Robert Shafran had no trouble making friends on his first day at college in 1980. Fellow students were falling over themselves to be friendly to the 19-year-old.
‘Guys were slapping me on the back, and girls were hugging and kissing me,’ he recalled. It was all very welcoming — except for the fact they insisted on calling him, Eddy.
His new room-mate, Michael Domitz, was able to enlighten him.
The previous year, Domitz had shared a room at Sullivan County Community College in upstate New York with a student named Eddy Galland, who had subsequently transferred to another college.
Eddy and Robert looked uncannily similar — not just the same face and build but the same hair, and even the same expressions, Domitz told Robert.
Everyone had noticed — and assumed that Eddy was back at Sullivan County.
When Domitz discovered that the young men had been born on the same day — July 12, 1961 — and were both adopted, he lost no time in getting them together.
Eddy and Robert found they talked and laughed the same way, had identical birthmarks and IQ scores of 148 (over 140 is categorized as genius). They were both college wrestlers and had the same fighting techniques. They liked the same films and could quote the same lines from them.
The pair had even lost their virginity at the same time.
‘It was just wild, surreal,’ says Robert today.
Hospital records duly confirmed what everyone could see. The teenagers were identical twins. Newspapers and TV shows were fascinated by their extraordinary chance reunion. But then the story became even more extraordinary.
David Kellman, a student at a different New York college, saw the pictures of Robert and Eddy in the newspapers and tracked down the Galland family and phoned them. ‘You’re not going to believe this… .’ he began. He explained that he looked exactly like the ‘twins’ — 5ft 9in, with a dark complexion and curly brown hair.
It soon emerged that the teenagers were, in fact, three surviving brothers of a rare set of identical quadruplets — the fourth baby had died at birth — according to the Louise Wise adoption agency in Manhattan.
The agency revealed that Robert, David, and Eddy — born in that order within 27 minutes of each other — had been separated soon after their birth on New York’s Long Island.
Their remarkable story is the subject of a fascinating new documentary, Three Identical Strangers, which details how the initial joyful reunion took a distinctly darker turn as the brothers discovered that they had been unknowing participants in a cynical sociological experiment.
At first, the triplets were utterly delighted to have discovered each other, and absorbed by their similarities. They all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, loved Italian food and preferred older women.
And they reveled in their fame — appearing on TV, answering questions in unison and finishing each other’s sentences.
‘Once we got together, there was a joy that I had never experienced in my life and it lasted a really long time,’ Robert says.
The handsome, grinning hunks became celebrities on the New York club scene and caught the eye of Madonna, who got them a cameo role in her 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan.
They took acting lessons and appeared in the hit TV comedy series Cheers, although Hollywood never quite beckoned.
They transferred to the same college where they studied international marketing and shared a New York apartment. After working as waiters in a restaurant, they started their own restaurant in the city — inevitably called Triplets — with help from David’s adoptive family.
Their wholesome image was, admittedly, dented by the revelation that Robert had been convicted of manslaughter just months earlier for his part in a robbery in which an 83-year-old woman was beaten to death with a crowbar.
However, a judge had found his role ‘minimal’ and he was sentenced to work weekends at a disabled children’s home for five years. Robert said he had enrolled at college to turn over a new leaf.
Although the triplets set out to milk their celebrity for all its worth, they insisted their devotion wasn’t a commercial decision. They’d had an instant connection, they said.
Others found the case raised troubling questions, not least the boys’ adoptive parents. They professed themselves thrilled that the siblings had found each other, but were angry they had not been told the boys were triplets.
The adoption agency refused to explain why the babies had been separated or why the adoptive parents had been kept in the dark.
But researchers investigating the triplets’ background discovered the adoption agency — which specialised in finding homes for the babies of mostly single Jewish women — had, after taking advice from a psychiatrist, introduced a policy of separating twins and triplets on the grounds that the children wouldn’t have to compete for their adoptive parents’ attention.
What the adoptive parents of Robert, David, and Eddy were told was that the boys were part of an intensive child development study which had to continue as a condition of the adoption. Aware of the difficulty of finding Jewish babies to adopt, the parents all agreed.
The agency initially said the parents had been chosen at random, but when it emerged that each family had an adopted daughter aged around two at the time of the triplets’ adoptions, provided by the same agency, it prompted even more questions.
The agency insisted there had been no plan to target the families, but in the early Eighties, after the triplets’ story emerged, suspicions hardened. Returning for a forgotten umbrella after a meeting with senior agency staff to discuss the discovery, Robert’s father found they’d cracked open a celebratory bottle of scotch ‘as if they had managed to defuse the situation’.
It transpired that the triplets were the focus of a secret, but legal, study directed by Dr. Peter Neubauer, a psychoanalyst who ran Manhattan’s Child Development Centre.
He wanted to explore the long-running Nature vs Nurture debate — to what extent we are shaped by our genes, and to what extent our environment. Identical siblings separated at birth provided him with a stunning opportunity. His study, funded by America’s National Institutes of Health, had the full co-operation of the adoption agency,
Nearly every month for 12 years, unbeknown to each other, the families visited Manhattan for each boy to undergo intelligence, behavior and personality tests.
Every stage in their life, even the moment they first learned to ride a bike, was filmed and logged. Psychologists would spend hours watching them playing with toys and talking to them, quizzing their sisters and parents.
Sometimes the researchers would visit the boys at home. But never once did they mention there were two other identical boys living within 100 miles of each other.
Curiously, at least one of the triplets appeared to sense it.
‘David began talking very early,’ said his adoptive mother, Claire Kellman. ‘I remember him waking up and saying: “I have a brother.” We would all talk about his “imaginary brother”. It later emerged all the boys exhibited symptoms of separation anxiety during infancy, but that only made sense in hindsight.’
In order to assess the effects of the socio-economic environment on the boys’ development, Dr. Neubauer had placed each boy in Jewish homes of widely differing social classes.
Robert Shafran’s father was a doctor and his mother a lawyer, and they lived in affluent Scarsdale, in Westchester County.
Eddy Galland’s family lived in a middle-class suburb in Long Island, where his father was a teacher. David Kellman’s parents lived in working-class Queens.
By today’s standards, the researchers’ behavior seems chillingly callous, not to say unethical, but New York state only started recommending that adoption agencies try to keep siblings together in 1981. Even then, this was guidance, not mandatory. As Dr. Neubauer would later point out to critics, the adoption agency already had a rule of splitting up identical twins — arguing that it would enable them to develop more of a separate identity rather than a shared one. He merely made use of that policy for research purposes, he said.
Years later, Viola Bernard, the adoption agency’s chief psychiatric consultant, agreed that she advised birth mothers not to place twins or triplets together.
She admitted: ‘In those days we were playing God, but we had to do the best we could.’
It has since been revealed that four sets of twins were also included in the same study, but to date, they have never been identified. It appears that only one set has ever discovered the existence of their sibling. The rest may still have no idea they have a twin.
Even those who condemned the study have conceded that it might have been the most effective of its kind ever conducted, but the results were never published because of the criticism triggered after it came to light. Previous twin studies have shown inherited traits (ie Nature) can profoundly influence a person’s character.
However, how those traits are expressed may be significantly affected by their environment (how and where they were brought up) — particularly IQ.
For example, IQ differences between identical twins raised separately but in relatively wealthy families tend to be genetic in origin — one child may simply have been born cleverer than his or her identical sibling.
In contrast, IQ differences between identical twins raised separately in poorer families can, according to psychologists who have studied them, be attributed to environmental effects — opportunities for learning at home, quality of schooling or access to books, etc — rather than genes.
The debate continues to rage, but what we can say is that both Nature and Nurture have a huge impact on human development, and there are those who fear that experiments such as those conducted by Dr. Neubauer can have a devastating emotional impact on participants. They argue that the triplets should never have been separated.
And indeed what happened to Robert, David and Eddy perhaps serve as an ultimate warning. Their restaurant enjoyed a hugely successful first year and the triplets’ boisterous personalities were perfectly suited to its theme, which involved drawing diners into songs and entertainment.
However, the brothers soon discovered they weren’t entirely alike. David, for instance, was the most level-headed while Eddy could be somewhat volatile.
Tempers soon frayed as the brothers argued over their work responsibilities.
Disillusioned, Robert quit training as a lawyer. Then, Eddy — who had been exhibiting signs of depression and unstable behavior — committed suicide aged 33, leaving behind a wife and young daughter. David later closed the restaurant and became an insurance consultant.
Whether Eddy’s tragic end had anything to do with the emotional fall-out from his separation from his siblings remains a mystery, although it has emerged that all three boys had a history of behavioral problems that began with banging their heads on their cots, which can be a symptom of developmental problems.
The brothers say a family history of mental illness was withheld from their adoptive parents.
Until his death in 2008, Dr. Neubauer insisted he had done the right thing, but today the two surviving brothers take little comfort from being used as his pawns in Nature vs Nurture debate.
They harbor bitterness towards the agency and the scientists who, they say, deprived them of 20 years of growing up together.
Robert has called what they did ‘nightmarish, Nazi s***’, a probable reference to the horrific experiments that Nazi doctor Josef Mengele carried out in Auschwitz, where he experimented on, tortured and killed twins. It’s a particularly ironic comparison given that Dr. Neubauer was a Holocaust refugee from Austria.
No one has ever apologized to the brothers, who are now 56.
‘They refer to us as participants,’ David Kellman said last week of the organizations who sanctioned the study that tore him and his brothers apart. ‘We weren’t participants. We were victims.’
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