"I wouldn't believe it if someone else was telling this story, but it's true, every word of it."
I remember this story. If you were alive in the 1980s, you remember this story, too.
Thing is, it's not the story we remember.
In 1980, Bobby Shafran set out for college. Almost immediately, people-- gregarious, friendly people-- welcomed him back, hugged him, and expressed surprise and relief that he'd returned, after all. They called him Eddy.
Soon, assisted by a newfound friend, he was on the phone to Edward Galland. And then they were on the road, driving a couple hours to the Galland home. They were looking into a mirror. They shared the same birth day, and they came from the same adoption agency. Twins, apparently, separated at birth. The papers picked up the story.
Those stories captured the attention of David Kellman, who wanted to know that, no, they weren't twins. The boys were monozygotic triplets, separated at birth.1
Despite having been raised in three very different families-- upper class, middle class, working class-- strange parallels marked their lives. They each had an older sister, also adopted. They dressed similarly. The smoked the same brand of cigarettes. They had similar tastes in women.
They liked to party.
The media came calling. Soon, the triplets were on the cover of every magazine, and had seats on every talk show. Madonna personally insisted they get a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan. They opened a restaurant and lived the lives of Reilly.
Tim Wardle's 2018 documentary plays us those times, with clips and interviews and reenactments capturing the light-headed Tilt-A-Whirl craziness. In the first third, we're watching a brightly-lit feel-good documentary.
The cracks appear, and they grow. The boys' meeting with their birth-mother proves problematic. She likes to drink, too. The upbeat mood gets marred when we hear of the horrific reactions each had as babies, as they underwent what we now know to be separation anxiety. Their confrontation with the adoption agency suggests the people in charge know something the families don't. Other multiples turn up, separated at birth by the same agency. A spokeswoman expresses concern about the strain multiples place on the parents and, "we only told the families what they needed to know."
If you want to see this knowing nothing else, stop reading now. Know only this documentary, with its multiple numerous awards and nearly-universal critical acclaim, is worth seeing.
Go see it.
It's easy to underestimate how deep this particular rabbit hole will go, despite the larger, once-concealed backstory's handling in 1995 by Lawrence Wright for The New Yorker, in Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein's 2007 non-fiction work Identical Strangers, and Lori Shinseki's less well-known 2017 news documentary The Twinning Reaction.
Still with me?
I had heard that their story turned dark. I knew in advance why one of the triplets is conspicuously absent from the contemporary interviews. But I had no idea how dark it would turn, or that our feel-good documentary with cracks would turn thriller, bordering on horror and science-fiction, a thing entirely unbelievable, save for the fact that it actually happened.
Wardle gives us a cinematic moment, an audio-visual collage where he repeats the clues, the things staring us in the face.
And the accounts of a study, locked away at Yale and Harvard until 20652
And the people who visited the separated multiples, regularly, when they were young, doing a follow-up study on, supposedly, adopted children and family dynamics.
At that point, you may experience that moment where you forget to breathe, as the full, impossible darkness settles in. You hear of the experiments of the late Dr. Peter Neubauer, and your mind tries not to conjure the ghost of Josef Mengele.
Three Identical Strangers takes you through a story stranger than fiction, raises questions about the nature of reality, and sounds an emphatic clarion, calling attention to the need for ethical standards in medical and scientific research.
The study of the mind should not be conducted by people who lack heart.
1. Perhaps having entirely weirded itself out, the doc (that I can recall) ignores the fact that even their identification as triplets is incorrect. The brother were quadruplets, one of whom died at birth.
2. The attention this documentary brought onto the study has led to significant portions of it being released. Although ostensibly designed to determine the role of nature and nurture in shaping a person, it appears to conclude nothing useful.