Film Review – Three Identical Strangers

Directed by Tim Wardle 

Reviewer: Eva Charalambous

The documentary Three Identical Strangers starts like the end of a fairy tale. Long lost triplets, David, Bobby and Eddy, find each other aged 19, by complete chance. Overnight they become media sensations, appearing on countless US talk shows where they share their similarities for the cameras - they all wrestle, enjoy Chinese food and smoke Marlborough cigarettes. They are handsome, wide-eyed and floppy haired.

But like all fairy tales, there is a dark secret to unravel. Roughly half way through the film, the euphoric atmosphere of the triplets’ reunion is overtaken by a dramatic revelation: their separation was orchestrated by child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr Peter Neubauer together with the Child Development Centre of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, for what became known as the Twin Study.

Much of the triplets’ story had been reported before the release of Three Identical Strangers but the findings of the Twin Study itself will remain confidential at Yale University Library’s collections until 2065, so, as to the purpose of Neubauer’s study, director Tim Wardle focuses on trying to get some answers. What follows is a masterful piecing together of the details of the Twin Study by Wardle, at a pace which creates the suspense of a true crime thriller.

All three boys had been adopted from Louise Wise Adoption Services in New York. Working together with Dr Neubauer and his research assistants, Louise Wise was secretly separating identical siblings and placing them in different adoptive families so that they could be observed for the Twin Study. The parents of these children were pressured to allow annual observations and testing of their children, which they were told was standard monitoring for the development of adopted children. Unbeknownst to the parents, they too were being observed. Before the identical siblings were placed, researchers for the Twin Study knew the parenting styles of each of the parents because Louise Wise had previously placed, and monitored, an older sibling with each of the families.

The brothers found out about the Twin Study in 1995. That same year, Eddy tragically killed himself after a series of manic-depressive episodes.

Each of the brothers had in fact struggled with mental health throughout their lives, but Eddy’s struggle appears to have been greater. So how had his brothers managed to withstand their demons, when he had not? Were his genes or his environment the determining factor? This brings us to the heart of Neubauer’s research: is it Nature or Nurture which make us who we are?

Unlike Eddy, the other two triplets had what each described as ‘devoted (adoptive) fathers’. On the other hand, Eddy’s relationship with his adoptive father was much more problematic. He was authoritarian, militaristic and a ‘disciplinarian’. In perhaps the saddest scenes of the film, Eddy’s father admits to camera that his son, ‘never really talked to him about his problems’. Eddy’s widow explains that Eddy had never felt like he fitted in with his family.

Three Identical Strangers is at the same time fascinating, infuriating, and heartbreaking: the question of Nature versus Nurture, and how failures in each of these interact to contribute to mental illness, is fascinating; infuriating because the Twin Study in no way reflects contemporary psychological research methods; and heartbreaking because viewers will no doubt perceive the deprivation and trauma these boys would have experienced following their separation given what is widely known about early attachment today.

Natasha Josefowicz, a former research assistant on the Twin Study, describes in the film a psychological community in the 1950s and 1960s which was as reckless as it was grandiose. The study was ‘monumental’ in its scope and she insists that no one involved considered it a terrible trauma or a deprivation to separate the siblings.

Yet, by the 1950s British psychoanalyst John Bowlby had already been commissioned by the World Health Organisation to research the impact of maternal deprivation on the mental health of children. Bowlby's research resulted in his maternal deprivation hypothesis which suggested that children deprived of their mother (or other primary attachment figure) would experience separation anxiety which trigger innate behaviours - sucking, cuddling, looking, smiling, crying - designed to elicit a response from the attachment figure.

Psychoanalysts have, admittedly, been rather slow to consider the significance of sibling relationships to development and attachment, instead focusing largely on the relationship between caregivers and children. Nevertheless, Josefowicz’s claims seem disingenuous (why, for example, if the researchers believed truly that the study was ethical did it remain so secret?). Neubauer, it is explained, had a close relationship with Anna Freud, an analyst known for her research into the trauma experienced by children separated from their families due to evacuation during the Second World War.

As infants, the triplets were clearly traumatised; David would bang his head against the bars of his crib, and Bobby would smash his head against the walls of his bedroom. Both now recognise such behaviour as separation anxiety. Researchers on the Twin Study must have seen evidence of their disturbance during their regular observations.

One would assume that for most contemporary psychoanalysts, the very question of Nature versus Nurture is a crude and reductionist dichotomy. Modern psychoanalysis takes a decidedly more dialectical approach to understanding human development. Psychotherapists will most likely agree with the closing words of the film from David’s aunt, ‘Nature and Nurture both matter, but I think Nurture can overcome nearly everything’. Three Identical Strangers doesn’t answer the Nature versus Nurture debate but it does serve to remind us of the values at the heart of psychotherapy: we should above all else seek to do no harm and learn to accept the presence of the unknown.

With a background in media and communications, Eva manages Contemporary Psychotherapy’s social media accounts and authors our quarterly newsletter. She has an interest in psychoanalytic theory and enjoys reviewing literature, film and podcasts through an analytic lens.
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