How Identical Triplets Were Separated at Birth by a Twisted Adoption Experiment

The new doc, Three Identical Strangers, tells how triplets who were separated at birth found each other and learned the chilling truth about their lives

Editor’s Note: If you’re planning to see Three Identical Strangers, you might want to wait until afterward to read this story, which contains spoilers.

The chilling new documentary Three Identical Strangers takes moviegoers on one wild ride.

What starts out as the heartwarming tale of three fun-loving, 19-year-old New Yorkers who learn they’re identical triplets separated at birth takes several crazy turns.

The film veers into disturbing territory when the brothers and their adoptive families learn that the triplets – and other multiples – were split up as part of a secret social experiment.

“This was a really bad thing,” says Bobby Shafran, 56, one of the triplets featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.

Released by CNN Films and I, Tonya distributor NEON, the documentary (which won the award for best story telling at Sundance Film Festival in January) details the tragedy the brothers suffered before learning about a sinister psychological experiment that purposefully separated them at 6 months old so doctors and researchers could study the effects of nature vs. nurture – how much of a person’s personality is shaped by heredity or environment.

“I think it’s impossible to overstate the impact that it had on them,” says director Tim Wardle.

Born to a teenage mother in 1961 at a Long Island hospital, the babies (they were born rare identical quadruplets but one baby died in childbirth) were placed in three different homes with parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds by the now-defunct Louise Wise Services in Manhattan.

The triplets – and a still unknown number of identical siblings – were split apart by design after the late Dr. Viola Bernard, a psychiatrist and consultant to the adoption agency, said she believed it was in the children’s best interest to live in different homes so they wouldn’t have to compete for their adoptive parents’ attention.

Based on Bernard’s advice, the late renowned psychiatrist Dr. Peter Neubauer of the Manhattan Child Development Center (which has since merged with the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services) and his team of researchers set out to study the children, visiting each of them, taking copious notes, giving them psychological tests and even filming them doing everything from riding bikes to jumping on their pogo sticks.

Studying the children was “an opportunity,” Natasha Josefowitz, Neubauer’s research assistant, says in the film, who adds that in the late 1950s “this was not something that seemed to be bad.”

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In a statement to PEOPLE, the board says, “We do not endorse the Neubauer study, and we deeply regret that it took place. We recognize the great courage of the individuals who participated in the film, and we are appreciative that this film has created an opportunity for a public discourse about the study.”

What the brothers and their adoptive parents didn’t know is that the researchers watched their identical siblings do the very same things — and that some of the biological parents in the study had suffered from mental illness.

While David Kellman says he believes his mother “may have had minor issues,” he and his biological brothers all suffered from some kind of emotional distress growing up.

“We were all under psychiatric care as teenagers,” says Shafran.

three identical strangerseddy, David, bobby

They believe that’s because of the trauma from being split apart at such a young age.

What Wardle and the brothers learned from a small, heavily redacted portion of the study that was released to them (it is under seal until 2066) underscored their belief.

“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,’” says Wardle. “The obvious answer is that you’ve ripped them apart from their siblings.”

Having grown up in loving adoptive homes, Kellman and Shafran say they don’t need a study to know that while genetics plays a big role in shaping personality, so does being a loving parent or guardian. “Caring makes all the difference,” says Kellman.

Wardle hopes the film leaves viewers “thinking about the importance of family,” says Wardle. “Is family about being biologically related to someone, or is it about love?” he says. “Are we products of our genes? Do we have free will? What about the ethics of scientific experimentation?”

Adds Kellman: “This story needed to be told.”

Three Identical Strangers is playing in New York and Los Angles before opening wider on July 6.

For more on the triplets and the psychological experiment that changed their lives, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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