If you have been reading my blog for a while, you might know that I started a series called ‘Coffee and Crime’ where I discuss various court cases and crime-related topics that have sparked my interest in one way or another – and I’m bringing it back! (Read my previous one here)
I thought that it would be fitting to start off this revamp of the series with the case that took Netflix by storm last year with the ‘Three Identical Strangers’ documentary that I originally watched when it was released in 2018.
Disclaimer: I am not a professional in any way, but I am interested in these kinds of things; so if I get any information wrong feel free to let me know.
Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman were just three regular people, living their lives in America – that is, until 1980, when Bobby, a doe-eyed college freshman finds himself surrounded by slightly too friendly students – and they seem to think his name is Eddy?
The mysterious ‘Eddy’s’ friend was sure that he had dropped out and wasn’t coming back to college, yet there was someone identical standing right in front of him; so he came to the conclusion after a few questions about his adoption and birthday that they MUST be twins, and convinced Bobby to give Eddy a call before they sped to meet him.
It wasn’t long after that 19-year-old David Kellman discovered the crazy phenomena of the long lost twins through an image in the newspaper – but the strange thing was: they looked eerily like him – and the defining factor was the ‘meaty’ hands David shared with Bobby and Eddy.
Finally, the three were reunited! They were everywhere: talk shows, newspapers, radio – three strangers, but identical in almost every way. They liked the same cigarettes, clothes and even the same women.
These three brothers were a media sensation – the tale was something that had never been witnessed before and it seemed almost too good to be true, Eddy even commenting “I don’t know if this will turn out to be great or terrible.”
Even so, the boys took over New York. They moved in together, became part of each other’s families and even opened a restaurant together – ‘Triplets’ (5 points if you guessed the name.)
But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows and happy reunions.
Even from the beginning, there were telltale signs that everything was not want it seemed to be. No one was questioning the logistics as to how these three boys lived so close to one another and yet never knew that the others existed – surely the adoption agency would have informed the adoptive parents? Well, that’s what they wanted to know…
All three sets of adoptive parents went for a meeting at Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency that the boys found their families through, and they were essentially told that it was none of their business at the time.
However, the sketchiness of the situation was only just beginning.
One of the parents realised after the meeting that they’d forgotten an umbrella so rushed back inside, only to find the board toasting with champagne… almost as if they’d dodged a bullet…
And they had. At least until Lawerence Wright discovered a secret study about identical siblings who had been separated at birth for an experiment, which was discovered to be led by Dr Peter Neubauer, a survivor of the Holocaust, whose main intention seemed to be investigating the question of ‘nature vs nurture’ and which one has a greater impact on one’s development. What is also important to point out is that Neubauer was an adviser to none other than Services. Recognise the name?
So, as it turns out, the triplets were a key victim in this study. They could recall events from childhood where people used to visit them, take notes, film them, ask them to complete various tests which were part of ‘normal studies’, or so the parents were told.
But both you and I can see that this experiment was fundamentally wrong on so many levels. The analysts would visit one brother and then go to the next one straight after and never said a word. Imagine living within 100 miles of your identical siblings and not having a notion.
What makes it worse is that the triplets were not the only subject. It has been said that there were 6-8 sets of siblings being studied, and many of them had awful mental health issues. Bobby, Eddy and David all used to bang their heads against their cots as babies and many families’ birth parents had issues such as depression or schizophrenia. However, the experiment didn’t seem to be focused on mental health at all, but rather family dynamics as can be seen through how all the families of the boys had an adopted older sister.
Even the structure of each family would have been a telling sign of something sinister if anyone was looking for it. David came from a working-class family (although the most loving environment of the three), Eddy was typed as ‘middle-class’ with a teacher for a father, and Bobby had both a doctor and a lawyer as his guardians so lived a pretty good life finance-wise.
And if you thought there would be a happy ending to the story, that this would just become a strange occurrence or an unknown misunderstanding, you would be far from the truth.
Those boys may have been triplets in blood and had many similarities on the outside, but deep down they didn’t know each other at all. They didn’t have the benefit of growing up together and learning how to face sibling clashes – and this damaged their relationship pretty quickly. The running of the restaurant faced turbulence as arguments led to Bobby quitting the business and leaving the others feeling betrayed, especially Eddy.
He began to face what could only be diagnosed as a manic depression. Maybe everything had happened too fast. Maybe he was overwhelmed with the business. Maybe it was genetics.
Whatever the reason, it was too much. And on the 16th of June 1995, Eddy committed suicide.
The tale is tragic, and what makes it even more tragic is that it isn’t a tale at all – it’s real life. And so many questions were raised about the ethics of this experiment and importantly, where were the results? Why did something so horrible happen to someone so innocent? There surely has to be a valid reason…
The results were never released for one reason or another, and after Neubauer died in 2008, he left the files locked in an archive in Yale university, sealed until 2065 (I would be 62 then!!). For a long time no one had permission to access the study at all, not even the victims of the experiment who, if anyone was allowed to see the study, it should have been them.
After many attempts at seeking permission to access the archive, David and Robert did get access to the files, and over 10000 pages have been released at this point; but I ask again, what were the conclusions?
Well, I wish that I had a definitive answer for that question but the truth is, no one knows. A lot of information has been protected to conceal the identity of other twins, some of whom sadly still don’t know they even have a sibling and the charities who funded the experiment. Maybe we’ll come back in 2065 and have a clearer idea of the full extent of this case, but for now, all we have is a tragic story with an abundance of questions.
This is the moment where I must point out that although in the modern day this experiment is clearly unethical on so many levels, we need to take a look at the time period and the conditions that existed within it. Lois Oppenheim wrote a detailed article (click here) explaining how during the 60s Neubauer wasn’t actually the ‘villain’ he is painted out to be. He spoke out against violence and adoption agencies believed that separating siblings was often more beneficial for their well-being during that period (though of course now, we know different.) Neubauer probably thought that his study was going to be helpful to the evolution of science and the human race, and wasn’t considering the detrimental effect the subjects would face as a result.
Why did he hide away the research? Well, it was reported that he thought the public opinion would stand against the study, but no one knows for sure.
What we do know is that although nature and nurture are both important, nurture can make all the difference; and that (hopefully) nothing like this will happen again. David and Robert are continuously working through the aftermath of something entirely earth-shattering, one as a lawyer and the other in the business of life insurance, Medicare and annuities; both of them getting on well together.
There are no definitive conclusions to this whole event – court cases, results or even miracle endings. But that’s real life. Not everything ends like a fairytale with a happy resolution and although it’s incredibly sad and unfair, that’s just how it is. We can only hope that society learns from this and won’t make the same mistakes going forward.
Maybe we’ll have more answers in 2065, who knows?
For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think of the situation. Do you think the public should be able to access the files? Can nurture overcome nature? Are there any other cases you’d like me to research? Let me know.