For 19 years, they had no idea they were triplets. Then they discovered a dark secret.

Video by The Sundance Institute.

Content warning: This article deals with suicide and may be triggering for some readers. 

When Bobby Shafran was 19, he turned up for his first day at Sullivan County Community College in New York. That was when his life started getting weird. Other students were acting like they knew him.

“Guys were slapping me on the back and girls were hugging and kissing me,” Shafran told People in a 1980 interview. 

One other weird thing: everyone was calling him Eddy.

It didn’t take long for another student, Michael Domnitz, to solve the mystery. Domnitz’s best friend, Eddy Galland, had just transferred to another college. Domnitz asked Shafran if he was adopted, and if so, what was his date of birth. It was July 12, 1961 – the same date as Galland.  

Shafran phoned Galland, and they immediately arranged a meeting. It turned out that their similarities went far beyond their looks. Their laughs sounded the same. They had the same IQ (148). They both told stories of losing their virginity when they were 12.

The story of Shafran and Galland’s reunion made the local newspaper.

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David Kellman, a 19-year-old student at another New York college, saw two faces that looked just like his staring out from the front page.

He called the Gallands.

“You’re not going to believe this…” he began.

The three discovered more similarities. They all loved Italian food, even though they had been brought up in Jewish families. They smoked the same brand of cigarettes. They were all attracted to older women.

The triplets went on Good Morning America, Today and Donohue.

They were naturally charming and funny, and the media couldn’t get enough of them. They scored bit parts in Madonna’s movie Desperately Seeking Susan and the sitcom Cheers.

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Plans were made for a documentary about their lives. It was never completed. But almost four decades later, a documentary about the triplets has been released, and it’s much, much darker than the original documentary would have been. Called Three Identical Strangers, it’s premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.While there’s no word yet on when it will be making its way to Australia, if you’re planning to watch the doco, here’s a warning: major spoilers ahead.

What the triplets didn’t know when they were reunited was that they had been the subjects of a long-term study aimed at giving answers to the “nature vs nurture” question. They had been separated at birth and given to three sets of parents who were all unaware that their son had identical siblings. None of the adoptive parents were asked if they would take more than one child.

The three boys and their parents were studied throughout their childhoods. A number of sets of identical twins were also split up and monitored as part of the same study.

The triplets were adopted through an agency called Louise Wise Services. Kellman’s mother Claire says when they adopted him, they were told he was part of a child development study. The Kellmans’ were asked if the study could continue, so as not to waste the information that had already been collected.

A psychologist began visiting their home and the homes of the other two boys. The psychologist would test the boys and film them. The visits took place every few months, and went on till the boys were 12 or 13.

None of the parents were told what the real purpose of the study was. It was never mentioned that the boys had identical brothers living in the same city.

David Kellman, Robert 'Bobby' Shafran and director Tim Wardle attend the world premiere 'Three Identical Strangers' at the Sundance Film Festival. Image via Getty.

The boys all had behavioural difficulties. It began when they were babies, when they would bang their heads against the sides of their cribs.

As a teenager, Shafran took part in a robbery where an 83-year-old woman was beaten to death with a crowbar. He pleaded guilty and testified against his accomplice. He was convicted of manslaughter and escaped with a light sentence – five years of working weekends at a home for disabled children.

When the triplets were reunited at the age of 19, they became almost inseparable. They moved in together. They started going to the same college and all got degrees in international marketing. They worked in the same restaurant. They were regulars on the club scene. By their mid-twenties, the three of them had opened a steakhouse in New York called, not surprisingly, Triplets. It was a success. But eventually, work pressures led to arguments. Shafran quit the business and became a lawyer.

In 1995, the brothers were torn apart, and this time it was forever. Galland took his own life at his home in New Jersey. He left behind a wife and a young child.

The triplets had spent less than 15 years of their lives knowing each other.

In a 1997 feature in Newsday, Kellman and Shafran talked the sadness they felt at having been separated for so long. 

“We were robbed of 20 years together,” Kellman said.

“How can you do this with little children?” Shafran asked. “How can you do this to a little baby – innocent children being torn apart at birth?”

Dr Peter Neubauer, the psychoanalyst who oversaw the study, defended it to Newsday. He said the triplets would have been separated anyway, because it was the policy of Louise Wise Services at the time.

“When we learned about the policy, we decided it gives one an extraordinary opportunity for research,” he said.  

However, he admitted that most of that research had never been published.

In a recent article published in The Times Of Israel, Kellman spoke again about the study that had shaped his whole life.  

“They refer to us as participants,” he says. “We weren’t participants. We were victims.”

If you’re suffering from depression or any other mental health problem and need help, or just someone to chat to, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636. You can also find excellent resources at Sane and Black Dog Institute

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