Not many can claim to walk onto campus on their first day of university and be greeted by an endless stream of hugs and kisses by people they have never met before. But that’s exactly what happened to bewildered 19-year-old Robert Shafran, as he strode across Sullivan County Community College, in 1980.
As it turns out, it was a simple case of mistaken identity, but one that would change his life forever, as documented in Tim Wardle’s enthralling documentary, Three Identical Strangers.
His doppelganger, Eddy Galland, who lived nearly 150 miles away in Long Island, shared more than just the same curly black hair, brown eyes and wide smile – he also shared his DNA. Separated at birth, Robert and Eddy were in fact identical twins.
Their somewhat miraculous reunion was lapped up by the media and evoked incredulity among those who read about their heart-warming story, including 19-year-old student David Kellman, who lived in Queens.
Like Robert and Eddy, he too had been adopted at birth and shared more than a slight resemblance to the recently-reunited brothers.
When he called Galland’s house and spoke to his mother, she exclaimed: “Oh my God, they’re coming out of the woodwork!”
What then ensued was a free-wheeling, head-first dive into fame, with the brothers appearing in every paper and magazine, on television shows and even landing a cameo role alongside Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Despite nearly two decades of separation, they not only looked the same, but thought the same, dressed the same and shared the same taste in women and cigarettes. Their likeness was uncanny, if not slightly unnerving.
What they weren’t prepared for, was yet another twist to their tale – and this time, far more sinister in nature.
“People have said to me that the story goes the wrong way round for a Hollywood narrative – it starts on a high and then goes to a low,” explains Wardle of his directorial debut.
“At the start, everyone’s laughing and they believe it will be a romp the whole way through. But I’m just thinking, ‘Oh, you don’t know what’s coming…”
Overjoyed at finding one another, the brothers began questioning why a New York City adoption agency called Louise Wise Services had failed to mention that each child was a triplet born on July 12, 1961.
Chillingly, they discovered the separation had been deliberate and part of a social experiment conducted by prominent American-Jewish child psychologist Peter Neubauer, who wanted to study the theory of “nature versus nurture”.
Their families were only told they had been selected for a child development study and were regularly visited by psychologists, who filmed the youngster’s milestones, such as learning to walk and talk, and carried out behaviour, personality and intelligence tests.
But the results of that study have never been made public and the documents remain buried in the Yale University archives until 2066.
Moreover, the triplets were not the only ones involved in the stud y – and the real number of other twins and triplets separated by Neubauer’s experiment is still unknown to this day.
The documentary, which grossed a massive $12million at the US box office and was handed the special jury prize at Sundance, was four years in the making and includes interviews with Natasha Josefowitz, now 90, who worked as a research assistant for Neubauer, as well as Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who first unearthed existence of the experiment in the 1990s.
Bobby and David also recount their experiences in the captivating film, though only after much encouragement from Wardle.
“I got engaged, married and had a child in the time it took me to convince them to take part,” he tells me wryly. “But then, when you see the extent of what they’ve been through, it’s not surprising they find it hard to trust people.”
He adds: “I think there’s still a huge amount of damage there – you can see it written on their faces.
“Can you imagine what it would feel like to have the first 19 years of your life be a lie? It’s almost like they have lived a Truman Show-like existence.”
Of the “morally suspect” experiment that had such an immense impact on their lives, Wardle agrees much of it may have been driven by Neubauer’s ego, rather than valid scientific research.
“Psychology in the 1950s and 1960s was like the Wild West. It was trying to establish itself as a science and so you have all these people trying to push the envelope of what’s possible and acceptable.
“We see that in Milgram’s obedience experiment, or the Stanford prison experiment.
“I see Neubauer as someone who was very smart and influential, and who realised if he could crack nature versus nurture he would probably become one of the most famous psychologists who ever lived.”
That said, Wardle acknowledges the experimentation of twins and triplets also has uncomfortable resonances of the Holocaust – with that discomfort made particularly acute as both the psychologist and his subjects are Jewish.
“I was always conscious of those echoes and parallels,” reflects Wardle. “And there’s a central irony that Neubauer’s family and Kellman’s family both fled Austria as a result of the Holocaust, only to end up in America on either side of this experiment.
“My wife, who is Jewish, equally finds watching the film unbelievably difficult. She says the idea that Jewish doctors were involved in this so close to the Second World War and the activities of Mengele at Auschwitz is unbearable.
“We also receive a really strong reaction from Jewish audiences who have watched the film.”
That said, Wardle believes there are also more universal messages in his film, about the importance of family, the abuse of power, and even the involvement of free will in our lives.
He says: “On a very human level, you have this wonderful story of brothers separated and then reunited, but then there are also these bigger, quite philosophical themes around nature versus nature.
“There are so many, twists, turns and layers to their story – and that’s something you don’t often see in documentaries.”
Three Identical Strangers (12A) is on release in cinemas now
Listen to this week’s episode of The Jewish Views podcast!
- Three Identical Strangers
- Tim Wardle
- Eddy Galland
- David Kellman
- Robert Shafran
- Peter Neubauer
- Louise Wise Services
- Natasha Josefowitz
- Sullivan County Community College
- Lawrence Wright
- Stanford Prison Experiment
- josef mengele
- Kosher Culture
- New York City