How do you tell the story of a person’s life? How do you also connect lives that are profoundly linked? And what if any given person is revealed to be far from singular, individual, or unique in the process of that telling? Replace the word ‘life’ or ‘person’ with the word ‘story’ and appreciate director Tim Wardle’s achievement, as he worked through all the stories woven together by Three Identical Strangers.
I have made a strange introduction to this painfully entertaining and incredibly successful film, since I begin by highlighting a creative tension that Tim Wardle mentioned during a preview and Q+A at The Ritzy in London (where it is currently showing); a dynamic that brings with it a certain generative fuel. Biography, as it works across the lives of three men and their knowing and unknowing involvement in the history of experimental psychology, produces forms of surplus. I want to present some stories that have been woven out, rather than into, Three Identical Strangers. Stories it could not articulate or wasn’t able to exorcise.
In 1979 two men in Dayton, Ohio, discovered they had been leading a life in parallel. The Jim Twins, as they became known, had been separated at birth. When reunited it became clear their lives shared some striking similarities. Both suffered from heart problems, were compulsive nail-biters, and struggled with insomnia. Both had married women named Linda, divorced, and then married women named Betty. One had named his son James Alan and the other James Allen. Both called their dogs Toy. Both had worked as deputy sheriffs, petrol station attendants, and at McDonalds, taken their holidays on the same Florida beach, smoked the same brand of cigarette, and drank the same brand of beer. The Jim Twins became celebrities, selling their story and other products. They also became foundational to the establishment of a far-reaching, influential and controversial research study called the Minnesota Study for Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA) – an investigation into the social and genetic determinants of life. The protagonists of Three Identical Strangers were reunited a year later in 1980. They also enrolled in MISTRA. At the beginning of the 1980s the American public was poised for the reunification of strangers. And America was rediscovering the scientific use of twins who had been reared apart.
Dorothy Tiffany was born in 1890 in New York. She inherited a share of the family jewellery business, Tiffany & Co. She married and took the name of her husband and then separated from him in 1921. A few years later she took her four children to Vienna, hoping to engage the services of the city’s most eminent authority in a new science of the mind. She began a close relationship with Anna Freud. When the Freud family moved to London in 1940 Dorothy Burlingham went with them. She lived the rest of her life with Anna at 20 Maresfield Gardens and pursued her interest in paediatric psychoanalysis, helping to start the Hampstead Clinic in the early 1950s. She had a particular passion for twins – her sisters were twins – and began one of the first clinics for twin children. In this she developed theories about the compromised twin-ego as it contrasted to the healthy development of the singleton ego. The twin children she worked with displayed problems that she identified as being connected to a twin sibling: their problems sprung from being a twin; being a twin was a problem. When her work was published it was celebrated by D.W. Winnicott who declared it ‘probably the most comprehensive work of its kind in existence.’ From a clinical psychoanalytic point of view twins – and higher order multiples such as triplets or quads – would be better going it alone.
As someone born in the 1980s along with an identical twin brother, this confettied decade now feels to me like a moment in popular culture that formed a peculiar relationship with twins. It was certainly a time when many multiples came to the multiplex, either reunited or unable to separate themselves from themselves, or from a dominant scientific future: from the sci-fi twincest of Leia and Luke in Star Wars (dir. George Lucas, 1977–83) to the horrifying forever of The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980); the Ballardian neo-classicism of A Zed & Two Noughts (dir. Peter Greenaway, 1985) and the phenomenal psychic union of Dead Ringers (dir. David Cronenberg, 1985); the eugenic comedy of Twins (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1988) and the Shakespearean revivalism of Big Business (dir. Jim Abrahams, 1988), to name the decade’s best-known Hollywood hits. Three Identical Strangers is a documentary of twins and of a period or mood in American culture. The documentary is also a document, then, located in a culture fixated by people perceived to be born multiple.
From a cinematic point of view, Three Identical Strangers is deeply touched by the reunification of twins and science in 1980s America. It is also shadowed by longer, European histories of using twins in research (which I have written about here and here) and, in particular, by the legacies of psychoanalytic theories of child development that placed twins in states of developmental delay or misidentification. This is not a film about twin and triplet research but a story about a trio caught in an unfolding history. That sense of capture makes the story resonate with stories it doesn’t or cannot tell, with the lives connected to and separated by experiments that use the lives of those born together.
The film begins with a 19-year-old man called Bobby walking into college for the first time. First-day nerves give way to confusion – he is greeted by people that seem to know him, who wrap their arms around him and ask him why he’s come back to college. Bobby is confused, amused, and tries to point out his name is Bobby and not Eddy. Before long, though, Bobby meets Eddy, the 19-year-old that everyone says he looks just like. Their physical resemblance is only matched by their shared birthdays and place of adoption. They are twins, separated soon after they were born. Like latter-day Shakespearean heroes they are celebrated by the local news media – what are the chances that this sea, as cruel as it is kind, could put these ships together, a full 19 years after they passed in the night? And then they received a call from David. He’s the third in their flotilla, their triplet brother. Local news interest turns into nationwide sensation. The three are cast into stardom and appear on major talk shows, in advertisements, and Hollywood films.
Unlike many twins or higher order multiples who have had a lifetime to get used to their siblings, the triplets of Three Identical Strangers have to reckon with each other as an eruption of being that can be retrospected as a kind of absent presence, as the brother they have and should have had. They soon wonder and worry about who their biological parents were, why they lost a childhood together, and why their adopted parents were never told they were born a trio. The adoption agency refused to give them answers. Secrecy thickens into conspiracy when they discovered that the agency placed each brother into a different family in New York State. It also enrolled them into a secret study conducted by an eminent psychologist and psychoanalyst, Peter Neubauer. ‘Lab rats!’ exclaims Bobby when this is revealed, ‘we were lab rats!’
The film makes brief mention of Peter Neubauer’s relationship with Anna Freud. He worked closely with Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham at the Hampstead Clinic and became editor of the journal The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, whose first issue presented Dorothy Burlingham’s work on twins. In my view, the experimental design of his research cannot be separated from the assumption that the single-born psychological development of a Euro-American individual should be taken as the standard and norm by which twins and triplets should be judged. With the assistance of an adoption agency Neubauer was able to conduct tests on twins and control for both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ – since genetically identical persons could be observed developing in different environments. Every part of their childhood development was observed and scrutinized, as were the longitudinal effects of their parent’s relationship to the children. In the theoretical and historical context of mid-century psychoanalysis, there was a way of negotiating the ethical responsibility of separating identical children into different homes.
Three Identical Strangers raises moral and methodological questions about informed consent in longitudinal research. It works through a series of questions with the triplets and with the limited number of researchers willing or able to talk about the study: who knew the truth and why was it concealed? Could the experiment have been justified if the results could enter the public domain? When he died in 2008 Neubauer’s papers were bequeathed to Yale University and embargoed until 2066. Bobby and David fear they will never know the truth. Eddy never will. His suicide in 1995 was, suggest his brothers, linked to his inability to cope with their past.
Multiple birth, genetics and environmental exposure, surprise and conspiracy, narrative complexity narrowed for the sake of justice, deliverance from pain, and a demand for action, reparation, and peace: Three Identical Strangers has had been my catnip since I was asked to advise Tim Wardle and his production team in 2014. Those conversations were long and infrequent but over the summer I have looked on, through Twitter and the press, as people react to this film as a real-time experiment of its own. I, like many other twins who have been saturated in the cultures of sensation and discovery, have been touched by the weird histories and legacies it puts in the open. And, since the film was released, twins who were separated and researched in Neubauer’s study have been reunited. Campaign groups and legal cases have been awakened. It seems that its story, these stories and who knows how many others, may yet unite with sibling others.
William Viney is the author of Waste: A Philosophy of Things (Bloomsbury, 2014) and director of the documentary short Twins on Twins (The Derek Jarman Lab, 2017). He completed a three-year Leverhulme project entitled The Wonder of Twins at Durham’s Institute for Medical Humanities before joining Goldsmiths College as a Research Associate on the People Like You project.