The recently released Three Identical Strangers profiles a set of triplets separated at birth who didn’t learn of each other — and only then, by chance — until they were 19 years old. At first, it sounded to me just like a real life Parent Trap situation. But in the real world, in which Disney logic doesn’t override any moral or ethical qualms, one wonders: What kind of monsters would separate their children and inflict that kind of trauma?
Eddy Galland, David Kellman, and Bobby Shafran dealt with the consequences of this separation for the rest of their lives, but it wasn’t their parents they had to blame. Their separation was done intentionally by their adoption agency, Louise Wise Services, in an experiment to examine how identical siblings fared when raised in different families. The brothers, born in 1961, were observed to see how their upbringings in different socioeconomic households would influence their inherent personalities. Although the brothers discovered that they were similar in many ways, their fates were very different — and in the case of one brother, tragic: Eddy, who was raised in a middle-class family with a strict father, committed suicide in 1995.
Moral wrongdoing doesn’t always align with the rule of law, but there’s something instinctively disturbing about breaking up twins. According to the Twins and Multiple Births Association, a U.K.-based non-profit, families with twins are more likely to get divorced. There are no laws requiring that the kids stay together, but most judges try not to do split custody.
Multiple divorce lawyers contacted by The Outline said there are no formal statistics on the percentage of twins that are separated in divorce and break-up cases, but some incidents have gotten media attention. In 1994, a Massachusetts woman successfully got a court to agree to separate her identical twin daughters following a divorce, with each parent getting custody of one girl (a judge reunited them in 1996 after the father’s appeal). In 2015, a mother gave up her twin son and daughter to separate families immediately after their birth; the twins’ father, who didn’t know his paternity until it was too late, tried immediately to get them back.
Malicious Parent Syndrome is what might have afflicted Nick Parker and Elizabeth James, the warring couple in The Parent Trap. The term, which was coined by Florida psychologist Dr. Ira Turkat, describes a scenario in which a parent might try to turn their children against the other parent in an attempt to punish them, by intentionally lying to them and cutting off communication. According to the psychiatrist Richard Gardner, this goes beyond what we could even call “brainwashing.”
A decade ago, a Chicago divorce and family lawyer named Mitchell Gordon handled a case in which he helped feuding parents come to an agreement on custody their 10-year-old twin sons, who had a close bond. “The parents were so embroiled in their divorce, and they each sort of recruited a child to align with them,” he said. “One of the boys was aligned with dad, and the other boy was aligned with mom. And it became a problem, it became real destructive.” Instead of splitting them up entirely, the parents decided that during the week, each child could reside with their preferred parent. On the weekends, the boys would be together in the care of one parent.
While that arrangement worked for this particular family, Gordon said the situation was problematic to begin with. “You’re talking about two parents who’ve been wildly misbehaving in the role of a parent. And you have kids who have some issues, because their parents essentially recruited them to be allies in their divorce. So working out is relative,” he said. “It was a creative and logical way to resolve the issue in a way that served the kids, in that circumstance. But the build up to that was was very destructive.”
Adoption is a different issue altogether. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, regulations for sibling placement in adoptions were not attempted until the mid-1990s. Now, due to the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, “reasonable efforts” must be made to place siblings in the same care, unless it is detrimental to the safety of the children. If for some reason this is not possible, “frequent visitation” should be provided.
Accidental cases of twin separation are rare. In one switched-at-birth scenario, a newborn baby girl in the Canary Islands named Beatriz was mistakenly swapped in the hospital with another newborn, Delia, who had a twin named Begona. Beatriz and Begona grew up thinking they were twins, until they discovered Delia — Begona’s actual twin — in 2001. Beatriz sued the government for $3 million euros for “moral harm.” She had always felt different from her sisters, according to an NPR interview with Nancy L. Segal, a psychologist who’d studied these cases. Now, she knew why.
That same lack of belonging was felt by two men in Colombia who were switched at birth, William Cañas Velasco and Carlos Alberto Bernal Castro, another case that Segal studied. Born in 1988, both William and Carlos had fraternal twin brothers, Jorge and Wilbur; they found out in 2014 that they were in the wrong pair due to a hospital error. Each brother was actually identical to another boy — in the other false pairing. While the boys are close to their fraternal twin, and had happy lives and families, the discovery came with mixed emotions.
“I think William felt very sad to never have the opportunity to know his biological mother,” said Susan Dominus, a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine who profiled the four boys in 2015. The mother who raised Jorge and Carlos passed away of stomach cancer, four years prior to the boys’ meeting. “And I would say that both William and Carlos felt some sadness about the fact that they had always felt a little bit unusual within their family, and that that was a painful feeling that they had dealt with, that part of their childhood, that they might have been spared had they been raised with their original family.”
Despite the switch, the boys did have some similarities to their real twin brothers, but there’s nothing that concretely proves these kinds of similarities are inherited. “They did seem to have similar facial expressions," Dominus said. “That was surprising, given that they came from different families, but by the time I met them they had been spending quite a bit of time together. It's possible that they were kind of reflecting each other as they become closer and closer.”
I’m a twin, so my emotions ping-ponged between rage and sadness when watching Three Identical Strangers. My sister and I are fraternal, but that hasn’t stopped people from confusing us all the time (read: we’re black.) There is plenty of sibling stuff bonding us together: We hate all the same things; we share friends, but never clothes. Our life started together, and I imagine will end together in one of those “died of a broken heart” tales.
Despite our closeness, or perhaps because of our closeness, my mother purposefully requested that we be placed in separate classes when we entered kindergarten; she feared we would be unfairly compared and contrasted by our teachers and peers. We liked being apart, because it allowed us to be everywhere at once. We had gossip on everyone and we got to be our own people for a bit. Our school district was an understanding one, but not all are like that. In 2005, Minnesota became the first state to introduce a law that explicitly grants parents permission to request specific classroom placements for their multiples. Some states have followed suit, but plenty of others have kept in the tradition of mandatory separation. In New York state, a bill that would permit the factoring of parental requests in classroom assignments is currently still in committee.
The boys from Dominus’s story are still very close to this day. The remaining brothers of Three Identical Strangers, however, drifted apart; they had differences they couldn’t reconcile because of their lost time. Louise Wise Services no longer exists, and the results of the separation study were never published. Towards the end of Three Identical Strangers, the boys’ aunt says something striking: “Coming from the Holocaust, our family has a knowledge that when you play with humans, you do something very wrong.”
Listen to an interview with Melinda Fakuade for more ruminations on life as a twin on The Outline World Dispatch.