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Monday 10 December 2018

The incredible story of triplets separated at birth in the name of a secret science experiment

A new documentary telling the incredible story of triplets separated as babies as part of a rogue psychological study has been tipped for an Oscar, but for the two surviving brothers, rebuilding their bond is still a work in progress

Before the cracks: the reunited triplets Eddy, David and Bobby. Photo: NEON
Before the cracks: the reunited triplets Eddy, David and Bobby. Photo: NEON

Alice Vincent

When Bobby Shafran arrived at Sullivan Community College, in New York State, for his first day, he was shocked to find people greeting him like an old friend.

 Girls came up and kissed him, boys slapped him on the back. Weirdest of all, these strangers called him Eddy. Finally, one student ventured an explanation. "Are you adopted?" asked Michael Domnitz. When Shafran confirmed that he was, Domnitz told him the exciting news: "You have a twin!"

Domnitz was a friend of Edward Galland, who had dropped out of the college the previous year, and knew Galland was also adopted. Later that day in 1980, Shafran and Domnitz drove to Galland's adoptive parents' house in Long Island, where 19-year-old Shafran found himself staring at a young man with DNA identical to his. They had been separated at six months old. "It was like the world faded away, and it was just me and Eddy," Shafran recalled 37 years later.

Many have entertained the idle fantasy that, somewhere out there, they have a doppelganger - a twin from whom they have been separated at birth. But triplets? That's too far-fetched, surely. Except, in this case, it wasn't.

A few months later, David Kellman, a student at Queens College in New York City, saw two faces like his in a newspaper article about Bobby and Eddy. He phoned Eddy's adoptive mother, and announced: "I think I'm the third." Shortly after they met, these grown men, according to Kellman's aunt, Hedy Page, were "rolling on the floor like puppies", grasping at the childhood together that they'd never had.

These events comprise just the first few minutes of Three Identical Strangers, a low-budget film that recently became the most lucrative British-made documentary ever at the US box office and is now being tipped for an Oscar. The rest of the film lays bare the extraordinary and devastating events that unfolded after the men's reunion.

On a quest to find out why they had never been told that the babies they'd adopted had identical siblings, Bobby, Eddy and David's parents discovered they had all been part of a rogue, top-secret psychological study.

A team led by the US psychologist Peter Neubauer had worked with an adoption agency to split up the triplets - born to a teenage girl on July 12, 1961 - and place them with families from different socio-economic backgrounds.

David had gone to a working-class family, Eddy to a middle-class household and Bobby to parents who were upper-middle-class. The adoptive parents had then been told that their children were part of a "routine childhood-development study" and would be visited by researchers at regular intervals as they grew up.

Over the next 10 years, Neubauer's team filmed the boys doing cognitive tests, puzzles and drawings. Neubauer wanted to establish how the development of three boys with identical DNA, who had never had any contact with one another, would be affected if they were brought up in different environments.

"[The researchers] lost sight of the human impact of what they were doing," says Tim Wardle, the film's director. "That era, the 1950s and 1960s, [was a] Wild West period of psychology when people were doing all kinds of crazy things. People were pushing the envelope and they were losing sight of the ethics."

Wardle's film shows, for the first time, the extent that the triplets' lives were meddled with. It also traces the impact of their subsequent fame. In 1980, the boys' reunion received wide coverage. Their matching grins were plastered across newspapers. David's adoptive mother Claire told The New York Times: "They talk the same, they laugh the same, they hold their cigarettes the same - it's uncanny.''

The brothers, who moved into an apartment together in Queens, proved such popular guests on chat shows that stadium-sized studios were booked out for them. They appeared wearing matching clothes and answered questions about their shared quirks in unison.

"We were falling in love with each other," Bobby explains in the film. Not yet 20, they partied in Studio 54 and made a cameo in Madonna's Desperately Seeking Susan. They opened a restaurant in Manhattan called Triplets and made a million in their first year.

"All we wanted to do was be joyful and play and catch up," Bobby tells me on the phone. "But," adds David, who is standing next to him, "a lot can happen in 37 years".

The cracks in their relationship appeared early. Each brother would feel he was being excluded by the other two. And it gradually became clear that Eddy, who had a strained relationship with his adoptive father, had mental-health problems. In 1995, he shot himself, a few weeks after receiving in-patient treatment for manic depression.

The suicide marks a gut-wrenching shift in the film, and it also had a devastating effect on Bobby and David. The remaining two brothers, who had by this time married and had children, drifted apart and, in fact, weren't speaking when Wardle began work on their story in the early 2010s.

Persuading them to take part, says Wardle, took four years, and was "the single biggest challenge to getting the film off the ground". Even once they were on board, Wardle says he "really didn't know if they were going to pull out. During production there were moments when it looked like it was going to fall down. It walked a knife edge the whole time, really."

"Neither David nor I had any interest in any kind of interview after Eddy died," Bobby says. "Things were a mess. Our lives were in such disarray."

In the end, both brothers felt a responsibility to air the story behind their separation.

Neubauer is dead now, but he was confronted about his study in the mid-90s by the New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright and Three Identical Strangers features both Wright's recollections of the psychologist and an audio recording of an interview Wright did with him.

In the interview, Neubauer - who never published his study - admits Bobby, Eddy and David were not the only siblings who were separated, although the exact number of twins and triplets who were studied is still not known. Neubauer, who died in 2008, doesn't show any remorse, although his actions suggest he was aware of his study's controversial nature; he left orders for all documents related to the research to be placed under lock and key at Yale University - after his death - until 2065. Other psychologists who worked on the study are still practising, but refused to talk to the film-makers.

The human impact Three Identical Strangers has had since its US release has been remarkable. In October, estranged twins Michele Mordkoff, from New Jersey, and Allison Kanter, from California, met for the first time, aged 54.

The film's success has also thrown David and Bobby back into the public eye. After years spent retreating from the spotlight, the triplets have once again been rendered, in their words, "two-dimensional objects". "We have essentially laid ourselves bare in this film," one says.

However, they wanted to respect Eddy's memory. "That is our most raw point," Bobby says. "Some people [at screenings] have said, 'Why didn't you go into this in depth?' Well, do you want to talk about a suicide of somebody you love in great depth?"

The brothers say they have been "blown away" by Wardle's sensitive film. It has also brought Bobby, a lawyer, and David, an insurance broker, closer together.

"If you watch the film, you can see there is a real awkwardness between them when they are together on screen," says Wardle. "But, since then, they have been asked about their relationship and have described it as a work in progress."

During the making of the documentary, Bobby, David and Eddy's children - who are not just cousins but also genetically half-siblings because their fathers were all born with the same DNA - have also grown close. "That's one of the lovely things about this," says Wardle. "It's beautiful that that's happened as a result of the film."

Dublin's IFI will host a special screening of 'Three Identical Strangers' on Monday followed by a Q&A with the film's editor, Michael Harte. It goes on general release from November 30

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