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July 31, 2018 4:55 pm

Documentary on Jewish Brothers Separated at Birth Is Stranger Than Fiction

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

A photo from “Three Identical Strangers.” Photo: Sundance Film Festival.

It starts out like a scene from “The Twilight Zone.” But even Rod Serling would have thought it too unbelievable to write the fascinating and troubling documentary “Three Identical Strangers.”

It starts when Robert Shafran, beginning his collegiate career at Sullivan County Community College, sees people pat him on the back and smile at him as if they know him. People call him Eddy. Clueless as to what’s happening, the 19-year-old learns that he looks exactly like someone who went to the school the previous semester. He’s given a phone number, makes a call at a phone booth (this was 1980), and hears a voice that sounds exactly like his answer him back.

We learn that Shafran and Eddy Galland had been separated at birth; and, incredibly, when the story hits the news, a third brother — David Kellman — comes into the picture.

Soon, the triplets are a media sensation — going on the Phil Donahue show, appearing in a Madonna video, and eventually opening up their own restaurant.

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It would be a feel-good story of reunification, except that the dark truth is soon uncovered. Director Tim Wardle properly paces the film and drops the secrets in such a way that you can’t prevent yourself from gasping at what you’re seeing.

In an effort to do a study on the “nature vs. nurture” argument on child breeding, Louise Wise Services — a Jewish adoption agency — separated the brothers at birth. They never told the families that there were two other brothers.

This “experiment” was part of a study done by Dr. Peter Neubauer, which included more than 10 other children. His workers would videotape the children at different stages of life, and data would be recorded and shown to the psychoanalyst. The children were all placed in households of a different socioeconomic status.

In a Q&A after a recent screening, this reporter asked Shafran and Kellman if what was done to them was a crime.

“It was a crime against humanity,” Shafran said, adding that he could not say for sure if what was done was against the law, but it should have been.

Tensions soon grew among the brothers, as indicated in the movie. We also learn that in 1996, Eddy Galland killed himself. In one of the most painful moments of the film, his father laments that maybe there was something he didn’t teach him that contributed to the suicide.

An audience member asked the brothers if they attributed their brother’s suicide to being separated at birth or fighting among each other. Shafran responded that suicide is not rational, and that there was no way for them to know exactly what he was thinking.

Another audience member implied that since all three had good parents who tried their best, maybe the experiment wasn’t so bad after all.

“No,” Kellman said, adding that what happened was wrong.

Much of the truth was uncovered by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright. In the film, only one person involved admits that what was done was wrong.

It is haunting that a Jewish psychoanalyst from Austria would play God with triplets in a manner that brings to mind Nazi experiments — though the boys were never physically harmed. Rather than solve any nature vs. nurture question about raising children, the real question is why those who set up this study felt they could get away with it and how they did. It also makes one wonder if similar studies have been done, and exactly how many people might be living their lives unaware that they have siblings.

I would have liked to see a little more time devoted to the boys’ reaction upon meeting their birth mother, but other than that, this film is a flawless and harrowing tale.

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