Bobby Shafran received an unexpectedly warm welcome on his first day of college in 1980.
"Everybody immediately welcomed him as if he had been there for years," says filmmaker Tim Wardle. "Guys come up to him, slap him on the back, girls kiss him, he's never been there – he does not know what they're talking about."
At some point somebody asked if he had been adopted – he said yes – and could he have a twin brother? So Bobby got to know his twin brother Eddy Galland, who was already a college student. The story came in New York newspapers, and soon after, the brothers received a call from another 19-year-old – a young man who kept a newspaper and looked at a photo of two people who looked good he. "You're not twins, we're triplets – I'm the third," said David Kellman.
Thus, Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman discovered they were triplets, separated at birth, and raised in three different families. The brothers shared identical curly hair, broad grins, exuberant charm and many of the same flavors and mannerisms. They moved in together and became celebrities of lesser importance – clubbing, posing for photos, opening a restaurant and making a movie scene with Madonna.
But over time, they also found out why they had been separated at birth. Her pain, confusion and anger are at the center of the documentary Three Identical Strangers Director: Tim Wardle.
[Ed. note: The conversation below describes aspects of the story that are not revealed until later in the film.]
Highlights of the interview
Why the triplets were separated by Louise Wise Services, a New York adoption agency
It was very unusual that these brothers were separated at birth. It turned out that they were not the only identical siblings who were separated from this agency … a very high quality adoption agency. … They turned out to be part of a scientific experiment by a prominent New York psychiatrist on the nature and relative importance of heredity and the environment.
By psychologists who were involved in the attempt not to discuss it
The scientists we have [in the film] were the only ones who talked about it. There were a lot more people involved in this study who refused to talk to us or say I do not know what you're talking about. …
It is interesting to see how the scientists talk about this experiment. In their defense there were many experiments in the 50s and 60s in which psychology tried to establish itself as a new science. There were many experiments that we now deem unethical – like Milgram's Milgram obedience experiments, or later the Stanford prison experiment – and at the time it was a kind of Wild West psychology.
On Dr Peter Neubauer, senior psychologist of the study
One of the central questions [of the film] is why good people sometimes do bad or immoral things? I'm not interested in portraying him or anyone who made this experiment as evil or evil. I think it's really interesting – these gray areas of human behavior. Peter Neubauer was the father of child psychiatry in America. He has done [an] unbelievably much good for children. But at the same time, I was involved in this one thing, which in retrospect, and I think at the time, was highly unethical. Lawrence Wright, the journalist [who wrote about the triplets and] appearing in the film, has this term "noble cause of corruption", with which he explains why sometimes good people do bad things when seeking a greater good. It's as if the ends justify the means – and I think they were blind to the human influence of what they were doing.
The difficulty of telling a story like this
It was very difficult. First, to earn the trust of triplets and their families – when you experience the full extent of their story, you understand why they find it rather difficult, I believe, to trust people. So it took a long time to earn their trust. And then there were different organizations and people involved who did not want this story out there, so different people tried to stop the movie.
The tragedy of the history of triplets
Would they have been better off if they did not know each other? Would not they be happier today not knowing? … They had a lot of fun when they first met, but then everything went pretty wrong. [Galland died by suicide in 1995.]
Today the truth is that their relationship is rather broken. It was when we did the movie. I think one of the things that came out of the unintentional shooting of the movie is that they were brought a little bit closer together, which was wonderful and brought their families closer together, which is unexpected.
How the Study's Findings are Still Secret
The study results are included in a vault of Yale University. When [Neubauer] died, he left all the material to Yale on the condition that it would not be published until the year 2066 … by that time all those involved in the study have long since passed away. So it's still sitting there, waiting to be opened. …
As part of the movie, we've managed to … provide the brothers with some material. They have only photocopies, it's heavily edited, some pages are black ink, so it's pretty hard to figure out exactly what the study is about or what its results are. But we got material. … I could be in a wheelchair [but] I'll try to get 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.