By Orla McArthur
Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers documents the meeting of estranged triplets, following the dark experiments conducted by Dr Peter Neubauer to settle the famous nature-versus-nurture debate. With the help of an adoption agency, the psychologist aimed to understand the relationship between mental health, parenting styles and genetic predisposition.
The three separately adopted siblings: David, Robert and Eddy, were reunited 18 years after their separation in 1980. They experienced instant familiarity, with their incredible alikeness emphasised by their media fame. At six months old, they were each adopted by blue-collar, middle-class or wealthy families who had also previously adopted an older daughter from the same agency: Louise Wise Services. The boys embraced their incredible story, becoming a heart-warming media sensation. Their parents, however, were left furious that the adoption agency had kept them in the dark. After a confrontation with the agency, they discovered that they had been deliberately separated and were not the only ones. The number of children involved is still unknown. Many other sets of siblings were reunited, following the publication of an article, in the New Yorker magazine, by Lawrence Wright who had come across Neubauer’s secret study on separating identical babies at birth featured in The Psychoanalitic Study of the Child.
It is at this point in the documentary that the role of Neubauer in the triplet’s story comes to light. In the 50s and 60s, he coordinated a team of scientists to observe sets of siblings, intentionally separated at an early age with the help of Louise Wise Services. The team lied to the adoptive families, under the pretence that they were carrying out a study on the development of adopted children. Scientists would go on to study their behaviour until 1980, with full knowledge that their biological siblings were within a 100-mile radius, never letting on to any of the families. The real aim was to understand the different family dynamics and parental approaches in raising genetically identical siblings.
Whilst the similarities of the triplets were evident, the same taste in women and cigarettes, what wasn’t publicised was the difficulties they faced. Each had, at one point, been under psychiatric care throughout their teenage years and experienced intense mental illness, as had many of the subjects of the study. What the adoptive families were never told, was that the majority of the biological parents of these children had suffered from mental health issues. It is speculated that Neubauer had purposely chosen these children to secretly study the heritability of mental illness.
Documentary Accuracy and Limitations:
The documentary team interviewed two research assistants involved in Neubauer’s study, featured in the documentary. Despite the ethical wrongdoings that led to the manipulation of vulnerable children, with many fatal consequences, they were portrayed as still believing there was no foul play. One of the research assistants interviewed, Lawrence Perlman, later defended his role within the study and its circumstances described in the article: Memories of the Child Development Center Study of Adopted Monozygotic Twins Reared Apart: An Unfulfilled Promise. It might be concluded that the documentary makers had sensationalised what is a tragic story, sometimes glossing over intricacies within what is an ethically complicated experiment, to create a compelling storyline. The Twinning Reaction (directed by Lori Shinseki), another documentary discussing the twin study, makes for an interesting comparison. The trauma suffered by the subjects is palpable but is offered up to the audience without a complex discussion of all the factors involved, such as legislation and the limitations of the experiment. Much of this information, however, is inaccessible and therefore providing closure to those affected is impossible.
The conclusions from this study are almost entirely unknown, with the findings sealed in 66 boxes, within the archives of Yale University, until 2065. Around 10,000 pages from the research were released, but heavily redacted and unresolved. There are many theories as to why these records are sealed, one being that the funding for this study was partly provided by private charities in Washington. These foundations potentially had powerful political connections, who may wish to limit access to what was done. It is also theorised that Dr Neubauer declined to publish his research following the fame of Robert, Eddy and David, which may have drawn too much attention.
The documentary portrays the pain of those affected as a direct consequence of Neubauer’s research concisely, however, the simplification gives rise to many ethical debates which might not otherwise be had if all the information was available.
- Channel 4. (2021). Three Identical Strangers: Three Identical Strangers – On Demand. [online] Available at https://www.channel4.com/programmes/three-identical-strangers/on-demand/56402-001 [Accessed 18 Feb. 2021].
- Perlman LM; Segal NL (2018). Memories of the Child Development Center study of adopted monozygotic twins reared apart: an unfulfilled promise. Twin research and human genetics: the official journal of the International Society for Twin Studies, [online] 8(3). Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15989756/ [Accessed 18 Feb. 2021].
- Tandfonline.com. (2020). List of issues The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. [online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/upsc20 [Accessed 18 Feb. 2021].