We went to see the film Three Identical Strangers the other day. It is a documentary about male triplets who were given up for adoption in the 1960s and with the collaboration of the Louise Wise Adoption Agency in New York were separated and adopted into three families of different socio-economic status so that the impact of the different environments they were being raised in could be studied. The adopting parents were not told that their sons were one of three or that the frequent questioning and measuring that their sons were subjected to was anything more than following up on the welfare of adopted children.
The triplets came together by chance when they were 19. The first two were at the same college and newspaper publicity about their meeting made the adoptive mother of the third realise that her son made three. They did look amazingly alike. The boys appeared on TV talk shows and every media outlet before opening a restaurant together called…what else, Triplets. Everyone saw what they wanted to see. Three young men who looked and appeared to behave identically to each other. But when the restaurant failed and the father of one of the men, someone who had acted as something of a father to all three, died, a darker side began to show. One of the triplets had a mental breakdown and shortly after being discharged from hospital committed suicide. What started like a feel-good film about the inevitable sameness of identical triplets began to move into a more questioning mode. The parents of the men confronted the Louise Wise Agency who managed to cover their tracks whilst the parents were in the room by saying the reason they were separated was because they couldn’t get anyone to take them together but one parent, returning for his umbrella, caught the board members drinking champagne and toasting to having avoided a catastrophe. Researchers for the film found relatives of the families who recalled all the boys being really difficult as children but the two with more nurturing parents came through this time. It was the one whose parents were strict and had a father who was demanding and cold, who committed suicide.
Little by little the genetic samenesses dropped away to reveal three men who looked like peas in a pod but were actually very different people, shaped by the environments they had been brought up in.
The ethics of deliberately setting out to separate three children who belonged together and treating each as a scientific experiment is beyond belief and I don’t think could happen in the West today. The study was never published and the case files are locked in the vaults at Yale University, although since the film was made some heavily redacted papers have been sent to the surviving triplets.
What is intriguing for those of us involved in the donor conception world is, are there things that we can read across and learn, not just from the experiences of the triplets, but from the expectations of people who thought they could see three clones instead of recognising the men as different people. I often hear parents of donor conceived children say that people see what they expect to see, and that is a familial likeness. Do we all feel more comfortable if we know we share looks with someone? It is of course the first thing that people will say about a new baby, “who does s/he look like?”. I find myself almost saying it but usually manage to stop, but the ‘instinct’ (is it a biological instinct or is it a cultural norm, I’m not sure) is strongly felt. Our eldest grand-daughter is a complete 50/50 mix of her parents, both in looks and personality. I’m not really sure who the new one looks like yet, except her wonderful and feisty self, but people do keep on saying they can see our son in there. Well yes, he is definitely the dad, but I can’t see the likeness myself. Our daughter has always said she would like to meet someone who looks like her. She certainly doesn’t look like me. But what if she met a tall, blonde, blue-eyed man – donor or half-sib – who was a liar, cheat and gambler and he let her down badly (it could be a woman if it was a half-sib of course), then what do looks mean?
As the film draws to an end, commentators mostly from within the families, move from a kind of genetic determinism to understanding the role that each family played in shaping how things turned out for each triplet. Warm and nurturing parenting seemed to play an important part in the surviving two dealing with what life threw at them.
I have read many accounts of donor conceived adults feeling immediately at home with half-sibs and/or their donor – just like they had known them all their lives. But I have also read accounts of people who feel like this on the basis of an assumed genetic connection, which on DNA testing turned out not to be so. So can our longing to find someone like ourselves blind us to just seeing the samenesses and ignoring the differences as happened for so long with the triplets? This won’t be so in all cases of course but I thought it was a question worth contemplating. And perhaps more controversially, can good parenting give donor conceived children and people the resilience and confidence to seek out genetic relatives without expecting these people to be like them?