Nature VS. Nurture: The Secret Twin Study
By Jennifer Sommers
In 1980 Bobby Shafran enrolled in Sullivan County Community College in Fallsburg NY. On his first day, he discovered he had a long-lost twin brother Eddie Galland, who had attended the same college the year before. The boys were both nineteen, Born on July 12th, 1961, to a teenage single Jewish mother, and had each been adopted and placed with families in upstate New York. The adoptions were arranged through the Louise Wise Adoption Services located in New York City, (closed in 2004) which was run by the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services which merged with The Child Development Center, the agency that had conducted the study. The story of the twins went nationwide with articles in The New York Times and Newsweek. After the story broke, it was discovered that the twins were really triplets – there was a third brother, David Kellman. The boys were all raised within 100 miles of each other in families of varied socioeconomic backgrounds. The adoptive parents and the triplets had no knowledge of the others. At the time of the adoption, the agency told the prospective parents that the children were to be a part of a routine childhood development study, and it was implied to them that if they agreed to participate in the study it would increase their chances of being able to adopt an infant.
When the boys were reunited they became an instant media sensation. Their adoptive parents collectively contacted the adoption agency looking for answers regarding why the triplets had been separated. The parents were told that the agency believed the triplets would thrive in an environment of separate homes allowing them to get the individual attention they needed. They were also told that it was far too difficult to place multiples in the same households, primarily for financial reasons. While the adoptive parents disputed this, each saying they would have adopted all three infants, they agreed it seemed like a plausible explanation at the time.
As it turns out, the triplets had each been placed with specific families. David Kellman’s family had been blue collar, working class, with very attentive loving parents. Eddie Galland had been placed in a middle-class family, with a very strict father who he often clashed with. Bobby Shafran had been adopted by an upper middle-class family. His father was a doctor who was gone frequently, and his mother was an attorney. This was not an accident; they were intentionally placed in these homes to answer the question of Nature VS. Nurture. The only thing the boys had in common was they all had older adopted sisters, all twenty-one years of age, that had also been adopted through the Louise Wise adoption services. It appeared that these families were handpicked to diversify the study. The secret experiment was led by Child Psychologist and Psychoanalyst Dr. Peter Neubauer, an Austrian immigrant who fled Nazi controlled Austria in the late 1930s. It is reported he worked closely with Sigmund Freuds daughter Anna Freud in London later in his career.
Routinely, while the triplets were growing up and until they were approximately ten years old, Dr Neubauer would send his research assistants to the boys’ homes to conduct testing. There were about four visits per year per child until they were two years old, then a minimum of one per year after that. The triplets remember the visits, stating they were videotaped frequently, given IQ tests and Rorschach Inkblot tests. It has been determined from research assistants’ notes that it is possible the boys were followed by scientists and researchers long after age ten, but only at a distance. It was also noted that each boy from an early age seemed to suffer from some form of mental illness/distress. As early has infants, all three boys would regularly bang their heads against the bars of their cribs. Later in their teenaged years David and Eddie would both suffer from depression and would spend some time is psychiatric hospitals. Bobby pled guilty to charges connected to the murder of a woman during a 1978 robbery.
Early in the 1980’s the triplets managed to find their birth mother, and “had a few drinks with her”, but the relationship went no further. Later on, all three boys seemed to question their birth mother’s mental health, stating it appeared she drank heavily and seemed uninterested.
The triplets lived the high life for a while, playing up their notoriety. They opened a restaurant together in NYC, rented an apartment together, and partied profusely. They even appeared very briefly in a Madonna film in 1985 entitled Desperately Seeking Susan, and made multiple television appearances. Eventually they settled down and married and started families of their own. Then, in 1995 after years of struggling from bipolar disorder, Eddie Galland committed suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He died before the true reason they were separated came to light. The surviving brothers and their families still had questions, and they finally learned the truth from an article in New Yorker magazine. The triplets were part of an elaborate psychological experiment that began in the 1960’s. Dr Neubauer partnered with the Louise Wise adoption services and they started “the Twin Study” which involved splitting up identical twins and triplets, placing them in different home environments with different parenting strategies, and studying their development. This was shocking to the triplets and their families. They reported feeling like they were lab experiments, that their whole lives had been orchestrated, and they had been forced to suffer separation from their siblings for the experiment. Several sets of twins who were also involved in the study were ultimately able to find each other, but the true scope of the experiment remains unknown.
Dr. Peter Neubauer died in 2008 at the age of 94. In 1990 Dr Neubauer and the Child Development center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s services arranged to house the records from the study at Yale University with the stipulation that these sealed notes/records from the secret twin study cannot be opened until October 25th, 2065, presumably when all involuntary participates are deceased. The study officially and abruptly ended in 1980 when the triplets were made aware of each other. At this point several other involuntary participants of the study have been made aware that they had a twin they didn’t know. Because of the sealed records that Yale University can’t release, it is unknown how many other sets of twins or possibly other multiples are going through life not knowing they have an identical sibling. Research assistants working with Dr Neubauer have hinted there are a least four more people involved with this study that are unaware they have a twin.
After a documentary was released in 2018 entitled “Three Identical Strangers”, the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services released over 10,000 pages of documents to the two surviving brothers, but they were so heavily redacted that they were impossible to decipher.
There are many theories about the purpose of the study. The official statement indicated it’s purpose was to explore whether human behavior is more affected by environment or genetics. But the study is flawed; neither the participants nor their adopted parents were informed that they were part of the study and therefore could not give consent In addition the adoptive parents were not informed that their new adopted infants had identical siblings nor were they given the opportunity to adopt them. It has since come to light that three of the participants in the study have committed suicide, and most have struggled with mental illness. At least one twin was informed that her birth mother had schizophrenia, and the triplets years ago after meeting their own birth mother had questioned her mental health. So, it bears asking – was the true purpose of the study to examine mental health and its effect on genetics? Until the records are unsealed in 2065, we can’t know.