Wednesday, August 8, 2018


In 1980 a young New York man enrolls at a community college. On his first day, he's met by people who seem to know him. But despite a lot of hugs, he doesn't know them.

That's the beginning of Three Identical Strangers, an excellent documentary from director Tim Wardle. The feeling is, as many in the movie will suggest, like a Disney tale  where long lost siblings meet.

The young man, Robert Shafron, eventually learns that he's an exact lookalike for another young man, Eddie Galland, who had been at the school a year earlier. A meeting is quickly arranged. They realize they are identical twins, put up for adoption years earlier by the same agency. One landed in an upper class family. The other in a middle class family. They are thrilled to meet each other. The story makes the local newspapers.

But wait, there's more.

A third young man, David Kellman, living nearby, reads the story. He also resembles  Shafron and Galland. Kellman arranges a meeting. Triplets! All put up for adoption and now reunited!

The story blows up nationwide. The trio achieve a cheesy kind of celebrity, the sort that gets them in PEOPLE magazine. Then they're on the Phil Donahue show, and other TV programs long since forgotten. They even get a cameo in a Madonna movie. They begin to dress alike, and get an apartment in Soho. They open a restaurant called "Triplets,"  and, as far as we can tell, spend the next several years getting drunk, partying, and smoking Marlboro cigs. They all find nice women and settle down. It's gearing up for a glorious ending.

But then, as happens with most documentaries, the story turned grim. The triplets eventually learn they were part of an  experiment where a behavioral psychologist with a distinctly German name was in cahoots with the adoption agency. The idea was to split up a number of twins and triplets, just to see how growing up under different circumstances would impact them. "It was Nazi stuff," says Shafron. "We were lab rats," says Kellman.

The trio  tracked down their birth mother but were disappointed. She was, as Kellman says, "a prom night knock up." Kellman reveals she had a drinking problem, and ads, rather vaguely, that she has dealt with "major mental health issues."

It turns out the brothers also had issues with depression and excessive drinking. As infants they used to bang their heads against walls. As  teens, they were troubled, and sometimes under psychiatric care. Was it separation anxiety? Or was it a genetic link to their troubled biological mother?

The questions posed by this film may leave you slightly perplexed, especially if you're a believer in free will. The boys, though they grew up in different economic environs, enjoyed similar high school careers and have many of the same mannerisms. Shafron, who grew up in an affluent neighborhood with a busy doctor dad is not much different on the surface than Kellman, whose father was a working class, cigar smoking bubula. That two of them attended the same community college is telling, too.

Genes, the movie suggests, dictate your future whether you like it or not. You might make some of your own decisions along the way, but your personality, and possibly your destiny, is mostly tied into your genes. In Three Identical Strangers, the old argument about nature versus nurture ends in a close but unanimous decision: Nature wins.

Nurturing gets a nod, too. When one of the triplets comes to a bad end, a friend says it was because he wasn't nurtured. Had the triplets been together all through their childhood, the friend says, they might have nurtured each other, or something. All I know is, the movie started out like a Disney flick, and ended up like an old Ira Levin novel. All that was missing was a Hitler clone in Brazil.

Wardle  even tracks down the German secretary of the psychologist behind the experiment. She's a funny old trooper, describing her old boss as sexy and charming. But damn if she doesn't seem to be smirking about the whole thing. Oh vell, ve live and ve learn. Eh?

The fellow who  organized the twin separation project is long dead, but his papers are at Yale, under lock and key until 2066. The secretary tells us that her boss  thought he was doing a good thing, answering an important question about nature versus nurture. So why all the secrecy, Herr Doktor?

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