IT SOUNDS like an uplifting story - and initially it was.
In 1980, three young men from New York discovered they were long-lost triplets, separated at birth and raised by adoptive parents who had no idea their kids had been part of a set.
But that's just the jumping-off point for Three Identical Strangers, a new documentary just screened at the annual Sundance Film Festival, about the reunion of Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman that quickly veers from delightful to harrowing. (If you want to see the movie without knowing the entire story, don't read any further.)
The triplets discovered each other's existence when Bobby was 19 and enrolled as a freshman
at Sullivan County Community College in upstate New York.
"Guys were slapping me on the back, and girls were hugging and kissing me," he told People at the time.
They also kept calling him Eddy. It was truly baffling to him.
Thankfully a fellow student at the college cleared up the mystery.
The student's best friend, Eddy Gallard, was physically identical to Bobby.
After learning that the two men were born on the same day - July 12, 1961 - and that he, like Eddy, was adopted, the college student got the two men together for a meeting.
As People reports, "they found they laughed alike and talked alike. Their birthmarks and their IQs (148) were identical. They even claimed to have lost their virginity at the same age - 12. Hospital records confirmed what the boys already knew, and the New York press trumpeted the story of reunited twins."
Then, to make an incredible story even more remarkable, David Kellman saw their picture in the paper, felt like he was looking into a mirror, and called the Galland household.
"You're not going to believe this ..." he began.
Documents at Manhattan's Louise Wise adoption agency confirmed it - Robert, David and Eddy were triplets, born in that order, within 27 minutes of each other. They were separated soon after birth.
Upon discovering their siblings, the three boys moved in together, started going to the same college and all got degrees in international marketing.
The film has plenty of archival footage of the three grinning, handsome 19-year-olds making the publicity rounds - they appeared on all the big-name US talk shows, got a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan (at Madonna's personal invitation) and appeared in the TV series Cheers. Together they started a restaurant in New York called Triplets.
Their camaraderie wasn't a gimmick; they say they really had an instant connection, but gradually it became clear there were also differences that went deeper than their superficial similar tastes in sports, women and cigarette brands.
The triplets were raised in very different families and, it was eventually revealed, this was by sinister design.
An initial visit by the stunned parents to the now-defunct adoption agency lead to a trail of increasingly creepy discoveries about a scientific study of separated twins and triplets. The investigation was aided by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, who was working on a story about the study.
The young men and their families learned that their childhoods were monitored, filmed and documented - under the guise of normal adoptive follow-up - to serve the interests of a psychologist who wanted to test the influences of nature versus nurture. This was little comfort to the three men, all of whom had longstanding behavioural difficulties, starting with banging their heads on their cots.
At the time of the boys' birth, none of the adoptive parents were asked if they would take more than one child.
The study's lead researcher Dr Peter Neubauer is deceased, but his now-elderly assistant gives an interview in the documentary that amounts to, "Eh, what are you gonna do? Times were different then."
Before his death, Dr Neubauer defended the study to Newsday. He claims the triplets would have been separated anyway, because it was the policy of Louise Wise Services at the time.
"When we learned about the policy, we decided it gives one an extraordinary opportunity for research," he said.
But Kellman deeply resents the way he and his siblings were treated. In a recent article in The Times Of Israel, he said "they refer to us as participants ... We weren't participants. We were victims."
While the triplets were initially inseparable after discovering one another, their bond was eventually broken.
Going into business together in the Triplets restaurant wasn't the best idea - they started arguing in the workplace and Shafran quit the business.
Then, in 1995, 15 years after they reconnected, Galland took his own life at his home in New Jersey. He left behind a wife and a young child.
New York Post writer Sara Stewart saw the film at its premiere at Sundance and described it as "riveting, deeply unsettling stuff".
"There's so much dark psychological territory to mine in the documentary," she notes.
More, apparently, than the filmmaker chose to use. The involvement of one of the men in a violent crime, before the discovery of his triplets' existence, is omitted from the film, perhaps because it can't be tied neatly to nature or nurture.
(As a teenager, Shafran took part in a robbery where an 83-year-old woman was beaten to death with a crowbar. He pleaded guilty and testified against his accomplice. He was convicted of manslaughter and escaped with a light sentence - five years of working weekends at a home for disabled children.)
The psychological impact on the three men is undeniable and it seems the pain remains. In a 1997 feature in Newsday, Kellman laments "we were robbed of 20 years together".
"How can you do this with little children?" Shafran asked. "How can you do this to a little baby - innocent children being torn apart at birth?"
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