Reaction to Three Identical Strangers (Contains Spoilers)

Do our genes or our environments dictate who we become?


Photo from the Los Angeles Times.

The documentary Three Identical Strangers, which premiered on CNN on January 27, tells the story of Robert (Bobby) Shafran, David Kellman, and Edward Galland. Shafran, Kellman, and Galland were identical triplets born in 1961, each of whom were separated six months later when they were adopted by different families. But there was a catch: not one of the families knew that the baby they had adopted was a triplet. The movie explores how the brothers discovered each other at age 19 and sought to understand their circumstances: why had they been separated?

The movie narrative begins on Bobby’s first day of school at a small community college in upstate New York. He had never been there before, but people were greeting him like an old friend, girls were kissing him, and random kids were clapping him on the back. Then Bobby noticed something really strange: his roommate was calling him “Eddy!” The riddle was solved when Bobby’s roommate, who knew Eddy wasn’t coming back to college that year, asked Bobby if he was adopted and whether his birthday was on July 12, 1961. The answer to both questions was yes. To Bobby’s roommate, it was clear that Bobby and Eddy were long-lost identical twins.

Bobby and Eddy the night they reunited. Photo from

Shortly after Bobby and Eddy contacted each other, they received news that they had another brother named David, who had seen an article about Bobby and Eddy in a newspaper and realized he was one of them. After reuniting and becoming the best of friends, the triplets quickly became a national sensation. They went on talk shows, started a business together, and even made an appearance in a movie scene with Madonna. Everyone wanted to know what was similar about them. Did they smoke the same cigarettes? Did they all wrestle at some point? Did they like the same type of girls? The answer to all of these questions was yes. Weirdly, each of them even had an adopted sister who was two years older. However, no one was asking about the differences between them—and there were differences.

The triplets made an appearance in Madonna’s movie. Photo from Riot Material.

If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what happens next, stop here, and come back once you’ve caught up.

The boys each came from families at different economic levels—one blue-collar, one middle class, and one wealthy. While David had a great relationship with his father, Eddy had a strained relationship with his. Both Bobby and Eddy felt content in their adopted families, but Eddy had always felt like he didn’t really fit in: he was more artsy and free-spirited, while his parents valued discipline and a military upbringing. Despite the obvious differences in their parenting styles, all of the parents shared a lot of anger towards the situation. How could the adoption agency knowingly separate three boys who were supposed to grow up together?

The boys liked to accentuate their similarities, but they actually had some differences. Photo from Getty Images.

Well, it turns out that the separations were done as part of a secret “nature vs. nurture twin study” that intended to reveal how differing environments affect genetically identical siblings. Led by scientist Peter Neubauer, the study was conducted for years in partner with the Louise Wise adoption agency, and is now being kept in archives at Yale University. The results of the study were never published.

Because the study prevented the boys from working out problems during their childhood, a fight over their business had very bad implications for their relationship. The fight had the greatest impact on Eddy, who was later diagnosed with manic depression. In 1995, Eddy tragically committed suicide.

Bobby Shafran and David Kellman. Photo from Pinterest.

Although the documentary asserts that the environment in which Eddy was brought up in was the main cause of his depression later in life, I think the fight with his brothers also played a large role, as well as Eddy’s genetics. When Eddy found his brothers, he finally felt like he fit in, but he then had to watch his new family be torn apart by the family business. It was also very possible that the boys’ birth mother had some kind of mental illness. All of the boys probably inherited the gene for mental illness, but Eddy’s circumstances were what made his depression surface.

I was horrified that the creators of the study did not realize that what they were doing was morally wrong. And why did Neubauer go through so much work just to leave the study collecting dust in archives? Tim Wardle’s documentary “Three Identical Strangers” is enraging at times, and it leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. But one message rings clear: it’s never ethical to mess with human lives in the name of science.