The Truth Is Not Always The Way It’s Filmed

Jan 31, 2019by tracey Comments

Documentary films are wonderful things.  In fact, they are my favorite type of film to both watch and to make.  That said, while they relay and depict the truth and/or real-life events, they are often painted with a tainted brush.

There is a film that bothered me when I saw it and continues to bother me.  It’s received and with its upcoming release on CNN continues to receive a lot of press.

Three Identical Strangers is the story of triplet boys who were born to a single mother in 1961. Like many siblings put up for adoption, they were separated in the adoption process.   Like most adoptions during that time, the files were sealed.  The boys were not told they had identical brothers out there.

What makes this different than other adoption stories is that the separation of these children was part of a nature versus nurture study.  A question that remains unanswered to this day.

The film cherry picks (like all docs) what it wants to show and who it wants to blame.  In this case, they paint one person as the demon in the story, illustrating a narrative in which we are led to believe he is the reason the study took place.

This man was Dr. Peter Neubauer, a beloved pioneer in the field of childhood psychiatry:  And they compared him to a Nazi.  This defies imagination for me. In fact, in one article published this week, a photo from a Nazi trial is used to depict this film: A  film about kids that took place in the United States in the 1960s.

The idea for the study was not Dr. Neubauer’s, as the film leads us to believe. It was The Jewish Adoption Agency – Louise Wise who handled the triplet’s adoptions, who separated them with the intent to study their progress.

The original idea for this particular study was that of a Dr. Viola Bernard who worked for the agency and who is mostly left out of the film.  Instead, viewers are left thinking Neubauer was some sort of monster who cooked this up himself, out to hurt and destroy the lives of innocent children.

Adoption is a tricky thing, always has been, always will be.  It’s a wonderful thing most of the time making families for people who are unable to either be parents or parented.  But like everything else, it has changed dramatically over the decades.  Up until recently, people were never told who their birth parents were or if they had birth siblings.  It wasn’t done.  Records were sealed. If parents decided to tell their children they were adopted they had no access to who the birth parents were.  It was all under wraps.

And many parents were afraid their children would be traumatized or try and find their birth parents;  Something many adoptees do, no matter how loving the family who raised them may be.  Where did I come from is a huge cry for those who cannot see their birth parent in the next room. I always felt like I never belonged another lament of the adopted child.

Before the or 23 and me era there were few outlets to find out who your parents were or if you had siblings or not.  Now it’s a big free for all and everyone can pretty much find out if they are a distant cousin of Napoleon.

I have a friend who, after his mother’s death, discovered that she (who was adopted) had a sister and my friend had cousins.  Now, is a regular birth sister different than a twin?  Was the adoption agency being cruel by not letting on who the birth family was?   I don’t have that answer.  I know my siblings and they are not a part of my life at all.

Like in every family, no two kids are alike.   One kid loves everyone, the other is perpetually cranky.  One gets straight A’s, while the other flunks out of school. And sometimes they change.  The one who was good when they were small can grow up to be the one you have to bail out of prison. It’s an unpredictable story with many different endings.  Thus, is it nature or nurture remains a huge question for all parents and eventually their kids.

And this is what Dr. Bernard and Dr. Neubauer were trying to figure out with his study.  Since many families were already separated during the adoption process, and files were already sealed tight,  they would see if three identical boys would be different with three different familes. BTW, the families who adopted the boys already had adopted girls from the same agency.  Do those girls yearn for their birth siblings? This is something the movie never asks.

Why do I care?    I’m not adopted.  I don’t have siblings I don’t know about.  I’m not on the verge of adopting anyone, nor am I a child psychologist.

But Peter Neubauer was my psychiatrist for seven years.  I was lucky to get into his practice that spanned I think close to sixty years. I  know he was still seeing patients up until his death at ninety-four.

He was a wonderful man.  He was a great psychiatrist.  He helped me and I am sure thousands in his long impressive career as a doctor and writer of many articles, books, and studies. Despite the fact the film never reveals it, he spoke about the twin study and published a book in 1990 on its conclusions ~ Nature’s Thumbprint: The New Genetics of Personality.

He was not some crazed Nazi-like figure out to destroy.  In fact, he was a Jew born in Austria who came to this country in 1941.

As The New York Times says in his obituary, he helped start groups such as the Academy of Child Psychiatry, the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs (in Washington, D.C., now called Zero to Three), and the International Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions, for which he served as Secretary-General.  As Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York University and Lecturer at Columbia University, he spoke out against television violence and wrote meaningfully on single-parent families and children reared in collectives.

This film has caused much controversy, most of it involving Peter Neubauer in the starring role. I can’t accept that.  I don’t know if the triplets were done a great injustice, would they have turned out the way they did had they known each other?

Time has taught us that there is a great need for siblings and children to know where they come from.  Technology has allowed for this to happen,  thus dramatically changing the rules and the way we look at adoption.

Pre- the pill there were many more babies being born in this country to be ultimately put up for adoption.  With the pill came fewer American babies and more from other countries.  Thus different issues have arisen.

Gay couples adopting children was unheard of until the last twenty-five years.  The world has advanced so far in so many ways, how is it fair to put a modern lens on a story that took place so long ago when the rules and norms were entirely different?

When I think of Peter Neubauer, I see a shining smile, a man who loved art, music and the welfare of children.  I hear an empathetic, brilliant man who helped me through many mazes and over many hurdles in my life.

I feel blessed to have known him and to have been under his care and I am saddened that his name has been now tarnished by this very one-dimensional film.