and measured their IQ and motor skills, took note of their behaviors, and observed the ways their parents treated them. It was the first and only such experiment ever done: a deliberate and prospective look at nature versus nurture. The results of this study were never published, and the twins themselves were never meant to learn of its existence.
Even in the absence of the data, which are under seal until 2066, Three Identical Strangers tries to address the same fundamental question: It meditates on the elements of human destiny, tracing the boys’ profound connection after all those years apart, and then the ways in which their lives would splinter after. The triplets had a falling out. Then, in 1995, Eddy committed suicide. Was his death a function of the triplets’ nature—some darkened base-pairs in their DNA—that Bobby and David had been lucky to escape? Or was Eddy’s sadness seeded by his life experience—a tragedy of nurture and the home to which the study sent him? Wardle sorts through his film’s own anecdotal data to search for an answer. Bobby’s father was attentive when he had the time, the film suggests. David’s father was a teddy bear.
Eddy’s father was very strict and emotionally remote. Might that have made the difference?
It’s a very bleak suggestion, that the failures of a parent might have such tragic consequences. But according to the movie’s thesis, it’s also an uplifting one. If Eddy’s family was a driver of his tragic fate, the film suggests, then Bobby’s family was just as much the driver of his happier ending, and so with David’s, too. Their childhoods had saved them. “I believe that nature and nurture both matter,” David’s aunt tells Wardle in the movie’s closing moments, “but I think that nurture can overcome nearly everything.”
The making of this story has another weird coincidence, though—and another unexpected mirror-image. In late 2012, when Tim Wardle first heard about the triplets and set out to make his documentary, he realized he was not alone. A filmmaker named Lori Shinseki had already spoken to the two surviving triplets, and to Lawrence Wright, as well as several other of the most important sources for the story. She’d been working on a documentary on the same topic for a couple years by then, and had even helped the brothers to obtain some secret records from the nature-nurture study. From that point, Wardle and Shinseki’s films were made in parallel.
Shinseki didn’t have the same resources as Wardle—he’d get CNN behind his film—so she ended up completing hers with a combination of her own money and a grant from a family foundation. Her 55-minute movie, The Twinning Reaction, played the festival circuit from early 2017, almost a full year before Three Identical Strangers premiered at Sundance. In March of this year, a repackaged version of Shinseki’s film aired on ABC’s 20/20.
The overlap between the films is at times uncanny: Shinseki’s, like Wardle’s, has Bobby tell the story of his first day at community college—the guys slapping him on the back, the girls kissing him on the lips, everyone calling him Eddy. When they finally met, Bobby says in The Twinning Reaction, “We both went, ‘Oh my God, oh my God … holy crap!’ ” Both documentaries also show extended footage from the boys’ interview with Brokaw. Both pan across the same vintage photos of the brothers with their early-’80s mops of curly hair. And both record the story, told by Eddy’s widow, of how she fell in love with him when she first touched his meaty hand.
Shinseki’s documentary, just like Wardle’s, goes to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to meet with Lawrence Perlman, a psychologist who briefly worked collecting data for the secret study in the late 1960s. Both use the same photo of a dorky-looking Perlman from his youth. Both movies visit Austin, Texas for an interview with Lawrence Wright. Both have interviews with the writer in his study. Both follow when he travels to his storage locker. Both have him opening a cardboard box labeled “Twins.” Both show the microcassettes he finds inside. Both play selections from those tapes, of an interview that Wright conducted with Neubauer in the 1990s. And both movies do their best to contemplate the meaning of this research and its legacy.
That’s not to say the documentaries are identical. For one thing, Shinseki doesn’t put the triplets at the center of her story. She follows several other study twins, including one whose sister, Marge, also ended up committing suicide. Still, it’s striking that the two documentary projects, which start out so much the same and share so much material, should have ended up in such different places in relation to their vital question: How, exactly, had this experiment affected people’s lives? If Three Identical Strangers found some kind of answer in the parents, who could pull their children from the quicksand of their DNA—or maybe push them deeper in—then The Twinning Reaction turns the focus back on the researchers themselves.
Shinseki uncovered a crucial confidential memo from Bernard, written in 1978, that helps explain how the study came to be. Bernard had been telling the adoption agency to separate its twins even in the 1950s, before the study ever started. (It seems the secret study only piggybacked on this pre-existing policy.) That way, the psychiatrist explained, “early mothering would be less burdened and divided and the child’s developing individuality would be facilitated.” This theory was not well-founded in the research of the time, and in retrospect it’s total bunk. Then again, it’s also true that Louise Wise Services was not the only place that split up siblings—even identical twins—for adoption. Separated twin-pairs may be rare, but they’re not unheard of. An important retrospective study, run out of the University of Minnesota between 1979 and 1999, would draw on data from 137 sets of volunteers—twins who’d been reared apart and later reunited. (Even if Bernard and Neubauer’s study were eventually made public, it’s hard to figure how its sample of participants—almost certainly few in number—would tell us anything that we didn’t know already. The Minnesota study, and others have its kind, have already yielded loads of useful data on the nature-versus-nurture question.)
Bernard’s memo also claimed that the separations must be done in secret. Any advantages of splitting siblings “would be negated psychologically,” she wrote, if the children or their families knew that they were twins. The popular belief in the “mystique” of twin connections made this even more important, she added. Given these “prevailing and emotionally charged” attitudes, she continued, “it seemed psychologically safer for the adoptive family … to be free of the knowledge of a biological twin’s existence.”
But the same memo also made a key concession, one that ends up being central to Shinseki’s film: If the twins were old enough to have developed a significant “twinning reaction” prior to their adoptions—i.e., if they’d formed a bond with each other while in foster care—then it would be wrong, Bernard explains, to split them up.
Shinseki’s film offers solid evidence that at least one pair of twins from the study did have the chance to the form this bond. Clinical records that she helped obtain show the twins had been together for six months before being sent off to different families. According to these documents, they’d also been interacting with each other—and forming a twin-bond—from when they were roughly 4 months old.
If that bond were truly there, could the separation of these twins have left a lasting wound? That’s what the twins believe, at any rate. “Maybe if that didn’t happen, some of the hard spots wouldn’t have been so hard,” one subject tells her, choking up.
Marge’s mother wonders the same thing. “What would it have been like if they’d been raised together?” she asks Shinseki, in mulling over Marge’s suicide. “Was the gloom because of the way they were separated?”
Even Eddy’s widow hints that the violence of being pulled away from his two brothers as an infant might have contributed to his fate. “He had a hard time letting go of those stolen 18 years,” she says. “I think he was devastated by it. I think he was traumatized.”
In Shinseki’s movie, these survivors offer a very different understanding of the nature-nurture study in which they’d all been forced to play a part. Neubauer and Bernard had meant to study the effects of different families, knowing that the kids’ genetics were all the same. If Bobby, Eddy, and David had grown up from the same ovum and spermatozoa, reasoned the psychiatrists, then all the ways that they diverged in childhood would have to be the product of their home environments. But they may have overlooked an important confounding variable: their own involvement in the children’s lives. Wasn’t that also part of how the twins were raised, and a facet of their nurture?