Reel Talk

Three Identical Strangers and Ethics

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It surprisingly doesn’t come up a whole lot on this site, but I studied psychology in college. I didn’t go on to use it, and only completed an undergrad degree, but it was still a large part of my life. And it’s fascinating. The way the human mind works has always been something I’ve been interested in, and it’s the primary reason that I was drawn into the program at all. Unfortunately, I quickly found myself put in a position where I realized that while I found psychology fascinating, there wasn’t really anything I could do with it. I never intended to be a therapist, primarily because I never really thought of myself as someone who was capable of helping people in that way. I also found out that a majority of the work and research being done in the field primarily revolved around brain chemistry, resulting in  a bigger and bigger focus being put on the idea that mental wellness was just an equation to solve, putting more chemicals into a person’s body to balance out neurotransmitters. And that was completely uninteresting to me. Really, the main things that fascinated me about psychology were the older experiments. The tests that were designed to find out how the human mind really worked. But, it becomes apparent while learning about the history of psychology that these test seemed to only happen in the fifties and sixties. There were exceptions, but for the most part those decades were the primary sources of these experiments. And, you eventually realize that the reason for this is that people started to recognize the ethical dilemmas that these sorts of experiments caused.

Which brings us to the film I’d like to talk about today. It’s called Three Identical Strangers, and as soon as I heard about it I knew that it was incredibly up my alley. The basic log-line, triplets who were separated at birth accidentally find each other and learn that their adoptions were actually part of an experiment, was immediately fascinating to me, and I knew that I’d have to go check it out. The documentary examines the lives of three men, David Kellman, Bobby Shafran, and Eddy Galland who were living their lives completely apart until 1980 when they found out that they were triplets. They had all come from the same adoption agency, and had been raised in very different households. They found each other, completely by accident, when they were 19, and their story became a tabloid sensation. People were fascinated by these long-lost brothers who still acted remarkably similar, and who ate up the attention. No one in their families knew the truth, that they had identical brothers out in the world, and the adoption agencies promised that there was nothing suspect about how things had been handled. The brothers were thrilled to have reunited, and quickly began creating a life together, making up for their lost time.

Unfortunately, their story eventually becomes much darker. Because it turns out that this was no accident. They hadn’t been split up and given to three different types of families just thanks to the luck of the draw, it was by design. A famed psychologist named Peter Neubauer devised the adoptions, all part of an ongoing research project into twins and triplets. Not much is known about the true motives of the project, and the findings were never actually published, but it’s apparent that they had split these three brothers up and put them into three families that were best examine the debate of nature versus nurture. They were genetically identical, but they were given to a lower-class family, a middle-class family, and an upper-class family, all with older sisters that were the same age. It was a very well-designed experiment, but one that required them to pull apart these three brothers, at an age where they never knew the truth. Despite being raised in different families, the brothers ended up in very similar places, but there were still some major differences that hint at darker purposes for the experiment. Because we also find out that the boys’ birth-mother had suffered from a variety of mental illness, and while the exact purpose of the experiment is never explained, there’s a chance that the whole thing was designed to find if mental illness is heritable or a learned behavior. And, unfortunately, one of the brothers did succumb to mental illness, and took his own life. All three have had serious psychological ramifications from this experiment, and it cost Eddy Galland his life. But it was all done in the name of science. No on was punished, and the findings were even used to help others. All we know about is the devastation that it wrought on these people, and the knowledge that there might be other people out in the world, completely unaware of their true heritage.

 

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From a simple, film-making perspective, I think that this was a very well-made documentary. It was full of some great interviews, a lot of wonderful archival footage and photographs, the customary cheesy reenactments, and succeeded in bringing a larger than life story to the big screen. At times it felt like it was wallowing too much in the tabloid sensationalism of the story, and didn’t really have any attempts at formulating opinions or answers, but it was still a thought-provoking and engaging bit of documentary film-making, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

But, it also really made me sit back and ponder the world of psychology. You spend so much of your time studying the classic experiments of the past learning about what they tell us about human nature. And yet, we almost never think about the lives of the people who were experimented upon. A driving force of psychological research is that the people being experimented upon can’t learn the truth about what’s happening, otherwise they might ruin the results. So, while it’s nice to learn from the Milgram experiment that people are willing to harm others if people of authority tell them it’s okay, it’s monstrous to know that there are people who had no idea what they were signing up for learning that they can be manipulated like that. We learn the names of these psychologists who extrapolated new aspects of the human mind from their experiments, but we forget the people who had their world-views completely changed in the name for science. These triplets didn’t ask to be put in an experiment. They were separated from each other and examined like lab rats, hoping the their lives would be of interest to others, with no real empathy given to them. It’s unclear if the actual goal of the experiment was to have one of them succumb to mental illness, but it’s hard to argue that that wasn’t at least a hope of the experimenters. If things had gone the way they’d wanted, if these brothers had never found each other and the experiment had gone on as it was intended, there’s a chance that I would have learned about the suicide of Eddy Galland in college, not as tragic story of a person who was experimented upon, but as an anecdote about the heritable nature of mental illness. I do believe that there’s good to come from psychology, and the practice of addressing mental illness, but it’s stories like this that remind me what a massive role that ethics should play in these sorts of experiments, and the idea that destroying a persons life isn’t worth the information we can gain from it.

 

 

Three Identical Strangers was directed by Tim Wardle and released by Neon, 2018.

 

 

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