Not very often does it happen that a true story comes around that proves to be stranger than fiction. The story of Three Identical Strangers, is set in the 1980s. Three identical brothers, Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran, separated at birth, miraculously find each other and the entire America celebrates their re-union until they dig deeper into the circumstances of their separation and serious questions emerge out of the inquiry. The separations were done as part of an undisclosed scientific "nature versus nurture" twin study, to track the development of genetically identical siblings raised in differing circumstances. At the direction of psychiatrist Peter B. Neubauer, the three infants were intentionally placed with families having different parenting styles and economic levels – one blue-collar, one middle-class, and one affluent – who had each adopted a baby girl from the same agency, Louise Wise Services, two years earlier. As the brothers came together, so did their stark similarities and issues with mental health , which had tragically led to Galland's suicide in 1995.
The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Storytelling and was also on the shortlist of 15 films considered for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, out of 166 candidates. Directed by Tim Wardle, the documentary traces the troubling history behind this story, brings together the brothers to reiterate their stories through present day interviews and dwells even further into the mystery of the psychological study that they were a part of. As the documentary progresses, it peels the layers of a disturbing reality that has been kept under wraps for decades and raises questions about not just nature vs. nurture but also that of ethics, family, mental health and freewill. It is beguiling, heart wrenching and important.
I connected with Tim to speak about the documentary and discuss the important questions that it raises.
How did you come across the story of the triplets and what made you want to explore it further through your documentary?
So basically I was running development, I was like the ideas guy for a company in London called Raw. It is an independent film and TV production company which has previously made documentaries like The Imposter which was played in cinemas and one day six years ago a producer walked into the office with this idea and came to me and said you know I've read this story that a friend from New York told me about and I looked it up. Instantly I could see it was the single best story I'd ever heard. You know I've done that job as I used to be the Head of Documentary Development for the BBC so in my career I've seen and heard tens of thousands of ideas but it was instantly clear to me that this was the best idea I've ever come across. What appealed to me was that it's a very very easy tabloid story about three brothers separated and reunited andeveryone can relate to. Yet, it also enables you to explore much deeper philosophical ideas about nature versus nurture, freewill, destiny, family that I just felt there's a richness to it. You need those levels and those layers in a documentary because otherwise it just comes across as a superficial exercise. So it has got to have depth as it runs the cinematic length is really important.
Can you take us through your process behind the making of this documentary?
Sure. Well it was in development for four years. I mean it literally took that long to win the brothers and get them to come together for the film. That was very tricky because they were not really speaking to each other when we were making the film or when we were developing the film. Then it took a long time to raise the money as well. I mean I was saying earlier that I got engaged, married and had a child in the space of time it took for this project to be developed and ready to film. So it was it was it was really tough.
Filmmaker, Tim Wardle
The questions of ethics compromised for the sake of scientific research is an important facet of this documentary. How can this boundary be defined between ethical and non-ethical vis-a-vis the scientific ambition?
Well I think here the historical context is very important. You know in the 50s and 60s it was kind of like the Wild West of Psychology. You have all these experiments like the little girl obedience experiment and then later the Stanford Prison Experiment. All these people kind of pushing the envelope of what's possible and that is the context in which this study took place. Not to justify it but it does give you some insight. I think that you know wherever science is a new science or a new field of science is establishing itself, you always get individuals who for whatever reason be itscientific knowledge or personal glory,push the envelope of what is acceptable ethically. And I think that that definitely happened in this case and it's probably going on today in other fields like I don't know maybe today artificial intelligence or genetics there's probably things happening right now that we’ll look back on in 30 or 40 years and think that was crazy how could they get away with that.
Regarding the debate of nature vs. nurture, we see astonishing results concerning the power of genes over human life. What have you personally concluded?
It's a really good question. I think I came into making the film thinking that nurture and environment was everything. You know it was that children were born essentially blank slates and you know that was the most important thing. And I think the scientists when they started the study were thinking the same because they were they were starting in the 50s and 60s when the predominant theory was the environment was totally dominant and genetics weren’t that important and that it was all about the environment how you raised children no. And so I think that I was shocked to learn just how powerful genetics are and in terms of shaping who we are and our personality. I think there were really striking similarities between the boys, even though they grew up separately and that the media exaggerated those but they were definitely there. I think ultimately the film suggests that both nature and nurture are important which is what I believe and it's a balance between the two. But I would say that I was shocked just how powerful the hereditary is in terms of the genetic side, in terms of shaping who we are, in relation to things like mental health and things like that which I really hadn’t thought of before making the film.
“‘Wherever science is a new science or a new field of science is establishing itself, you always get individuals who, for whatever reason—be it scientific knowledge or personal glory, push the envelope of what is acceptable ethically.’”
Taking that forward, the possibility of mental illness being hereditary features in the documentary. What more do you have to say about this, especially pertaining to the triplets’ mental health?
Well that’s the issue with this study—it’s fundamentally flawed because the act of separation clearly caused trauma, which then affected them and how they developed. And it’s very hard to say if they developed mental health issues because their birth mother had mental health issues, or if they developed those because of the study— that they were split up and that damaged them. It is fascinating that in the study notes that we have been able to get you know right the end of the film, there aren’t any definitive conclusions but there is a passage where they’re meeting with the scientists and they’re all sitting around. There are minutes of the meeting and the scientists are saying it’s really strange that all the children had behavioural problems—I wonder why that is. Is it because forceps were used in their delivery? At no point did they say, well, maybe it’s because they were separated. They were together when they were in the womb for six months and then they took them apart that maybe that could have caused the trauma. So what I would say about genetics and mental health is that, unquestionably there is a strong link and [possibility of] some conditions more than others—bipolarity and schizophrenia, very strongly. It is a very strong genetic correlation and I hadn’t realised that before I before I made this film.
The story of this documentary is set in the 1980s, and even then the personal lives of people have been so ruthlessly exploited and documented. Today we live in the world of Facebook, Instagram and Cambridge Analytica—does human life have any privacy and freedom in today’s world at all?
That’s really interesting no one’s made that connection before. I would say that this story is unusual in that it is recent history. So people are still alive or most people would still like to talk about it, but it’s pre-internet and that really surprised me because I’d never heard this story before. My job was and is to know all these kind of pop culture things from the 80s and 90s and I studied Psychology at university and yet I’ve never heard this story before. I couldn’t believe it.
If it happens today, it would be all over the news and it would be recycled all the time on the Internet while this story really wasn’t. When we started, there was very little online about it. Now you go online and it’s on Wikipedia and all over but none of that existed before we started. So that was a big change. I think it is fascinating that the material, and you’re right, it is a kind of time capsule of a bygone era in the sense that the story was forgotten and also this material was able to be suppressed and withheld, and still is.
Most of the study notes are still held at Yale University School till 2065. It’s because when they did this study, informed consent didn’t exist and also
the data, as I understand it, is considered private data which belonged to the scientist Peter Neubauer who was running the study, then gifted to the university with these caveats and provisos that they wouldn’t be open for many many years. And Yale is simply honouring that. But it seems crazy in this day and age where you know we are entitled to see our information and our information is everywhere. But that all these detailed notes about these people could be locked away. But that’s what life was like before the Freedom of Information Act and before informed consent and everything else.
Doesn’t the fact that important information about the study is still under wraps make the human individual in this case completely bereft of power over the secrets of its own life?
It seems a little unfair... It’s really interesting, about the fact that they have had to live with it. So you know today we take it for granted, all the information that we have and that also it is increasingly shared publicly. But we have rights to our information and these guys have had to live a life wherein crucial information about them has been withheld from them for so long, and that it seems like it’s incongruous. For them to have lived in that way is kind of bizarre and I think their way of coping with this has been to kind of just stick it to the back of their minds and not think about it. You know it’s really until we came along—and they always wanted this— but they’d never been off together to take it forward until we came along and really worked with them.
It was the first chance to actually seeing what had happened and that reignited the desire to know, but there’s so much trauma that had happened around the story and the memories of other things, that they almost wanted to forget about it. And trying to dig up more information wasn’t something that they would want.
But it is an interesting thing in the film where I sit them down and I show them, on camera, the information that we’ve discovered, and people have questioned me about whether it was ethical to reveal information to them on camera and I said, well look we’ve had this agreement with them that we would be totally honest about what we found and showing them the information on film was like saying that we’re doing the opposite of what the scientists have done in terms of withholding this information. We’re going to share it with you and I’m going to show that we’re sharing it with you, and that was a really conscious decision. But we had all kinds of debates with them about what happens if we find out information that you’re better off not knowing. You know, what if it is really disturbing stuff that we find out and actually it would be better living in ignorance, and they said no no no... they wanted to know, they absolutely wanted to know whatever we found out. So we honoured that. It was initially about living in a world where there is so much information out there...now that we can sort of find out whatever whenever we want it. So there was an interesting thing about genetics and stuff like that coming in— if it was better off not knowing things like you have a 70 percent chance of developing a mental health problem. So would it be better off to live in ignorance and hope, and these are really interesting questions.
This documentary got shortlisted for the Oscars and congratulations on that. What did you want the audience to take away with them after watching this documentary?
Well, thank you, it’s a pleasure. I think I just wanted people to leave the theatre and the cinema hall or wherever they watched it not feeling the same as they did before...I wanted to provoke discussion around the issues that it raises around nature versus nurture, freewill, family because I think that’s why the film has been so successful. We didn’t have a huge advertising budget. It’s not about famous people but for a documentary it made 12.3 million dollars in the cinema in the US which is crazy for a film about just regular people. I think one of the reasons it has done so well is because people leave the cinema and they want to talk about it and discuss it with their friends and family. When I started the film, I thought we were going to have to answer every question very neatly and have it all wrapped up by the end of the film. But actually the film has a lot of things that are unanswered, and the questions are still there. I’ve realized that with documentary, particularly, that’s not a bad thing. People want to go and then look up online or find out more or talk to their friends and ask what they thought about it. And I think that’s really helpful in terms of getting a film out there, and getting people talking about it. So I hope it provokes discussions about medical ethics and about those who forget ethics and about you know the importance of responsibility to your subjects if you were a scientist conducting experiments, but also your subjects if you’re a filmmaker making a documentary—there’s a real parallel there with the power dynamic and it’s really incumbent on both groups to behave ethically.
Lastly, what are you working on and what is next?
Well I’ve got a whole range of things. I’m really interested in doing a scripted film that is like a drama movie but I would also be interested in a documentary. It’s just that I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m probably never going to find a documentary story quite as good as this one. But it will be fun to try and I’m sure are other fascinating stories out there.
Text Nidhi Verma