I was sure that the documentary “Three Identical Strangers” would be nominated for an Oscar, but it wasn’t. Now that Oscar week and the month of February are slipping away, here are my thoughts about the film. Warning: Spoilers Abound. This piece was originally published in NCSPP’s “Impulse.
Twin studies, particularly those of babies separated at birth, have long provided important information about genetic and environmental influences. But how is such research conducted? How do infants come to be separated in the first place? What is the long-term impact?
The riveting documentary Three Identical Strangers puts these questions front and center as it explores the accidental discovery of one another at age 19 by Bobby, Eddy, and David: three identical triplets separated at birth in 1961 and adopted into different families who had no knowledge of their new baby’s multiplicity. Or of the duplicity of the adoption agency and researchers at Yale’s Child Development Center under the direction of pscychoanalyst Peter Neubauer.
We feel the triplets’ experience: the initial joy of their reunion, the shadow of early attachment wounds, the longing for union, and the reality of difference. The film also focuses on the arrogance of powerful people and institutions who withhold vital information without regard for the impact on unwittingly conscripted research subjects.
Neubauer and the adoption agency are depicted as sinister. But are they uniquely so, or was it then typical for adoption agencies to withhold information about birth families? Were identical siblings separated for nefarious research purposes, or because it was easier to place one baby in a family? The not-quite-explicit attribution of unique villainy too easily glides over conventions of the time, including lack of human subject protocols. It also lets us off the hook from examining our own and ongoing misguidedness and unconscious bias.
After skillfully handling many complexities, the film disappointingly takes a sharp turn into more simplistic supposition.
By then we’ve gradually learned that the boys all showed early signs of separation anxiety and psychological troubles. Eddy was diagnosed as manic-depressive and took his own life in 1995. As Bobby cogently asks, “Why him and why not me?”
It’s a good question, and one that lends itself to a deeper exploration of what facilitates the expression or suppression of a genetic vulnerability, the high heritability of bipolar disorder, and the high risk of suicide such a diagnosis signifies. Instead, we’re provided a definitive answer:
“It’s all about nurture,” declares a family friend.
David’s aunt, who at least acknowledges that nature plays a role, also concludes that “nurture can overcome nearly everything.” She does so after describing Eddy’s father as a strict disciplinarian and a traditional, quiet man who didn’t discuss problems. Because Eddy never talked about their relationship, she decides that it couldn’t have been good. Maybe. It’s worth noting, however, that there’s a very large pool of fathers and sons, especially from back then, who could be described this way.
We would be as foolish to dismiss the impact of parenting as that of biology. Still, it’s jarring when a film whose strength is complexity overlooks its own evidence about biology’s role to conclude with parent-blaming.
I began my training as a therapist at a time when “refrigerator mothers” and schizophrenogenic mothers–blamed for their offsprings’ autism or schizophrenia–were still very much in the literature. Thankfully, those views were challenged, and we have developed greater respect for the intertwining influences of nature AND nurture. Yet the residue persists. We must remain vigilant about examining our own unconscious inheritances and assumptions.