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The Truth About "Three Identical Strangers"

Does every good story need a villain?

By Lois Oppenheim

A successful documentary needs a compelling story and Three Identical Strangers tells an emotionally wrenching, “stranger than fiction” tale: identical triplets separated at birth through adoption. They find each other and discover that they look exactly alike and have so much in common! Then the story takes a dark turn. Enter the so-called “villain,” Peter Neubauer. But this story is, in fact, more fiction than truth. The film ignores critical contextual information and omits evidence.

Peter Neubauer: The Supposed “Villain”

The film claims that Dr. Peter Neubauer separated identical triplets who had been given up for adoption in order to enable him to conduct a study of their development apart. Additional villainy attributed to him is that he did not tell the adoptive parents that the babies were triplets.

Here are some facts: Dr. Viola Bernard was the chief psychiatric consultant to the Louise Wise Adoption Services. In the late 1950s and before Peter Neubauer was involved, Dr. Bernard created a policy to separate identical twins for adoption. Dr. Bernard’s intent with the separations was benign. In a recently uncovered memo, she expressed her hope that “early mothering would be less burdened and divided and the child’s developing individuality would be facilitated.” Other agencies also practiced separation.

In the more than half-century since the triplets’ placements, professional opinion has evolved. Generally speaking, it is no longer believed that separation benefits mothers or children. Yet the film leaves viewers believing that it was Neubauer who separated the twins and that he did so for the purposes of secret research despite the fact that they had already been placed with families by the agency before his study began.

Post-premiere publicity describes Neubauer as participating in a “Nazi-like” experiment. A Jewish refugee from Austria, Neubauer fled to the United States in 1941. He soon played a crucial role in the new field of child psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Until his death in 2008, as a professor at both New York University and Columbia, he spoke out against television violence and wrote about the difficulties of single-parent families and children reared in collectives. For over 60 years, in both public service and private practice, he devoted himself as a member of his profession to the field of child development.

Research on human subjects, then and now

Adoptions at the time were closed adoptions. The research team had an obligation to preserve confidentiality about the biological history of the children. As Dr. Lawrence Perlman, a clinical psychologist and researcher in the twin study has written, the “adoptive parents, entering into a contract with the Louise Wise Services, were guaranteed that they would not know anything about the family background of their infants, including the possible existence of biological siblings.”

The open adoption movement was many years away. The filmmakers omit the information that the study began long before the rules of informed consent were codified by the National Research Act of 1974. Several researchers were involved in the study over approximately 15 years and it is important also to note that it had funding by the National Institute of Mental Health after review.

The film leaves the impression that the researchers acted with a disregard for the impact of their work on the lives of the children they were studying. There is also the implication that the triplet who took his life did so as a result of the separation. There is no evidence for either claim. The researchers were known to be clinicians, deeply devoted to the therapeutic treatment of children. And Bernard herself, as Dr. Perlman has further reported, “volunteered her time to provide treatment” to any adoptee who needed it.

Were the results kept secret?

Neubauer published a book called Nature’s Thumbprint: The New Genetics of Personality (1990) in which case studies of identical twins reared apart were reported. Neubauer also co-wrote a paper on developmental organizations in identical twins raised in separate families and yet another paper, published by a colleague in 1986, even more explicitly deals with the study. None of these publications, which significantly helped broaden our understanding of the interaction between nature and nurture, is mentioned in the film.

The basic premise of the film, that the triplets' separation was a heartless scheme undertaken at the expense of the children’s well-being to enable a scientific study, is fiction. The filmmakers could have created a documentary about the complexities of the twin study, its origins and context, and the changing standards of ethical norms and lessons learned. This might have been less dramatic, but it would have made an important contribution to our understanding of gene research and parenting.

About the Author: Dr. Lois Oppenheim is University Distinguished Scholar, Professor of French, and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Montclair State University. She is Scholar Associate Member of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and Honorary Member of the William Alanson White Society.