Separated Triplets Offer A Glimpse Into 'The Wild West Of Psychology'

Jun 30, 2018
Originally published on July 6, 2018 7:14 pm

Bobby Shafran got an unexpectedly warm welcome on his first day at college in 1980.

"Immediately everyone greeted him like he'd been there for years," says filmmaker Tim Wardle. "Guys coming up to him, slapping him on the back, girls are kissing him. He's never been there before — he doesn't know what they're talking about."

Eventually, someone asked if he had been adopted — he said yes — and might he have a twin brother? That's how Bobby met his twin, Eddy Galland, who was already a student at the college. The story made it into New York newspapers, and before long, the brothers received a phone call from another 19-year-old — a young man holding a newspaper, looking at a photograph of two people who looked just like him. "You're not twins; we're triplets — I'm the third," said David Kellman.

That's how Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman discovered they were triplets, separated at birth, and reared in three different families. The brothers shared identical curly hair, wide grins, ebullient charm and many of the same tastes and mannerisms. They moved in together and became minor-key celebrities — clubbing, posing for photos, opening a restaurant, and doing a movie scene with Madonna.

But, in time, they also discovered why they had been taken from each other at birth. Their hurt, confusion and anger is at the center of the documentary Three Identical Strangers, directed by Tim Wardle.

Editor's note: The conversation below describes aspects of the story that are not revealed until later in the film.


Interview Highlights

On why the triplets were separated by Louise Wise Services, a New York adoption agency

It was very unusual that these brothers had been separated at birth. It turned out they weren't the only identical siblings had been split up by this agency ... a very high-end adoption agency. ... It turns out they were split up as part of a scientific experiment run by a prominent ... New York-based psychiatrist looking into nature versus nurture and the relative importance of heredity versus environment.

On people who were involved in the experiment being unwilling to discuss it

The scientists we have got [in the film] were the only people who would talk about this. There were a lot of more high-profile people — in terms of their involvement in this study — who refused to talk to us or said, I don't know what you're talking about. ...

It is interesting to see how the scientists talk about this experiment. In their defense, you know, in the '50s and '60s there were a lot of experiments that went on when psychology was trying to establish itself as a new science. There were a lot of experiments that today we would consider unethical — like the [Stanley] Milgram obedience experiments or later the Stanford prison experiment — so it was kind of the Wild West of psychology at that time.

On Dr. Peter Neubauer, the study's lead psychiatrist

One of the central questions [of the film] is why do good people sometimes do bad or unethical things? I'm not interested in trying to portray him or anyone who ran this experiment as evil or bad. I think it's really interesting — those gray areas of human behavior. Peter Neubauer was the father of child psychiatry in America. He has done [an] unbelievable amount of good for children. But at the same time, [he] was involved in this one thing that, in retrospect, and I think at the time, was highly unethical. Lawrence Wright, the journalist [who wrote about the triplets and] who appears in the film, has this phrase "noble cause corruption," which he uses to explain why sometimes good people do bad things in the pursuit of a greater good. It's kind of like the ends justify the means — and I think that they were blinded to the human impact of what they were doing.

On the difficulty of telling a story like this

It was very tricky. Firstly, earning the trust of the triplets and their families — when you learn the full extent of their story, you understand why they find it quite hard, I think, to trust people. So it took a long time to earn their trust. And then there were various organizations and people involved in this who didn't want this story to be out there, so various people trying to sort of stop the film.

On the tragedy of the triplets' story

Would they have been better off not knowing about each other? Would they actually be happier today not knowing? ... They had enormous years of joy when they first met but then it all went quite badly wrong. [Galland died by suicide in 1995.]

Today, the truth is that their relationship is quite fractured. It was when we were making the film. I think one of the things that's come out of making the film, unintentionally, is that they have been brought slightly closer together, which has been wonderful, and their families have been brought closer together, which is unexpected.

On how the results of the study are still a secret

The records from the study are locked in a vault at Yale University. When [Neubauer] died, he left all the material to Yale on the proviso it wouldn't be released until 2066 ... by that point everyone involved in the study will be long since gone. So it's still sitting there waiting to be opened. ...

As part of making the film we managed to get ... the brothers some of their material. They only got photocopies, it's heavily redacted, some pages are all black ink, so it's kind of hard to piece together exactly what the study was about or what its findings were. But we did get some material. ... I might be in a wheelchair [but] I will try and get down to Yale in 2066 if I can.

Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bobby Shafran, David Kellman and Eddy Galland met each other when they were 19 years old in 1980 and discovered they were triplets, separated at birth and reared in three different families. It was brotherly love at first sight. They had the identical curly hair, wide grins and ebullient charm, and many of the same tastes and mannerisms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're all the same.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're all the same.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: As soon as we started discussing our personalities.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Our personalities are the same. Our gestures are the same, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We always talk at the same time. I'll start a sentence, and he'll finish it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We all like Chinese food.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You were all wrestlers at one time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

SIMON: Triplets moved in together and became minor-key celebrities, clubbing, posing for photos, opening a restaurant and even doing a movie scene with Madonna. But in time, they also discovered why they had been taken from each other at birth.

Their hurt, confusion and anger is at the center of "Three Identical Strangers," a documentary directed by Tim Wardle that won a Jury Award at Sundance and is in theaters now. Tim Wardle joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

TIM WARDLE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: How did the triplets find each other suddenly? And it was just over a period of a few weeks.

WARDLE: Yeah. It was an extraordinary coincidence. One of them, Bobby Shafran, went to a college in upstate New York. His first day there, turned up, and, immediately, everyone greeted him like he'd been there for years. Guys were coming up to him, slapping him on the back. Girls are kissing him. He's never been there before. He doesn't know what they're talking about.

And eventually, someone comes up to him and says, were you adopted? And he says, yeah, I was. And this guy says, I think you have a twin brother. And from there, he finds his brother Eddy. They appear on the front page of a variety of newspapers in the New York area.

And next day, they get a call from someone saying, I'm reading about you guys in the paper, and I see a picture, and I look just like you. I think you're not twins, we're triplets. I'm the third.

SIMON: Wow. What did the brothers - the triplets notice about each other?

WARDLE: Initially when they met, they had all these things in common. They realized they liked the same music, same food. And they all liked older women. They all smoked the same cigarettes. So there's these incredible similarities that couldn't be accounted for by chance, or really by environment because they'd grown up in very, very different families.

SIMON: All from the same adoption agency, of course - the Louise Wise agency in New York. Don't adoption agencies usually make it a point to keep siblings together?

WARDLE: They do, so it was very unusual that these brothers had been separated at birth. It later turned out they weren't the only identical siblings that had been split up by this agency, who were - who are - has to be said, a very high-end adoption agency.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, that's when we need to ask what was going on because there was at least one scientist with another agenda, wasn't there?

WARDLE: Yeah. I mean, I should probably put a spoiler alert here for anyone who wants see the movie because I think it is good to go in cold. But it turns out they were split up as part of a scientific experiment run by a prominent New York-based psychiatrist looking into nature versus nurture and the relative importance of heredity versus environment.

SIMON: I'm going to mention the name of the doctor whose experiment this was, Dr. Peter Neubauer, who was director of the Child Development Center in Manhattan. I'm not sure we can fairly expect an answer from you or anyone, but how could a man of science and medicine, someone who was himself the son of Holocaust survivors in Austria, do this to people?

WARDLE: That's the central question of the film. One of the central questions is, why do good people sometimes do bad or unethical things? I'm not interested in trying to portray him or anyone who ran this experiment as evil or bad. I think it's really interesting - those gray areas of human behavior.

You know, Peter Neubauer was the father of child psychiatry in America. He has done unbelievable amount of good for children, but, at the same time, was involved in this one thing that, in retrospect, and I think at the time, was highly unethical. Lawrence Wright, the journalist who appears in the film, has this phrase, noble cause corruption. It's kind of like the ends justify the means, and I think they were blinded to the human impact of what they were doing.

SIMON: The brothers really do seem to love each other and cherish the fact that they found each other. And yet, it opened the door to a lot of pain, ultimately, didn't it?

WARDLE: Yeah. I mean, one of the central questions that was always going on in my head was, would they have been better off not knowing about each other? Would they - would they actually be happier today not knowing? Because they had enormous, you know, enormous years of joy when they first met, but then it all went quite badly wrong. And, you know, today the truth is that their relationship is quite fractured. It was when we were making the film.

I think one of the things that's come out of making the film, unintentionally, is that they have been brought slightly closer together, which has been wonderful, and their families have been brought closer together, which was unexpected. But the events that happened to them and their reunion caused a lot of tragedy as well. Eddy's wife, I think, said to me, it's like the duality of life - you know, the joy but also the sadness. And this story does encapsulate that.

SIMON: Mr. Wardle, this couldn't have been an easy story to tell.

WARDLE: It wasn't. It was very tricky, firstly, earning the trust of the triplets and their families. When you learn the full extent of their story, you understand why they find it quite hard, I think, to trust people. So it took a long time to earn their trust. And then there were various organizations and people involved in this who didn't want this story to be out there, so various people trying to sort of stop the film.

SIMON: A lot of the story is still locked away, isn't it?

WARDLE: The records from the study are locked in a vault at Yale University. When the main scientist running the study died, he left all the material to Yale on the proviso it wouldn't be released until 2066. So it's still sitting there, waiting to be opened one day.

SIMON: The records that you mention - the brothers were monitored - I think that's not a bad way to put it - at various points when they were growing up. They won't be revealed until almost everybody listening to this interview is gone.

WARDLE: It's crazy when you think about it. I mean, we did, as part of making the film, we managed to get, with the brothers, some of their material. They only got photocopies. It's heavily redacted. Some pages are all black ink, so it's kind of hard to piece together exactly what the study was about or what its findings were. But, yes, most people, including myself - I may be in a wheelchair. I will try and get down to Yale in 2066 if I can, but most people involved in the study will be long since gone.

SIMON: Tim Wardle - his film "Three Identical Strangers." Thanks so much for being with us.

WARDLE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.