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Not so happily ever after: The dark secret of Three Identical Strangers

Deborah Stone
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Published: 17 September 2018

Last updated: 5 March 2024

BOBBY SCANLAN DIDN’T KNOW he had an identical twin until his first day at a US college, when strangers ran up to hug him and called him “Eddy”.

He didn’t know he was a triplet until the story of Bobby and Eddy’s extraordinary reunion ran in the paper and the third brother David saw his two doppelgängers staring out of the front page.

The reunion of the 19-year-old American triplets separated as babies and almost inseparable thereafter might have made a heart-warming documentary.

But although it begins as a feel-good film, Three Identical Strangers tells a much more chilling tale. The documentary about the separation and reunification of the triplets, now showing in Australian cinemas, is also a bigger story about children’s rights, scientific ethics and the unresolvable tensions of biology and upbringing.


Spoiler alert: it’s impossible to discuss the implications of this film without giving away much (though not all) of what happened. The film is absolutely still worth seeing if you know the story but if you prefer the shock value of a hard-to-believe story revealed gradually in clever twists, stop reading now. Come back once you have seen it – you will need to process.

Bobby, Eddy and David were adopted by parents who had no idea they were triplets. Louise Wise Services, the prominent New York Jewish adoption agency who placed them, did not inform the adoptive parents that they were separating multiple births.

The separation was not just a bureaucratic decision and it was not —whatever the agency later claimed — born of necessity. The triplets were separated and placed in different homes with known different parenting styles as a deliberate experiment, a living laboratory for a study of nature versus nurture.

Child psychiatrist Peter Neubauer conceived and ran the study, which separated several sets of twins in addition to the triplets. Experimenters regularly observed the children’s development, subjecting them to a barrage of tests under the guise of a general study of adopted children. They went from one to the other, never disclosing the existence of an identical sibling within a 160-km radius.

With what we know about children today, it’s difficult to think of this scenario as anything less than a callous experiment which treated innocent children and their adoptive families as guinea pigs.

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Add the layer that Austrian-born Neubauer was a Holocaust survivor and that everyone involved in the story is Jewish and the shadow of Dr Josef Mengele’s notorious Auschwitz twin studies casts an even darker shade over the painful and sometimes tragic results.

That Jewish psychiatrists and a Jewish adoption agency in 1960s New York could have exposed Jewish children to even the faintest echo of Mengele’s twin studies is very difficult to fathom.

True, attitudes to children were different in 1961 when the triplets were separated. There was little if any sense that children were harmed by being deprived of their biological heritage or of established bonds that six-month-old infants would have formed from their time in utero.  Children were seen far more as empty vessels, a paradigm which led to many abuses only now being exposed.

Science, too, was differently positioned in an age before ethics committees when there was still a pious belief that the right experiment might yield answers in psychology as definitive as those boasted by physical medicine, and that the knowledge gained might justify the use of unknowing subjects.

But it’s hard to believe the experimenters and agency involved had no sense of the psychological pain they were inflicting and it’s indisputable that the cover-up which followed was self-serving and heartless.

As an Australian familiar with the tragedy of thousands of Aboriginal children removed from their parents – often by social workers who believed they were doing good – the Neubauer experiment feels like a Jewish stolen generation in miniature.

Certainly, the brothers felt they had been deprived for 19 years once they experienced the special bond of identical siblings.

In the context of the Stolen Generation, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and ongoing cases in our community, among them the Malka Leifer extradition saga, Three Identical Strangers is yet another tale of the mistreatment of children by those trusted to care for them.

But perhaps ironically, it also addresses some of the very nature-nurture questions Neubauer intended – not because the experiment had any known results but because we are able to see clearly the different outcomes for the three men involved.

The story of Three Identical Strangers is so compelling we don’t need filmmaking tricks to be utterly engaged. The film relies on the direct voices of those involved with minimal voiceover and a well calibrated mixture of historical photographs and video clips, to-camera interviews and limited dramatic recreation.

The result is captivating viewing, stranger and stronger than fiction.

Photo: Triplets Bobby, Eddy and David (Sundance Institute)

Three Identical Strangers is screening in Australian cinema nationally

Why BlacKkKlansman is required viewing for Jews (Vulture)

About the author

Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone is Editor-in-Chief of TJI. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist and editor, including as a reporter and feature writer on The Age and The Sunday Age, as Editor of the Australian Jewish News and as Editor of ArtsHub.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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