When 19-year-old Bobby Shafran arrived at Sullivan Community College in New York State for his first day, he was shocked to find other students greeting him like he was an old friend. Guys slapped him on the back, girls hugged and kissed him – but oddly, they insisted on calling him Eddy. Eventually, someone ventured an explanation. “Are you adopted?” asked fellow student Michael Domnitz. When Bobby confirmed that he was, Michael revealed the exciting news: “You have a twin brother!”
Michael was a friend of Bobby’s ‘twin’, Edward Galland, who had dropped out of the same college the previous year, and knew Eddy was also adopted. Michael called him immediately, and Eddy was stunned to hear a voice identical to his on the end of the line – and discover that he had a long-lost brother.
Later that day in 1980, Bobby and Michael drove to Eddy’s adoptive parents’ house in Long Island, where the two 19-year-olds found themselves staring at a man with DNA identical to their own.
“It was like the world faded away, and it was just me and Eddy,” Bobby said years later.
Despite spending their entire lives apart, the brothers had some very odd things in common. They talked and laughed the same, had identical birthmarks, IQ scores of 148, were both college wrestlers with the same fighting techniques, and even lost their virginity at the same time.
But there was still more to the story – the two brothers had a third sibling, David.
Many of us have fantasized over having a doppelganger – a twin from whom they have been separated at birth. But triplets? That’s too far-fetched, surely. Except, in this case, it wasn’t.
A few months later, David Kellman, a student at Queens College in New York City, saw two faces identical to his in a newspaper article about Bobby and Eddy. He phoned Eddy’s adoptive mother: “I think I’m the third”, he said.
According to David’s aunt, Hedy Page, the three grown men were “rolling on the floor like puppies”, grasping at the childhood they’d missed out on together.
The heartwarming story of three brothers being reunited quickly became a sinister tale when the boys’ adoptive parents began questioning why they had been separated from each other at birth.
On a quest to find out why they had never been told that the babies had identical siblings, their parents discovered that the triplets were part of a rogue, top-secret psychological experiment to study the effects of nature versus nurture.
A team of researchers led by the US psychologist Peter Neubauer had worked with an adoption agency to split up the triplets – born to a teenage girl on July 12, 1961 – and place them with families from different socio-economic backgrounds. David had gone to a working-class family, Eddy to a middle-class family and Bobby to an upper-middle-class family. Each of their fathers also had a completely different approach to parenting. David’s dad owned a grocery store and was described as ‘warm and loving’, Bobby’s father was a doctor and was often away, while Eddy was said to have constantly clashed with his parents. The boys were all raised within just 100 miles of each other, without knowing that their brothers existed.
Before the baby boys were placed in their adoptive homes, the agency had informed the prospective parents that the children were part of a “routine childhood-development study” and would be visited by researchers at regular intervals as they were growing up. The parents said it was strongly implied that participation in the study would increase their chances of being accepted as adoptive parents.
Prominent child psychologist, Dr Peter Neubauer, and his team visited each of the boys separately for the first 10 years of their lives. Until the boys were two, they visited the boys at home four times a year. There was at least one visit a year after that. They filmed the boys taking part in cognitive tests, drawings and puzzles. Neubauer wanted to establish how the development of three boys with identical DNA would be affected if they were brought up in completely different environments. Despite visiting all three brothers, often within hours of each other, he never even hinted to them that they might have a sibling. It is clear that Neubauer and his team lost sign of the human impact of what they were doing.
It seemed to have a devastating impact as all three have battled serious mental health issues. Before they went to college both Eddy and David had spent time in mental health hospitals while Robert was on probation after having pleaded guilty to charges connected to the murder of a woman in a 1978 robbery.
David later told the New York Post: “It was absolutely separation anxiety. Those who were studying us saw there was a problem happening.
“And they could have helped. That’s the thing we’re most angry about. They could have helped . . . and didn’t.”
Bobby still believes they were treated incredibly cruelly, all in the name of science.
He added: “I can’t think of anybody else in modern times that has done anything like this. The other comparisons I can think of would be the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where they let them all get syphilis and let it go untreated, and they died horrible deaths.”
In 1980, the boys’ reunion made headlines and the triplets were regulars on chat shows. They proved such popular guests that stadium-sized studios were booked out for them. They would often appear wearing identical clothes and answer questions in unison. David’s adoptive mother Claire told The New York Times: “They talk the same, they laugh the same, they hold their cigarettes the same – it’s uncanny.” Not yet 20, they partied in Studio 54 and made a cameo in Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan. They moved in together in New York and opened a Manhattan restaurant called Triplets, and made a million in their first year of knowing each other.
David later explained: “We were sort of falling in love. It was, ‘You like this thing? I love that!’ There was definitely a desire to like the same things and to be the same.”
Bobby said: “All we wanted to do was be joyful and play and catch up.”
“But a lot can happen in 37 years”, adds David.
The cracks in their relationship appeared early. Each brother would feel he was being excluded by the other two. And it gradually became clear that Eddy, who had a strained relationship with his adoptive father, was still suffering from severe mental-health problems. In 1995, he committed suicide, a few weeks after receiving in-patient treatment for manic depression, leaving behind a wife and daughter.
The suicide had a devastating effect on Bobby and David. In fact, they were no longer speaking to each other and had retreated from the spotlight in 2010.
Bobby said: “Neither David nor I had any interest in any kind of interview after Eddy died. Things were a mess. Our lives were in such disarray.”
While the psychologist responsible for their pain, Peter Neubauer, never talked about the study before he died, he was confronted about the experiment in the mid-90s by journalist Lawrence Wright. In the interview, he admits Bobby, Eddy and David were not the only siblings he separated but didn’t show any remorse for his actions.
The remaining brothers, who continue to live in obscurity with their own families, were eventually able to read a small portion of the study that was released to them. Even that showed their increasing emotional and behavioural struggles were carefully documented.
Filmmaker Tim Wardle, who was with the siblings at the time the documents were released, said anyone would know what would happen if you separated triplets, without the need for scientists to play God with innocent children’s lives.
He added: “One of the most shocking things was that these psychiatrists are sitting around saying, ‘Oh, it’s really strange, the children all seem to have these problems.
“The answer is obvious – you’ve ripped them apart from their siblings.”
Three Identical Strangers, Tim Wardle’s 2018 documentary about the triplets, is now available to watch on Netflix.
WATCH: Megyn Kelly sits down with Bobby and David on TODAY to discuss their story and their new documentary ‘Three Identical Strangers’.