August 8, 2018

Shocking Story About Adoption Is Focus of Screening and Talk

SEPARATED AT BIRTH: These triplets found each other by accident when they were 19. Their story, at first joyful and ultimately sad and disturbing, is the topic of “Three Identical Strangers,” a film currently showing at the Princeton Garden Theatre, the Montgomery Cinemas, and the Hopewell Theater. A special discussion led by Hopewell psychotherapist Joni Mantell will follow a screening at the Hopewell venue on Sunday, August 12.

By Anne Levin

Through a series of coincidences 28 years ago, two 19-year-old boys discovered that they were identical twins. Incredibly, a third 19-year-old who saw a story about the twins in the New York Post realized immediately that he was their third brother — they were triplets.

Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman knew they had been adopted. But none were aware, nor were their adoptive parents, that they were triplets. Their story is the subject of Three Identical Strangers, a film that chronicles their initial joy upon discovering each other, and eventual tragedy when Galland, a manic depressive, commits suicide.

The three teens were thrilled to find each other. They discovered many things they had in common, from wrestling to the brand of cigarettes they smoked. They made the talk show circuit, partied at New York’s Studio 54, moved into an apartment together, and opened a restaurant together in Soho.

But after a journalist from The New Yorker contacted them about a study he had found by eminent psychiatrist Peter Neubauer on identical twins separated at birth, the mood changed. It turned out that the boys had been separated not because no one wanted triplets, but because they were being used, like lab rats, for an experiment.

“The study was created at the Louise Wise adoption agency in New York, to consider nature vs. nurture,” said Joni Mantell, the director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center in Pennington and New York City. Mantell will lead a discussion following a screening at the Hopewell Theater on Sunday, August 12 at 4:45 p.m.

“They picked a blue collar family, a middle class family, and an upper class family to adopt them,” she said. “They sent in a psychologist to observe and film their development over the years, and there was never any mention to anyone that they were triplets. The kids and the parents just thought it was part of a study of adoption. No one said it was a study of nature vs. nurture.”

Each of the boys had suffered from emotional issues growing up. The brothers spent a lot of time working through anger they had about the deception surrounding their origins. Galland took his own life in 1995, after being hospitalized for depression.

Weighing the role of heredity vs. environment is a fundamental question. “I think one of the things that interests me about this film is that the research reflects a fascination with nature vs. nurture,” said Mantell, who counsels families about adoption. “It is particularly interesting to people in the adoption field, because you do scramble the deck. Adoptive parents are always anxious about this. The study that was done on these boys is radical in terms of the secrecy. But the history of adoption includes a lot of secrecy, especially with adoptive parents from that era.”

Adoption records used to be closed, but today the law allows those who were adopted to examine those records. “The pendulum has swung the other way, based on what we’ve learned from their suffering,” said Mantell. “It’s important to be able to have a medical history. Psychologically, too.In the past, kids would be shell-shocked to find out they were adopted but they had no language to discuss it. Now, parents are educated to tell their children from the day they were born, so there is never a moment of shock. As they grow, they begin to ask questions and parents are advised to share the truth in bits and pieces.”

Many families have semi-open adoptions today, in which birth parents and adoptive parents stay in touch, allowing the children to ask questions of both. “Some have open adoptions where the birth parents are able to visit maybe once a year,” Mantell said. “It tends to go very well. Kids are thrilled to know that their birth parents didn’t just give them away because they didn’t want them.”

The story of the triplets is extreme, but it also illustrates some of the issues common to adoptees who discover their birth families. “As you can see with them in the film, it starts out on a high. They’re really excited. It’s magical to see someone who has the same smile and some of the same characteristics,” said Mantell. “But as it continues, there’s an awkwardness. How do we manage this? I think we’re now seeing a generation of adoptees who want to meet their birth families. But navigating those relationships is really tough. Because they missed out on all of those things that make a family.”