After you read the review, set your DVR or simply tune in to see it on CNN, starting January 27, 2019, 9pm ET.
Three Identical Strangers
Movie Review by Julia MacDonnell
, a smash hit documentary now streaming online, is both buzzy and bittersweet. It tells the story of three young men, adopted as newborns, who at 19 find each other by coincidence and realize they are identical triplets. They then become media darlings, appearing on the ‘80s most popular talk shows and in newspapers and magazines around the world. They even make a cameo appearance in Madonna’s first movie, Desperately Seeking Susan
Bobby, Eddie and David with their beautiful smiles, mops of curly hair, and big personalities prove irresistible. But their story soon pivots, moving to a dark and even tragic place, revealing a horrifying adoption study that is shadowed by the Holocaust.
As the story unfolds, it becomes ever more complex, winding back to the Louise Wise Services in New York City, that era’s premier adoption agency for Jewish families. (It closed in 2004.) The triplets’ adopting parents, all three couples, are stunned and enraged when they learn that their sons had identical brothers. The agency never informed them; never offered them the opportunity to keep the boys together. After their sons’ reunion, when all six parents meet with Louise Wise board members and caseworkers, they demand answers but don’t get them. Instead, they leave angry and mystified, certain the agency is withholding important information from them.
The information being withheld is that the triplets were part of a research study authorized by the vaunted Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services that explored the question of nature versus nurture. It is believed that at least a dozen other identicals, mostly twins, were separated and studied, though exact figures are still unknown. Researchers for the study not only separated the triplets at six months, but also placed them into carefully chosen homes in varied socioeconomic categories - working class, middle class, and professional class. Once the triplets were reunited, the study imploded, and its results have never been revealed.
For all its passion and narrative torque, Three Identical Strangers
makes some errors of omission that strip the triplets’ experience and the study of its cultural context. The boys were born July 12, 1961 at Long Island Jewish Hospital at the height of the Baby Scoop Era (1945-1975). That’s when as many as 1.5 million American infants, born to unmarried mothers, were relinquished to adoption through shame and coercion. As the historian Regina G. Kunzel documents in her book, Fallen Women, Problem Girls
, evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic zealots led the newborn adoption charge and account for the vast majority of relinquishments. Jewish organizations account for only a small percentage of Baby Scoop adoptions.
What the varied religions had in common during these years was the belief that unmarried females, by reason of their sexual activity prior to marriage, were unfit to become mothers. Hence, in order to redeem themselves and save their offspring from the shame of illegitimacy, they had to give up their babies. Social service professionals promoted this as a win/win: save the baby; redeem the mother.
Separating newborns from their mothers immediately after birth seems to be only a small step removed from separating multiples from each other. With Baby Scoop practices well established by 1961, the idea of snatching twins and triplets from each other after their nine months together in the womb may not have seemed like the utter outrage it appears to be today.
Another of the pernicious and commonly held beliefs of the Baby Scoop Era was that the young unmarried birth mothers, degraded and damaged as they were, wanted to give up their babies to parents more prosperous and more able to raise them well. Wanted is the key word here. History, however, has demonstrated the many devastations of the Baby Scoop Era and proven that ‘wanting’ to be relieved of her child was hardly ever a birth mother’s motivation. But that’s another story.
Three Identical Strangers
leaves unchallenged these most common myths of the Baby Scoop Era. The film states that the Jewish Board reached out to Louise Wise in search of unmarried mothers of multiples who ‘wanted’ to give up their babies. The idea of the birth mother ‘wanting’ to surrender her babies is never challenged. Here, as elsewhere, the birth mother, an unnamed young and single Jewish woman, is silenced.
Whatever her actual situation might have been is ignored, and the birth father is never mentioned, as if he had no part in the conception of the triplets. Instead the film suggests that the birth mother may well have had a mental illness and was possibly an alcoholic. This comes up after the boys discover her name at the New York Public Library, in ledgers maintained for every live birth in the five boroughs. With a friend, the three of them meet her for the first time at a bar in downtown Manhattan. In the film, David, now 56, asserts disparagingly that she kept up with the boys’ heavy drinking. The subtext, left unchallenged, is that the birth mother had a problem. Then she, whoever she might be or have been, disappears from the film.
The myth of the damaged (unworthy) birth mother wafts like a whisper through Three Identical Strangers
and is likely to remain in the minds and hearts of viewers long after the film is over. So, too, is the suggestion that she ‘wanted’ to give up her sons.
has been an urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. But motherhood has always been her calling. The birthmother of a son with whom she was recently reunited, MacDonnell raised a biological daughter and son and an internationally adopted daughter. Familial relationships have been the abiding concern throughout her writing life - which has included articles and essays; reviews; short stories, novellas and two novels. Experience has shown her that the most insignificant acts of daily life, like changing a baby's diaper, can result in revelations that ripple through relationships and permanently change them.
MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!
was published by Picador in 2014, to rave reviews in national media. Her first, A Year of Favor
, was published by William Morrow & Co. She lives in Hightstown, New Jersey, just outside Princeton, with her silly and beloved rescue mutt, Beto.