Film Review: Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers had been in Seattle, but I didn’t know much about the film and wasn’t strongly moved to see it. I was very glad my AA flight offered it in-flight on the way to Panama.

Three brothers were born to a single mother in New York in 1961; a fourth died at birth. At six months each was adopted to a different family through an agency that specialized in placing Jewish children with Jewish families. Unknown to any of the families, the placements were part of a study conducted by a nature v. nurture researcher named Peter Neubauer, now deceased. Clearly the study had to be sanctioned by the adoption agency; the agency cooperated in keeping the study secret. Multiple families, not just the three boys profiled in the film, were affected. The boys were place purposely with a blue collar family, a middle class one, and a wealthy one. Each had adopted a girl two years before. Researchers visited the families at regular intervals for years, to test and film the boys’ development.

The results of the study on nature v. nurture were never published, are under seal, and the principal investigator is dead.

Two of the boys connected by purely random chance at a community college when they were 19. The resulting publicity led to the discovery of the third.

The families returned to the agency, angry that they had not been told of the existence of three boys, but only of the child they adopted. There they were lied to, given the simple but untrue explanation that the boys had been separated because triplets are hard to place.

The truth came out much later, when the boys — now grown men with families — fought to get answers on why they were treated as lab rats. They were separated at six months; prior to that they’d been together, sleeping in the same crib. All three boys apparently showed signs of traumatic stress from their separation very early after their adoptions, and as adults suffered from depression. One eventually commits suicide.

As a result of the publicity from the documentary, the academic institution holding the study under seal has agreed to make the records available to the two surviving brothers. Heavily redacted, the records apparently reveal little that is satisfying.

Do see this film if you can. The story of likely well-intended researchers forging ahead without any sense of the human damage done to their subjects is powerful and sobering. Human subjects protections have changed since that era. but I think the principle stands: do no harm, even in the attempt to advance knowledge.

 

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