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Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Background of "Three Identical Strangers"

Probably most interested people saw the movie Three Identical Strangers before I did—I only got to it on an airplane recently. This semi-documentary story of triplets born in the early ‘60s and adopted by separate families through a well-known New York adoption agency is fascinating but does not really touch on all the historical details.

As you may already know, the Identical Strangers, reared separately and with no knowledge of each other, met by accident as young men, were fascinated by the immediate relationship they formed, started a restaurant together, and became media darlings to some extent. Looking into the circumstances of their separate adoptions, they were able to find out that their placements had been part of a study conducted by the child psychiatrist Peter Neubauer  in an effort to examine the effects of nature (heredity) and nurture (experiences of caregiving) on child development. Each of the triplets recalled childhood events in which psychologists or other observers came to their homes and tested their development in various ways. The adoptive parents did not know that they had only one triplet per family, and they accepted the testing as part of a study of normal child development. In fact, the boys had been placed in homes that were expected to present some contrast in childrearing methods—one affluent, one middle-class, and one working-class, with the idea that these different homes would provide different experiences for each of the three genetically identical children.

When the triplets and their adoptive parents found that they had not been informed about the circumstances or the study, they were deeply offended and angry, feeling they had been treated like lab rats or guinea pigs. They began to search for the still unpublished results of the study as well as attempting successfully to find the identity of their biological mother. Peter Neubauer has died, and the data collected in the study is sealed in the archives of the Yale Child Study Center, not to be opened until 2060, when all or most of those involved in the study will also be dead. The two surviving triplets are frustrated and distressed by this and feel that it was wrong to keep them from knowing their brothers. They have also found that a number of identical twin pairs were placed apart and included in the research; some of them have reunited, but there are probably some who still do not know they have a twin.

It’s very understandable that the triplets and some of the twins have strong negative feelings about these events in their lives. The fact that the adoptions took place through a Jewish agency, and many of the children were Jewish, calls up horrible reminiscences of Nazi experimentation on children. Today’s research ethics would not permit any such study to be done now.

But is it reasonable to blame Peter Neubauer, the cooperating adoption agency, or anyone else involved in the implementation of the study for the choices they made? Today, yes, they would be considered culpable, but if we look at historical background the conclusion is less clear.

First, let me point out that before reliable birth control and legalized abortion, there were large numbers of “illegitimate” or “unwanted” babies who needed care. Unmarried mothers were strongly discouraged from keeping their babies. Even healthy, married mothers who had multiple births might well be advised to give a baby for adoption because of practical and medical issues that could arise from trying to rear two or three infants together. (The famous Dionne quintuplets in Canada were actually taken to be raised in a government institution because of this kind of reasoning.) The idea of separating children at birth was very much a current one at that time, so it is very likely that triplets would have been separated for adoption under any circumstances; the Neubauer study was simply a matter of following up on the children’s development after placement was already made. The placement of the children in the three somewhat different homes was a little unusual, because ordinarily adoption agencies tried to place children with adoptive families whose socioeconomic status was about the same as the birth mother’s (birth fathers did not come into the equation at this point). However, the three families were all sufficiently well off to care for adopted children, and all had already adopted at least one child successfully, so although one of the boys may have had more luxuries than the others, no one suffered from poverty or deprivation, and in fact the families were more similar to each other than we would be likely to see in today’s increasing inequity.

How about the secrecy? Today, we encourage adoptive families to learn all they can about the adopted child’s biological background—even to enter into an open adoption where the birth mother stays in contact with the child. We stress the need to be clear with the child about his or her adoption from an early age. Adopted children today are much more likely to be of different ethnicities from their adoptive parents and siblings, so adoptive status is often easily visible to outsiders. These circumstances were not usually the case when the triplets were born. Secrecy in adoption was seen as essential for the birth mother, who could now go on with her life without having to fear that anyone--  including a future husband and children—would ever know about her distressing history. Adoptive parents themselves often preferred to keep the adoption a secret out of concern for the social stigma that known infertility might bring for them; men especially might not want the adoption to be known, out of feared confusion between infertility and impotence. If no one was to know about the adoption, certainly the children could not be told, because they would be bound to ask questions or tell people outside the family, and as a result many adopted individuals found out that they were adopted only after the deaths of their adoptive parents.

The Neubauer study also took place in the wake of revelations about an earlier study that purported to investigate effects of nature or of nurture in adopted children, especially in twins one of whom had been adopted. A British psychologist, Cyril Burt, had conducted what appeared to be extensive studies looking at the effects of heredity and environment on intelligence. He published conclusions showing a strong effect of heredity on intelligence, with twins reared in different families resembling each other closely on intelligence tests. But Burt’s work turned out to have many flaws. For example, one of a pair of twins might remain with the birth family while the other one was placed with a cousin or aunt in the same village, and the children might grow up going to school and playing together, so their environments were really not different. In addition, it became plain after a while that Burt had actually used fraudulent methods of analyzing and presenting his data, publishing statistics that simply were not possible calculations.

The Burt scandal meant that questions about heredity and environment were completely unanswered. Peter Neubauer thought to do work that would help to answer those questions with children who were already being separated at birth and whose adoptive status was already being kept secret. The one twist in placement of the triplets was the use of three families somewhat different in socioeconomic status, but all perfectly capable of adopting and rearing children. Neubauer’s work did not meet either the scientific or the ethical standards of the present day, and the sealing and archiving of the records does raise many questions, but the story of the triplets should not be interpreted as evidence of cruelty or indifference to the needs of children and of families. We can sympathize with the surprise and distress felt by the triplets as the story unwound (and thank for their willingness to tell us their experiences) without assuming that the study was conducted by “mad scientists”.

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