Arts and Culture | Local

Separated at birth was anything but a joke for ‘Three Identical Strangers’

From an inspiring family reunion to a jaw-dropping “shanda,” the documentary “Three Identical Strangers” offers plot twists and emotional turns that top anything Hollywood has to offer this summer.

The New York-area triplets, who discovered by chance in 1980 that they had been placed for adoption with three different Jewish families some two decades earlier by the Louise Wise Agency, were all over national television at the time. But the tale will be unfamiliar to many people beyond the East Coast.

“Three Identical Strangers” revisits their saga through painfully candid contemporary interviews conducted by British filmmaker Tim Wardle and details uncovered in the ‘80s by Newsday and New York Times reporters venturing beyond the human interest angle. The film opened July 20 at the Loft, and CNN will air it next winter.

Robert Shafran was taken aback by the number of people calling him Eddy on his first day of college in upstate New York. One of those students, deducing that the resemblance was more than coincidental, put Bobby on the phone with Eddy and then drove the new guy to Eddy Galland’s Long Island home.

The duo quickly discerned they were twins. The story of their chance meeting ran in numerous newspapers, where David Kellman saw it. He got in touch and confirmed he was an identical sibling, triggering an electric reunion, a wave of media coverage and a friendship that peaked with the guys opening a restaurant and bar, Triplets, in 1987 in lower Manhattan.

“The Louise Wise Agency in the ’50s and ’60s was the preeminent adoption agency to go to for middle and upper-middle class Jewish families,” Wardle explained when he visited San Francisco in April to screen his doc at the SFFILM Festival. “What they were doing, it appears, was finding mothers who were in psychiatric institutions, taking their children ‘cause they couldn’t care for them, adopting them to families but being not upfront about the history of the mother.

“They would say, ‘The mother is a high-achieving college graduate, she plays the piano and she speaks three languages.’ What they wouldn’t say is, ‘She is in hospital, she’s been lobotomized or she’s had four psychotic episodes over the last three years.’ So the families never knew and their children grew up and when they turned teenagers started developing mental health problems sometimes. And they went back and tried to find more information about the birth mother and it came out. There was a lot of anger and a lot of legal cases against the agency.”

In the cases of the triplets David, Bobby and Eddy, the deception went even further. The Louise Wise Agency (which no longer exists) agreed to cooperate with a study by the Manhattan-based Child Development Center headed by the respected Austrian-Jewish child psychologist Dr. Peter Neubauer. (The CDC later merged into the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.)

Aiming to ascertain whether upbringing or genes was more important to the growth and progress of children—the nature vs. nurture question—Dr. Neubauer enlisted the Louise Wise Agency in placing identical twins and triplets in separate homes in different socioeconomic strata. Over a period of several years, Dr. Neubauer’s employees visited the homes and interviewed, tested and filmed the children.

Wardle notes that the triplets were belatedly provided with some of those records, but they are heavily redacted. And for all the suffering inflicted by being separated as infants in the name of science, no clear picture of the results in the form of a written study appears to exist.

Wardle is not Jewish, but the British producer who brought him the story, Grace Hughes-Hallett, recently converted to Judaism and married a Jewish man. Perhaps more importantly, Wardle’s wife is Jewish.

“She told me, ‘You’ve got to be really sensitive how you handle this story and these people.’ If you’re alleging conspiracies and things like that, there’s a path you can go down which leads to a very dangerous place.”

“Three Identical Strangers” has provoked powerful reactions among New York and East Coast Jews, Wardle reports, many of whom know the Louise Wise Agency’s history or people involved in it. However, his wife had given Wardle an early inkling how the documentary might play.

“My wife is really, really disturbed by the film in a way that I’m not,” Wardle confides. “I find it disturbing but she feels that there’s a kind of unspoken covenant that exists between Jewish people which is that Jews don’t do this kind of thing to other Jewish people, because of the history of what Jewish people have been through over centuries. The fact that there are Jewish people involved in this experiment and this study that have caused pain to other Jewish people she finds very difficult to deal with and to reconcile.”

It’s safe to say that many viewers will share Mrs. Wardle’s dilemma.

“Three Identical Strangers” opened July 20 at the Loft. (Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material, 96 minutes)