Sameness and difference: a film about adoption raises questions for donor conception

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?


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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8 Responses to Sameness and difference: a film about adoption raises questions for donor conception

  1. JoJo says:

    Hi Olivia, Absolutely I am physically like my genetic, biological family – on both sides: peoples’ jaws drop when they see me with my new family. The way the genes have settled themselves means that I genuinely DO look like my biological father’s family far more than anyone else – in my case it isn’t what we are wanting to see, it just genuinely IS. More than that, some of us share the same, completely idiosyncratic mannerisms – we share the same intellectual interests too. We none of us were seeing what we wanted to see in terms of idiosyncrasies we saw exactly what was. One of my new relatives nearly fell off their chair when they saw me doing a certain thing. Now I never knew anyone else doing that thing – but this new close relative does it and so does their parent. I simply could not believe what I was seeing! I was absolutely astounded! There was also a deep heart felt “Phew, aahhh, it’s not just me that does this, it’s an us thing”. I was so very un-like my growing up Dad – rubbish at maths where he was a star, ten left feet and unsporty where he was a ballroom dance champion and athlete. It used to frustrate the pants off him in the nicest possible way! I have vivid memories of him, on repeat trying to teach me to waltz, or to explain calculus and the bemused confusion on his face when I simply couldn’t get it. Rhythm and synchronicity of feet and body are not me – and it’s not for want of trying – or upbringing. You might say and would be right that many people find they are not like their parents. But here’s the thing. My biological father – it’s a different matter. Some of the key things – the things that people would say were always core to who I was as I grew up, which were soley my skills and not demonstrated elsewhere in my growing up family – turn out to have been skills my bio father had. I was shaken, joyously to the core to discover these this. Not things I was looking for, core, key big things…. that were. There’s one thing which I absolutely believe I have inherited from both my fathers in a nature nurture mix. The belief that I should stand up for what I think is right and the courage to do so even when it is extremely tough. I am so grateful to both of them for this. With my growing up siblings, people always said of us, when meeting us together – and we said it ourselves on many occasions laughing – “if we didn’t KNOW we were related, we would never guess that we were”. We were all so very different, not just in looks (which makes utter sense now of course) but also in character and belief systems, the way we viewed the world. What I cannot explain in words is the absolute sense of recognition and love I felt/still feel on meeting numerous members of my new family. My identity feels – authentic. It makes concrete sense. The where I get things from is now a whole not a half picture. It doesn’t take away from my growing up family in any shape or form. I just make more sense to myself – and actually to others too. The absolute joy of spending time with the people who make up the whole of me on both sides is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I have three families. My Dad’s, my Mum’s and my biological father’s family. They are all equally important. All we can ever talk about with genuine authority is our own personal experiences. Prior to all of this I would have said nurture trumps nature. Now I believe the opposite. That is certainly how it has turned out for me. Not because I was looking for it – because it IS.

    • oliviasview says:

      I understand you Jo Jo. It is fascinating how little things come through so strongly in some family groups. The Wiesner offspring from the Barton group find this too. As Becky said at DCN’s day for professionals, “there is a restless energy about us all”…and there is, I’ve met a number of them. But they are also finding significant differences too, particularly now the sibling group is getting so large via DNA testing.

  2. gsmwc02 says:

    My wife and I saw this movie a few months back. It was an extremely powerful and sad story. I took away from it that whole nature does play a big part in who we are nurture and our life experiences can have just as much of an impact especially when it comes to mental/emotional make up.

    Those who say that who we are is 100% Nature or Nurture are completely wrong. It’s some combination of both that varies depending upon the person.

  3. Polly says:

    Do read/listen…… Zara is an adult adopted woman who (thru music and writing) reveals how identity loss/separation from kin has affected her. Although she focuses on the consequences of adoption…her message is equally relevant to persons who are created through donor conception and/or surrogacy.
    Zara P tells how painful/disabling it is when one’s (biological/genealogical) mother/father belongs to the ‘ghost kingdom’. Our ‘best interests’ are met if we are NOT disconnected from our kinship circle.

  4. Bruce says:

    A truly appalling ‘experiment’ indeed.

    I worked for a long time in both pre- and post-adoption services and have had contact with many people conceived by donor. While warm and enlightened parenting is incredibly significant in the overall experience of adopted and donor-conceived people, it is no guarantee that things will turn out okay. For some people the experience of separation from kin, the primal wound (as Nancy Verrier first described it in relation to adoption), was so disturbing and devastating, that it defeated the best efforts of some outstanding parents.

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