Lawrence Perlman, PhD
Ann Arbor, MI
Fifty years ago, I worked on a research study of identical twins who had been separated at birth and adopted without the adoptive parents’ knowledge that they were twins. The study was the brainchild of a child psychiatrist named Peter Neubauer who directed the Child Development Center (CDC) of the Jewish Board of Guardians in Manhattan. His friend and colleague, Viola Bernard, strongly believed that twins should be raised in different families so they could develop independent identities. She hated the way parents dressed twins alike and treated them as one person. Bernard was the psychiatric consultant at Louise Wise Services (LWS), a Jewish adoption agency. She used her influence there to overcome the objections of staff to the separation of the twins. Neubauer saw this as an ideal opportunity to study the relative influences of heredity and environment.
The twins were placed with middle class families of similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds in the New York metropolitan area. All had previously adopted a child from LWS. The parents were told that the infant was being followed as part of a child development study which required periodic home visits and psychological testing. They were not informed of the twinship. Efforts were made to find comparable families in order to eliminate gross differences that might skew the results. Twins who exhibited developmental abnormalities were eliminated from the study, though the parents were still not informed that a twin existed.
I joined the study as a half-time 24-year-old research assistant. I had hoped to find a dissertation topic in the data. It soon became apparent that, in spite of having accumulated a wealth of observational material, the researchers had no idea how to organize and interpret it. After a few months of trying to analyze the IQ test results, I realized that the endeavor was hopeless. I departed after 10 months for a fulltime clinical position.
Over the years, I wondered what had happened to the study. I had never heard of any reports. Surely such a unique prospective study of nature-nurture should have been publicized in psychological literature. It was not until 2001 that I met Tom Bouchard of the Minnesota Center for Twin and Adoption Research, who informed me that the triplets had been reunited by chance in 1980, leading to a media blitz and threat of law suits. Neubauer had gone into a defensive posture and failed to publish more than a few snippets about the subjects.
Soon after, I contacted Bouchard’s former assistant Nancy Segal, a prominent twin researcher in her own right. Together we investigated the fate of the study material. We met with Neubauer who was gracious but unwilling to acknowledge any ethical failures. We later interviewed the first psychologist on the study, Dorothy Krugman, who confirmed my impression of its chaotic nature and improvised budget. Our sleuthing led to two articles in Twin Research and Human Genetics in 2005 and 2006.
I had hoped to get other members of the CDC study staff or the LWS social workers to come forward. However, none did. A friend of Krugman at the adoption agency refused to be interviewed. However, Nancy had previously made contact with some of the subjects who had been reunited. By chance, I had kept rough drafts of the psychological evaluations on two sets including two of the triplets.
Little did I suspect that the story would become a media sensation. Female twins who had been separated but never studied, due to a several month delay in one being adopted, wrote a book called Identical Strangers. As it happened, I had observed them in their foster mother’s home at 28 days of age. We met in 2007 for a filming by CBS Sunday Morning and I was also interviewed on NPR. I declined to participate in their subsequent book tour and appearances on multiple talk shows.
Iain Dodgeon, a filmmaker from the UK who had read our articles, sought me out in Ann Arbor in 2005. He appeared to be a serious, reputable person, but the film never came to fruition. Then Lori Shinseki, a freelance filmmaker in Virginia, approached me in 2011. She embraced the project and devoted five years to running down leads and cultivating relationships. The result of her efforts is The Twinning Reaction, an excellent hour-long documentary, http://www.7thart.com/noCategory/The-Twinning-Reaction.
Through the pro bono services of lawyer Barry Coburn, we were able to gain access to the study material for the reunited twins. It had been sealed in archives at Yale University until 2066, per Neubauer’s deed of gift. The draft psychologicals that I had saved proved instrumental in proving that the twins had indeed been studied, which the Jewish Board initially had denied. I had an emotional meeting with a set of twins at my home to discuss the study. The meeting was filmed by Lori. That encounter underscored the injustice that had been done to them and their adoptive parents.
While Lori searched for a distributor, I was approached by a producer from the UK film company, RAW. Iain Dodgeon had handed the story off to them. A producer Becky Read, appeared at my office in Ann Arbor unannounced. Though my allegiance was to Lori and her now completed film, I agreed to an interview for RAW’s film about the triplets.
This led to a six-hour interview at my office with the director Tim Wardle. I had heard that his style was to sensationalize unfortunate human events, but he appeared to be an honest, straightforward guy. The resulting film is Three Identical Strangers in which I appear for six or seven minutes. It provides a dark, sinister spin to the story that I feel was unjustified. The researchers were misguided but not fundamentally evil people.
Furthermore, there is no mention of the fact that the story had become public due to Nancy and my articles. In fact, when asked by an interviewer how he got the story, Wardle said “someone dropped it off at the office.” It did not credit Lori’s work in securing access to the study material or even hint at the fact that her film existed. It implied that the material had been released to the subjects during the course of their filming in 2017, not four years before.
I was troubled by these omissions and falsifications but resigned to the reality of the film. However, the distributor, Neon, apparently feared that I would publicly critique their version of the story. They cancelled a pre-release showing at the Cinetopia Film Festival in Ann Arbor, where I was scheduled for a Q & A. After the official release a few weeks later, Neon pressured the local art house two hours prior to the screening to rescind an invitation to me to comment on the background for the film. I showed up anyhow and did an informal Q & A with three dozen patrons in the lobby. It was officially rescheduled a week later when an ethicist was enlisted to join me in discussing the film.
I am grateful that the story has gained publicity, because I hope that the remaining study subjects will be informed of their twin status. A 20/20 TV program called Secret Siblings, based on Lori’s film, was aired in March, 2018: https://abc.go.com/shows/2020/episode-guide/2018-03/09-030918-secret-siblings). Another twin pair, reunited as young adults but previously unknown to us, contacted Lori after the 20/20 piece was shown. We are still endeavoring to identify the remaining twin pair who were not reunited and to provide them with access to their files if they wish to see them.
I never anticipated the number of former friends and acquaintances, dating back to high school, who would see Three Identical Strangers. Apparently, it is a favorite on airplanes. I have received an unending stream of emails and in-person discussions in the streets of Ann Arbor. The triplets story is a compelling one, but it is only a part of the broader questions raised by both films regarding the lax ethical standards that permitted such a study and the hubris of Neubauer and Bernard. Hopefully these issues can be further examined in other forums as more information about the study and the fate of the subjects becomes available.