Defending the Indefensible in Three Identical Strangers

I wasn’t going to write about the travesties revealed by the film Three Identical Strangers, which my husband and I watched recently when it was on CNN.

I wasn’t going to until I read a defense of the practices of the researcher, Dr. Peter Neubauer, who conspired with Louise Wise Services to separate twins/triplets and research their development without the knowledge or permission of their parents. And until I got an impassioned email from my friend, an adoptee activist who will remain anonymous here.

Defending Separation of Twins and Triplets

Dr. Lois Oppenheim wonders via Psychology Today if every story needs a villain. She believes that Dr. Neubauer’s now infamous study, launched in the late 1950s, actually had noble intent.

Dr. Viola Bernard*’s intentions with the separations was benign. In a recently uncovered memo, she expressed her hope that “early mothering would be less burdened and divided and the child’s developing individuality would be facilitated.” Other agencies also practiced separation.

Psychology Today

(*Dr. Viola Bernard was chief psychiatric consultant to Louise Wise Adoption Services. Dr Bernard’s advice to was to separate twins to unburden the mother. And perhaps Louise Wise Services was all too happy to collect two (or three!) fees instead of only one.)

Dr. Oppenheim also expresses concern that

The filmmakers omit the information that the study began long before the rules of informed consent were codified by the National Research Act of 1974.

Psychology Today

If the Study is Defendable, then Why Keep the Research Sealed for 46 More Years?

I took to Twitter to share the article, as well as my reaction to Dr. Oppenheim’s many assertions that the film didn’t portray the study accurately.

In case you haven’t seen the film yet (you really should, even if you think you know all about it), the research yielded from this study has been sealed at Yale University until 2065.

“Sealed” means in the dark. And with adoption, we know that bad things often happen in the dark, when they are beyond anyone’s purview. If Dr. Oppenheim is so certain of noble intent, she might instead champion the opening of these records rather than defend the practices that hurt so many.

An Adoptee’s View

The following is from my friend, whom I’ll call BSE.

We must have watched different documentaries or maybe it’s just the lens we saw it through. My lens wasn’t watching the story while trying to explain the way things were different back then, and how, the researchers were very fine people.

No one needs to explain to an adoptee from the Baby Scoop Era what it was like back then. We grew up in it, we’ve lived it, in many ways we’re still living with the impact of that time.

We have also had to find a way to understand the intent of the actions taken by those who went unchecked, despite how it broke us and others. We have had to find peace with it, whatever that looks like for each of us.

What I was watching was the story of the triplets that mirrored the written stories I’d read years before. Watching the story unfold in front of me brought it to life in a way words on paper never can.

Having a documentary that magnifies that primal separation in the form of triplets offers people a way to understand that a singleton adoptee just can’t. The sheer breadth of the tragedy unfolding takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you hurt inside. At least it should.

I have no doubt many back then were good people, I also know all to well how many also viewed us, why the practices were what they were then. Whatever the intent, the impact is what matters, and the impact wasn’t good.

— BSE, adoptee from the Baby Scoop Era

What Else Did Louise Wise Services Do in the Dark?

Lest you need another example about the practices, intent, and impact of Louise Wise Services, let’s see how the agency handled an adoption with the Juman family in the mid-1960s. This is what the Agency told the Jumans, during the process of adopting their son Michael:

[The birth mom] won a scholarship to a well known college and finished two years of it. The mother had been going out with someone seriously, but he died suddenly of a heart attack and so she could not marry him. She became pregnant quite soon after. She said that if her boyfriend had not died she would not have become pregnant. This shock led to some emotional difficulty and she later sought professional help for it.

The baby’s father was white Jewish, but in character was not one of lasting quality.

FindLaw

But here’s the rest of the story that was deliberately NOT revealed to the Jumans. #badthingshappeninthedark

The natural mother had been diagnosed in 1944 as having dementia praecox catatonic type, which is synonymous with schizophrenia. The Agency knew at the time of the adoption that the birth mother was treated for this condition with various therapies, which were ultimately unsuccessful, until 1944, when a pre-frontal lobotomy was performed. Brooklyn State Hospital diagnosed her condition upon her second admission in 1955 as schizophrenia, hebephrenic type.

The Agency was also aware prior to the adoption that the natural father had been a psychiatric patient at Brooklyn State Hospital, who impregnated the natural mother when they were both at Fountain House.

FindLaw

Michael ended up with “a number of serious psychological disorders beginning at the age of 16 or 17 .” When he was 20, his therapist urged the Jumans to find out more about his biological parents’ background in case it would be helpful for his treatment. Again, the Louise Wise Agency denied having that information.

You can read the tragic outcome for the family involved — and Louise Wise Services’ predictable triumph in court — here.

Tell Me Again

So tell me again, Dr. Oppenheim, that these two stories have no villain. Tell BSE, tell Robert, David, Eddie’s widow, tell the Jumans and the scores of affected families not mentioned here that there was no villain, no malicious secrecy, and no “purposes of secret research.”

Tell me why, if the actions of Dr Peter Neubauer and the Louise Wise Agency are so defensible, why are you not leading the charge to open the records held at Yale now instead of waiting until all directly affected are dead?

~~~~~

Have you seen Three Identical Strangers? What are your thoughts?

Lori Holden's book cover

Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute.

11 thoughts on “Defending the Indefensible in Three Identical Strangers”

  1. I couldn’t wait to see this film from the first I heard about it, a while back, and I also (finally) got to see it on CNN recently. I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of multiple births, and by reunion stories (and not just those involving adoptees & birth parents), and I remember hearing about the triplets around the time they found each other — they are exactly six months younger than I am. And I’ve read “Identical Strangers” by Paula Bernstein & Elyse Schein (the twins whose story is also featured in the film), so I knew a lot of the story — but not all of it.

    My main thoughts after seeing this were (1) if there was ever an argument for openness in adoption, this film was it. And (2) “I wonder what Lori would have to say about this??” 😉

    I don’t see any good reason why these families should not have access to this information. They deserve to know the truth.

      1. I read it quite a while ago, probably about 10 years ago now (!), but I liked it. It’s stuck with me all these years, so I obviously got something out of it. Given your interest in this subject, I think it would be worth a read. 🙂 Similar journey — they find each other, start delving into their story and find out they were deliberately separated as part of the study. The triplets’ story is briefly mentioned in the book too.

        Unfortunately, I’ve seen some recent stuff on social media that indicates they are quite unhappy with the film makers for essentially lifting their book’s title (“Identical Strangers”) without asking them or giving them credit. 🙁

  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but plan to… Especially after reading this post. Totally agree that bad things happen in the dark, and feel for all the people hurt by those practices.

  3. I watched the documentary and I was so sad for the boys – I understood that times were different and blah, blah, blah, but separating siblings just seems like a terrible idea…made even worse when it’s an experiment.

    I just finished reading the novel Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. You might like it…well, if not like, then at least find that it sort of relates to this story.

  4. I haven’t seen the movie but now I will. The most shocking thing for me (well, apart from the actual separations) is that the results of the study are sealed. That seems totally outrageous to me!

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