Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers

So this is going to be another slightly mixed post. Or, to put it another way, I will once again try to describe things in my usual erratic style, starting with a complete reversal of something I had committed to in a previous post.

I wrote last year about the importance of pushing boundaries . About how repeating actions and making the same decisions over and over again, even if you really enjoy them and get something out of them, is a block to finding new and maybe more fulfilling experiences.

Repeats are rarely as good as the first time.

Well, time to challenge that perception just a little.

For the second time in just over a month I am planning to write about a powerful, moving and heartbreaking documentary. One that we decided to go and watch in a cinema.

And we rarely go to the cinema.

And for the second time in a week we ended up travelling to London. With the usual healthy dose of aimless wandering thrown in for good measure. Photographic evidence attached of course.

Oh, the joy of repetition.

But this post is not really about the sights of London or the wonderful sunset we witnessed on the way out of the cinema.

I have heard people say that sometimes things happen for a reason. Connections are made and paths cross and suddenly you find yourself somewhere that, with hindsight, seems destined but had probably never really been considered before.

And, to add a little peculiar flavour to my post, here is my random three step path to the movie Three Identical Strangers, which we watched at the weekend.

Step One – I listened to a podcast last week. Called Ruthie and Me, it’s an interesting and entertaining weekly comparison of the worlds of a mid-fifties broadcaster and his teenaged daughter. In this particular episode they mentioned a documentary that they had seen last year. Not a new film but one that they both felt was important. They discussed it positively and highlighted the way in which it had added to their ongoing “nature versus nurture” debate. I made a note and added it to my list of films I wanted to see.

Step Two – A day later, I noticed a documentary advertised on social media that caught my attention. About the life of a famous soul singer. I saw that it was scheduled to be shown at a specialised documentary cinema in London, the Bertha DocHouse at Curzon Bloomsbury. Now, I enjoy a good documentary and was interested to find out more about both the film and the cinema. So I checked out their web-site.

Step Three – I checked out the website. The first film I noticed was not the one I was looking for, but Three Identical Strangers, the movie I had added to my list only the previous day.

A message.

Kind of.

So I booked the tickets.

Not much of a story, I’m sure you will admit.

But Three Identical Strangers most certainly is.

Imagine being 19 years old. Heading off to college. And on your first day, through a random and almost unbelievable set of circumstances and already knowing that you had been adopted, you meet your identical twin that you never even knew existed.

And then it gets worse. Or better, depending upon your point of view.

A short while later, after publicity and a number of newspaper articles, you and your identical twin find out that actually, you are not identical twins after all.

You are actually two-thirds of a set of identical triplets.

That is exactly what happened to David Kellman, Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland back in the early 1980’s.

And then the real media attention started. Crazy and wonderful, these new found siblings, all adopted at birth with caring families and none of them aware of the others existence, find fame and, one is lead to believe, a level of fortune. It includes parts in movies, open-door access to legendary nightclubs such as New York’s famous Studio 54 and wall to wall partying, girls and booze. All seems to be well in their exciting new world.

But it gets a little freaky.

Dark even.

It becomes clear, following the help of an investigative writer, that the adoptions were not exactly as random as they believed. The triplets, placed with wealthy, middle class and working class families respectively, had actually been monitored for most of their lives. But the reasons for this were kept hidden.

From everyone.

And the story continues.

Possibly a secret study into inherited mental health issues. Or maybe a way of analysing the effectiveness of different parenting styles. It gradually becomes clearer that, in the absence of anyone definitively able or willing to explain what it was all about, the most likely explanation was a review of that most basic of questions, nature versus nurture.

But at what cost?

The film briefly introduces identical twins, also separated at birth and from the same adoption agency, who also found each other by chance. And both mention the mental health issues that understandably and inevitably have appeared in their lives. And it becomes apparent that all of the triplets spent time in psychiatric hospitals as they were growing up.

And slowly, gradually, the documentary leads to what in some ways is an almost inevitable conclusion. The sad, heart-wrenching death by suicide of Eddy. Clearly bought about as a result of deteriorating mental health, the viewer is left to decide the underlying reasons. Whether related to issues inherited from his birth parents, caused by the clear anxiety all of the brothers displayed when separated from their siblings or, as the movie suggests, a style of parenting that appeared to allow no room to either recognise or support any kind of mental health issues.

Perhaps the most incredible part of this documentary though came right at the end.

In fact I would probably have overlooked it if it wasn't for my wife picking it up and discussing it as we walked back to the tube. The adoptive agency heavily involved in the experiment was supported by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services. And according to the documentary, this powerful Jewish organisation took the decision to halt the secret study almost immediately the triplets story became public. And made a decision to seal the records until 2065, not allowing anyone to know who was involved and what the findings were.

Suspicious, unhelpful and evasive.

And as my wife pointed out, was this a Jewish organisation sanctioning experiments on children barely a couple of decades after the Holocaust?

Just a little online research suggests that this is a contentious subject. An article on The New York Jewish Week website suggests that the movie might not be playing fair with its audience. However another article on The Daily Beast website talks about “a disturbing, cautionary tale about the seedy underbelly of science which operates at the expense of humanity”. I’m sure that everyone watching the film will draw their own conclusions.

There are two things that will stay with me from Tim Wardle’s excellent documentary.

The first, and most enjoyable, are the photographs showing the complete delight and joy on the faces of the three brothers when they first meet up and reconnect. They just exude happiness and love. Sadly, the revelations of the experiments lead to the gradual break down of the brothers relationship and ultimately Eddy’s tragic suicide. And I shall also remember the haunted look on the face of Bobby as the interview reaches its conclusion.

Whatever your thoughts on the balance of this documentary, this is a powerful story about people that were used and ethically abused by others for, at best, academic research but ultimately reasons that remain unknown. Any events that manipulate and take advantage of vulnerable people cannot be right. And children given up for adoption are about as vulnerable as you can get.

I don’t know whether the suicide can be laid directly at the feet of those that treated these boys with such contempt. Probably not. But it seems fair to suggest that they set in motion events that clearly influenced these lives without disclosing relevant information that could have allowed support and treatment where it may have been required.

And for that reason alone this story needs to be shared.

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