Three Identical Strangers

Wardle, Tim

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn
  • Date of entry: Nov-05-2018
  • Last revised: Nov-08-2018


The world is a big place – 7.4 billion people and counting. As much as we all enjoy the game of finding our doppelganger in a crowd, there probably isn’t anyone in the world who is exactly like us. With a genetic code of over 3 billion base pairs, of which there are innumerable permutations, we would be hard pressed to find a clone of ourselves even if the world had 7 trillion people. The exception is if you were born with an identical sibling. But then again, you would know if you had a twin. Wouldn’t you?

The documentary Three Identical Strangers tells the unbelievable story of Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman – three identical triplets who were separated at birth and serendipitously reunited at the age of 19. The film takes us through the circumstances of their reunion, highlighting the brothers’ instant rapport over their similarities and the ensuing fame resulting from the public fascination with their extraordinary story. It began as a euphoria-filled saga complete with talk show interviews, movie cameos, and even a successful restaurant which they called “Triplets”.

The honeymoon phase ended in horrific fashion once the parents of the respective siblings began asking questions as to why the brothers were separated in the first place. A journalist who had been investigating the triplets’ adoption agency, Louise Wise Services, helped to uncover the details of an elaborate study performed by a child psychiatrist named Dr. Peter Neubauer. In this study, each brother was placed into a home which had another adoptive sister, and specifically assigned to a family of lower, middle, and upper-class backgrounds. While the exact details of the study objective remain unknown, it appears that the study was trying to determine whether psychiatric illness was correlated more strongly with genetics or with developmental environment; this is referred to colloquially as a “nature vs. nurture” experiment.

The implications were earth-shattering. The brothers struggled to cope with the realization that they had been marionettes in some sort of sick experiment, with Dr. Neubauer pulling the strings the whole time. Even worse was the fact that there were possibly several more identical siblings with the same story who were deprived of their biological soul mate, all at the behest of Neubauer and his associates. In fact, other sets of identical siblings were eventually made aware of the experiment, and did have the chance to meet, albeit many years after their birth.

The triplets also learned that their biological mother had serious psychiatric problems – hence their inclusion in the study. All three brothers had behavioral difficulties as adolescents, and it was distressing to consider whether their issues may have been exacerbated by the separation anxiety they experienced upon being separated at birth. In particular, Eddy suffered from worsening episodes of bipolar disorder throughout his life. In 1995, at the age of 33, he committed suicide. He is notably absent for the duration of the documentary, with Bobby and David narrating much of the film. Today, they are still trying to uncover the particulars of Dr. Neubauer’s study, but the research records remain under seal at Yale University until 2066. They may never know the full extent of what was done to them and why.


For the general public, Three Identical Strangers is among the darkest “Where Are They Now” stories. Who would have thought that such a cheerful trio would find themselves at the center of such a disturbing chapter of our national history?  

For medical researchers, the film is a reminder of the emotional havoc that human subjects endure when experiments are carried out without regard for ethics. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to think of other notable medical ethics violations – Henrietta Lacks, the Milgram experiment, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, just to name a few. The Three Identical Strangers story is simply the latest example.

Ethics is a cornerstone of any kind of research. When scientists (physicists, marine biologists, archaeologists, and many others) are conducting experiments, collecting data, and reporting results, there is an expectation of integrity in each step of that process. We expect that data has not been falsified, and we expect that results are reported with context, but without undue bias or misdirection. Medical research, specifically human subjects research, presents a unique set of challenges and responsibilities. The modern pedagogy of medical ethics describes four overarching principles: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. Each of these pillars was conceived for the protection of the human subject, who is often at the receiving end of an asymmetric information dynamic with the research group.  

The undercurrent of secrecy and subterfuge of Dr. Neubauer’s study ultimately demonstrated a lack of regard for patient autonomy and informed consent. It’s hard to overstate the importance of informed consent in human subjects research. On a moral level, it is an acknowledgement of respect for the study participants. It is a recognition that every person has the right to be the master of their own destiny, and it is also an expression of gratitude for offering themselves in service of a noble endeavor. Practically speaking, it gives study participants an opportunity to have all the requisite information to make an informed decision for themselves. The openness of the informed consent process can also establish a stronger relationship between society and the medical community. By the same token, unethical studies of the past have corroded this relationship, the effects of which will persist for decades, if not longer.  

It’s easy for us to watch a film like Three Identical Strangers and wag our fingers at Dr. Neubauer and his associates. The tougher task is trying to understand what drives otherwise good people to do bad things. More specifically, why did Dr. Neubauer feel justified in carrying out this project? Like all researchers, he was looking for answers to questions that no one had been able to answer. Dr. Neubauer was a psychiatrist, and psychiatry as a field has been plagued with great challenges in terms of understanding the etiology of disease. One can understand the frustration of a person working in such a field, and perhaps even the ambition of someone trying to make a name for himself.

Personal incentives aside, there is no doubt the results of Dr. Neubauer’s study could help psychiatrists worldwide, and ultimately, countless more patients. That being said, we must consider not just the possible risk to the research subjects, but also the precedent that such a study would set for future experimentation. It is in response to such studies that Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) were implemented in the 1970s. IRBs provide the necessary oversight for patient protection and they ensure the integrity of the informed consent process. At the same time, oversight can only go so far. The onus will always fall on the conscientious researcher to do their own due diligence with regard to anticipating ethical hurdles.

Primary Source

Three Identical Strangers, Directed by Tim Wardle




CNN Films

Running Time (in minutes)