I watched a film Sunday that had me muttering “Mengele! Mengele!” -- after the infamous Nazi doctor who conducted ghastly procedures on Jews.
In fact, Manohla Dargis of the Times used the same reviled name in her recent review of “Three Identical Strangers,” a documentary about adoption gone way wrong.
The film was on CNN, after a quick theater run last year, reviving the 1980 discovery by three young men that identical versions of themselves lived in the New York area.
Their ecstatic smiles lit up the talk shows – the sensation of the year! -- Boys born on the same date – from the same (unwed) mother – and within six months placed in three separate (Jewish) homes—now reunited.
The boys danced in unison and partied in unison and smiled for the camera in unison. Only slowly and tentatively did anybody ask: why were these three identical boys placed in three non-identical homes, all within driving distance of “researchers” who had somehow acquired permission to take videos of the boys, separately, going through psychological tests? Was it an accident they were placed in what could be judged as three different socio-economic levels? Was that part of this experiment, this playing with lives?
Only slowly does the documentary allow the victims – for victims they were – to disclose there was a dark side, behind the glowing smiles that seem ever more forced and ominous.
The most sane outsider in this documentary is a journalist, Lawrence Wright, who investigated the scandal for the New Yorker. Wright appears frustrated that he never really cracked the heart of darkness of this vile plot by Dr. Peter Neubauer, who had been trained by Anna Freud, and become a “prominent psychiatrist” in New York.
In Wright’s subsequent book about female twins, also separated for Neubauer’s nature-vs-nurture experiment, he describes “an extensive team of psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, observers, and testers.”
A New York foundation that facilitated Jewish adoptions, and a doctor, born in Austria, who escaped the Holocaust in Switzerland, perpetrated this experiment on three families.
These boys, who had once slept in the same crib, nestled against identical bodies, had suffered the double loss of mother (at birth) and brothers (at six months). Only slowly do we understand the gaping holes at the centers of their psyches.
Adoption is tricky enough. Allow me to go personal here: both sides of our families have been enlarged and enriched by adoption, but the process may leave serious gaps.
My father was in orphanages and foster homes before being adopted by a Christian family of Hungarian background, when he was 5. When he was 15, his adoptive father skipped, leaving a wife and their natural daughter. My father, later in life, tried to learn more, knowing only the name he had been given at birth. Alas, the agency told him, all records have been lost. Or sealed. So sorry. Friends often told him he looked Jewish.
A few years ago, my DNA test revealed that my heritage is half English/Irish and half Ashkenazy Jewish. As a Christian, with many Jewish friends, I was thrilled with the discovery. There was no dancing, no partying, no talk shows, just the melancholy wish my father could have known the truth that was withheld from him by a system that victimizes adopted children who grow up with serious questions, or don't even know.
The three boys in the documentary discovered they had company in this world through the most bizarre circumstances: a young man arrived at a community college in the Catskills and students rushed up to greet him, hug him, kiss him and call him Eddy, which was strange, since his name is Bobby. A mutual friend united the two boys, who stared at each other as if in a mirror. And then the photos in the papers turned up another lookalike – all born on the same day.
Years later, after bonding, and then moving apart, the three young men in the documentary came to realize they were victims of an experiment – but for what?
The Louise Wise Services seemed to have encouraged unethical tactics by the doctor – hardly out of racial hatred, like Jews in the Holocaust, but out of greed, or hubris, or curiosity gone amok. Nazi stuff. Mengele stuff. The agency went out of business in 2004, laying down legal blockades for people who wanted information on their adoptions.
As somebody with half Jewish DNA, I feel contempt for the smug wealthy board members of that now-defunct foundation, who, get this, poured Champagne for each other after fending off the six adoptive parents, who, with such idealism, had adopted these boys.
The documentary touched our souls. Spoiler alert: there are flaws – passing over the implication of one of the men in a serious crime, ignoring the fact that a fourth identical child died at birth, and obscuring some family dynamics, undoubtedly for legal reasons. Only last fall, a legal challenge forced the sealed records to be opened now, rather than in 2065.
My heart aches for those three young men, who were treated like captives during a pogrom in a European shtetl. This happened in my home town, New York.
As the saying goes: Never Again.
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Here's an interesting link critiquing the Jewish angle of the documentary:
The NYT review of the documentary:
An excerpt from Lawrence Wright’s book on the female twins who were reunited:
The psychiatrist at the core of the scandal:
The decision to unseal the records:
An article by Lawrence Wright:
More from CNN:
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023