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:
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.