' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Analysis: Three Identical Strangers separated at birth for a social experiment now in theaters!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Analysis: Three Identical Strangers separated at birth for a social experiment now in theaters!

"Disaster," "havoc,""pathology," "harmful" were words that peppered the language of a disgruntled, staunch opponent of unsealing the birth records of the adopted when I testified in favor of doing just that. The year was 1976, the place was the capital of New York, Albany, and the venue was a joint Senate-Assembly hearing titled: Sealed Adoption Records and Identity. I was there with Florence Fisher, founder of the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, Betty Jean Lifton, and a few others.

When I'd spoken a few minutes before this old guy who used the language above, had made audible, disgusted noises that were heard throughout the chamber. Who was this rude asshole? Now that he was speaking, I learned he was the attorney, Shad Polier, representing the Louise Wise Agency in New York. And yes, one of the adoption agencies who were fighting unsealing records with an iron fist.

Today I know that the words he was using refered not only to his image of the "disaster" in the lives of the poor-young-girls-now-women who had--he was sure--put the memory of their lost child behind them, he was desperately trying to save the the agency now run by his wife, Justine, daughter of Louise Wise herself, from the disaster of numerous lawsuits. His testimony, along with his nasal negativity, was a cover-your-ass attempt to hide the Nazi-like twin and triplets experiment the agency was participating in: without informing the natural birth mother, or the adoptive parents, without getting any sort of permission, without considering the lifelong effect of their actions, the premier Jewish agency in New York and thus the country purposefully was separating identical siblings (and in at least one case, triplets) and sending them to different homes to see what happened.

All this came to mind last week when I was watching the film Three Identical Strangers, about identical triplets, born in 1961, and adopted through the Louise Wise Agency. That's what Polier was protecting! This hideous study! Separated at six months and adopted into homes of different social status (blue-collar, middle class, upper middle class), the triplets were part of an experiment to see how each fared in a different social class. Would nature out? Or would nurture change them?

The separating of the identical twins/triplets was a macabre psychological study that sprang from the mind of a prominent psychologist, Dr. Peter Neubauer--not so ironically, an Austrian Jew himself--to definitively answer the nature/nurture question. It was a time when psychological testing was messing with minds: the unsettling Milgrim experiments on human obedience and the Stanford prison experiments, and now, the Nuebauer identical siblings experiment. Children and families were tested, filmed and interviewed, but the families were told this was a routine followup to see how the children were faring; none of the subjects were ever told they had identical siblings.

Through coincidence and circumstance in their late teens, to their utter amazement, they found one another in 1980, and this appalling study came to light.

Daughter Jane and Lorraine, a year after reunion
Three Identical Twins goes backwards in time, starting with the happy reunion of Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland; when their story makes the New York Post, a third, David Kellman, sees a doppelganger of himself and calls them. As young men, the teens quickly gravitated to the most outgoing and warm parent, the most like them, the blue-collar father of David, who becomes a kind of surrogate father to them all.

Lively, exuberant teenagers, they move in together, enjoy the celebrity, make the rounds of numerous talk shows, they dress, walk and talk alike, finishing each other's sentences. They all smoke Marlboros, exude bonhomie, and share a taste for the same kind of women. They open a restaurant, the Triplets Roumanian Steak House in Manhattan, and it's a huge success. Life is great.

But in fact, all three had behavioral problems and as infants banged their heads against the crib. By the time they were teenagers, two of them--Eddy and David-- had been in and out of psychiatric institutions, and the third, Bobby (raised with the most wealth) was on probation for being part of a a robbery connected to a murder.

The story of reunited female twins who
were also part of the same study. They
also found other twins who were. 
Now the film turns dark, focusing on the men's existential anguish and the pervading sense of loss over being unknowingly separated and kept from each other's company and comfort for so many years. British Director Tim Wardle turns the camera on them and lets the men talk about their rage. In a poignant moment, Bobby, now an attorney living in Brooklyn, expresses his anger over being their treated like lab rats. While Neubauer died a decade ago, Wardle found two people who were connected to the study, and their recollections are the most chilling. One who was there for the interviews and filming recognizes, now as an old man, that what they did was wrong. Another, a woman, less connected to the study, simply finds the work interesting, and regrets the conclusions were never published. It's as if she left her humanity on a shelf somewhere.

In a happier moment together the boys delve into the birth records at the New York Public library and match the number of their amended birth certificates with the originals that used to be on file there, and find the name of their mother. They met her in a pub in Manhattan, learned they were the product of prom night, note that she kept up with them when they drank, but little else is revealed. The birth father is never mentioned.

Lawrence Wright's eye-opening
treatise on the genetic code that
shapes us. 
In 1995 journalist Lawrence Wright (interviewed in the film) published a report in the New Yorker about the troubling psychological study of Neubauer. The data was never conclusive and remains unpublished, However, the triplets were able to access some 10,000 heavily-redacted pages of the survey, as have other identicals who have found they were also part of this wretched experiment. But the data to the rest of us is locked up at Yale University until 2065 when everyone involved is almost certain to be dead. Wright ends a chapter with these words that we found so true: "Twins have been used to prove a point, and the point is that we don't become. We are."

That same year of the New Yorker piece, 1995, the seemingly most outgoing to the trio--Eddy--commits suicide. He was raised with the most authoritarian father--he's interviewed for the film--and one immediately senses how life would have been difficult for a child so stylistically unlike the cold, strict father figure we see, so different from effusive, friendly Eddy. We don't hear more about adoptee suicide, which I was hoping for, as it would have made an shocking revelation to most who see the movie. To those reading here who do not know, my daughter committed suicide in 2007, more than a quarter of a century years after I found her and we were reunited.

A few days after I saw the movie, Bobby and David were interviewed on Megan Kelly Today, and she easily referred to their birth mother as an "alcoholic." Right, I thought, you would do that, make the leap from having a few drinks to "alcoholic," I thought, but hey! we are the slutty birth mothers, right? But the men quickly shot that down, and said that she maintains relationships with them and their children.

The film is an excellent collaboration of interviews, archival footage, photographs, and recreations, but they are not icky. Particularly compelling is the revelation after the parents together visit the people who run Louise Wise is that they are discovered opening a bottle of champagne after, toasting their suceess at seemingly having dodged a lawsuit.

The Identical Strangers has been playing now for three weeks at my nearby theater in East Hampton, New York, and across the country in a limited release.  The reviews have been hugely positive. All that is good. Knowing what I know about the dark side of adoption, knowing what I know about the horrible Louise Wise Agency--which went out of business in 2010 after a couple of highly publicized lawsuits--the film did not shock me. And though I'm a famous crier, I only got damp eyes once or twice. Others in the audience were having more of a reaction than I was. Having felt like a lab rat myself when I met sociologist/academic Ricki Solinger, who has written authoritatively about the Baby Scoop Era--I mostly felt the revulsion toward to monsters who perpetuated this horror. You can't make this stuff up. No one would believe you.

Shad Polier died a few months after the hearing in Albany; when I read his obituary, riding in a New York City bus, I wanted to shout with joy: the old order was dying, surely we would win soon, surely the sealed records would be open in a couple of years! I wrote about the hearing and Polier at greater length in hole in my heartPeter Neubauer died in 2008; no mention of the identical siblings study is included in his obituary. Pity.

See the movie and encourage your friends and family to see it also. I'm rooting for it to win the Oscar for Best Documentary. Getting our story into the media, from Long Lost Family to the story line on This Is Us, movies like Philomena and Three Identical Strangers, memoirs from adoptees and birth natural mothers are all a part of shaping the narrative.--lorraine
I'm posting no photo to the triplets because when I tried the blog got screwed up and took two days to come to its senses. You can find their photos elsewhere.


by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein
Just fascinating for anyone with the thinnest interest in the nature/nurture issue.
A fascinating chapter from Lawrence Wright's book, and the book:
"This is a book about far more than twins: it is about what twins can tell us about ourselves."--The New York Times

The Other Son asks questions of identity

Another absorbing film about identity; this one about two boys--one Palestinian, one Jewish--switched in the hospital where they were born, and what plays out after they and their families learn the truth. It's not only about their identities, but also the continuing Palestine/Israel conflict.

Blood Relatives: Why They Matter

My husband, Anthony Brandt, writing about his family, blood relatives, and our stories. 


  1. Excellent essay, Brenda Starr! :)

    Having grown up in the tri-state area, I was already familiar with the triplets reunion story. Adoption had separated me from my daughter for four years, and I remember thinking at the time, "Losing one child was difficult enough, but three?!"

    I saw the film in my suburban indie/arts cinema at a matinee, two other couples were the only other theater occupants. Early in the film when there was mention of Louise Wise, one of the woman gasped, "That's the one my sister..." I saw the couples standing outside on the sidewalk and interrupted their post-show discussion. I told them I overheard their Louise Wise comment, I was wondering if they were members of the adoption constellation. One of the women (the two couples were Jewish) thought her sister had adopted from Louise Wise, but later she realized it was another NYC agency. I didn't share that I was a birthmother (one word, not two).

    My Jewish friends saw the movie this week; when I asked her what she thought of the film, she replied, "Chilling. I was fascinated by the fact that a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany could do a social experiment so heinous."

    Yes, adoption is indeed heinous.

    Thanks again for this enlightening post.

  2. Thanks Gretchen! After the movie I stepped into the ladies room at the theater and the only comment I heard was one woman asking another the name of the agency so she got it right. The woman who answered definitely knew the name. But I didn't get a chance to overhear more. Tony, who wrote a book about the mental health system called Reality Police, was outraged.

  3. I did not know a movie was made about the triplets, I don't see many movies. Thanks for the excellent review. Being in the NYC area active in adoption reform for many yeas, I am personally familiar with many Louise Wise horror stories. I knew a mother of male and female fraternal twins who were part of this study. Of course she did not know until she found them, and that they lived near enough each other that they could easily have met and gotten involved without knowing they were twins.

    Another mother, a close friend from our NJ group, had a mixed race child in the 60s. She was Jewish, the father was Chinese American. Another vile practice of that agency was giving the mixed race children of the nice Jewish girls who were sent there expecting a Jewish family to a non-Jewish family who were the race of the father. My friend Sharon's daughter went to an ethnic Chinese family who barely spoke English. As it turned out, the daughter resembled her Mother more than her father, was tall, wavy haired, did not look 100% Asian like the community she grew up in. She did not fit in. Sharon and her daughter had many years of happy reunion, and I met her daughter at Sharon's Jewish funeral after she passed away from cancer. Her daughter said the Kaddish with the sons Sharon had raised,

    Louise Wise was an evil agency that went beyond the everyday cruelty of other agencies. What finally brought them down were the lawsuits of adoptive parents who were given the children of severely mentally ill natural parents and told that those parents were normal bright college students, not institutionalized mental patients. The adoptees developed schizophrenia as teens and some were suicides.

    1. This: "What finally brought them down were the lawsuits of adoptive parents who were given the children of severely mentally ill natural parents and told that those parents were normal bright college students, not institutionalized mental patients. The adoptees developed schizophrenia as teens and some were suicides."


    2. Pam--there's a long footnote about this in hole in my heart. Famous awful agency.

  4. This is sickening to read about- my skin is crawling. As for the banging of the infants heads in their crib: this is vaccine injury side effect of swelling of the brain which develops into unremitting excruciating pain.


  5. Hey - I finally got caught up here. I think I last read here in May so had a few months to catch up on.

    Thanks for the recomendation of this movie. I'll be sure to see it. My sisters are identical twins and did a study in Minnesota. Fascinating.

    Love reading here Lorraine and Jane. Oh Jane loved Megan's piece the other day.

  6. Just would like to add some information here about the post-war experimentation and what I can recall myself, as a child during that era.
    There seemed to be quite a bit of government sociological "snooping" going on. I know my parents would have had a fit if they had known. On a regular basis, the school I attended...a nice, middle-class small elementary school in a very small community in upstate NY..would ask us to answer very personal questions.

    We had to answer the questions in writing with our names, ages and school information.

    Teacher would ask, "What does daddy do for a living? How much money does he make? Who is your favorite parent? Who is your best friend? Do you hate anyone? What is your religion? Is there anyone you would not want to sit next to in class? etc etc"
    This question/answer thing was called a "socio-gram" as I recall....and it was repeated many times year after year. It was in the 1950s and 60s.
    Many years later, I read about this practice and found out that it was happening all over the USA, in schools like the one I went to. The gov't seemed to be gathering info on families by questioning innocent schoolkids during the Cold War. Were they looking for spies? or something. Or maybe they had other goals, as well.
    I never told my parents because it didn't seem important, although it did make me feel uncomfortable. We were a captive group . We had to be there and had been told to "obey the teacher."

  7. I just wrote a nearly 750 word "summary" of my thoughts about this documentary. I've cut it. My biggest issue with the documentary and the public discussion about it is how very little issue is taken with separating the triplets from their mother. At the same time they separated the triplets from each other, they separated the triplets from the mother in whose body they grew for nine months. As for experimentation, a maternity hospital here in Syracuse shipped the "illegitimate" children across the street during the day to be used on "childrearing" coursework at a local two year Catholic women's college. Cornell utilized "illegitimate" infants in their child development studies. I would suggest that there are many books available which connect many dots about aversive behavioral programs, psychosurgery, behavioral studies and experimentation related to the post WW2 era of MK Ultra Mind Control. Reading the comments here, I remember that I completed "sociograms."

    1. Yes, there was not enough said about the triplet's first mother. It was assumed that she didn't want them or couldn't care for them. What did she think/feel when she saw them in the news 19 years later? Did she reach out to them? As I recall the film did tells that they men met their first mother but no details about when or whether they continued contact.

      To add to your sad list, Boys and Girls Aid Society in Portland, Oregon placed newborn infants whose mother placed them in B&G's care at Oregon State University's Home Economics Department in Corvallis. The babies lived in a laboratory for a year serving as "practice babies" for home ec students.

  8. I saw the movie presentation on CNN and was troubled by the lack of info about the triplets mother. She seemed to be treated only as a "source" or an "afterthought." But they did search for her. And i did recall that back when the reunions happened, there were reports in the news, and tv shows with updated information on the family. The triplets did say they knew their mother and she was in their lives. Possibly, she didn't want to be in the public eye? One could certainly understand that.
    Reunion is one thing, going public about it is another..Of course, in this situation, the reunion was facilitated by others' recognition in a public way, in the first place. This is a rather unique situation, although people do sometimes get reunited because of family recognition.

  9. Shocking story the notes and studies need to be accessible to those who were a part of the studies it's about them after all and if there are other separated twins that dont know that have a twin have a right to know about it surely why are these records allowed to be sealed???? Who has the right to do that???? I dont understand it at all

  10. Shocking story the notes and studies need to be accessible to those who were a part of the studies it's about them after all and if there are other separated twins that dont know that have a twin have a right to know about it surely why are these records allowed to be sealed???? Who has the right to do that???? I dont understand it at all

  11. The birth mother is not discussed possibly due to unacceptable past/present behavior & choices she made. Perhaps to avoid judgment?
    Also to avoid questions that may uncover a financial agreement. Could she (birth mother) possibly had received a payment from the research group???

    1. None of the above. She is mentioned in other reports. She was young when the boys were born. They searched for her and met her but she declined to be in the stories. Your judgmental tone is out of line.



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