ETHICS AND PSYCHOANALYTIC RESEARCH: THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
By Merle Molofsky
A major documentary, Three Identical Strangers, directed by Tim Wardle, recently released, should be mandatory viewing for all people interested in psychoanalysis, in early childhood, in child development, in ethics, in psychological/sociological research with infants and children as subjects, in attachment and separation, and more.
The movie starts out on an engaging, positive, feel-good note, telling the story of three identical triplets, born in 1961 to a young mother unable to tend to them, and given up for adoption, separated in early infancy, and, by coincidence, discovering each other’s existence at the age of 19, resulting in a reunion, and brotherly bonding.
None of the three adoptive families was aware that the baby they were adopting was one of triplets.
The young men are astounded by their similarities. They smoke the same brand of cigarettes, like the same food, the same music, the same colors. They each have an older sister, who also was adopted. These are three boys who as infants slept together in the same crib.
Perhaps halfway through, after all the lighthearted discovery, the movie turns dark.
The darkness lies in the facts underlying the reason for their separation. It would be easy to assume that they were adopted by three different families because placing triplets in one family would be too difficult. But that is not the case. They were deliberately separated as part of a psychological research project. They were human subjects in an experiment in which they of course could not give consent to participate. No one related to the infants could give consent.
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Yes, there are echoes of Nazi Germany’s experiments with Jewish and Roma children in concentration camps here, such as the experiments on twins in Auschwitz. But here? In the United States? Experiments on twins, and on this set of triplets, began in New York City. Here.
Two psychiatrists were conducting the research. Viola Bernard and Peter B. Neubauer were conducting a study of identical twins — and, in these three brothers’ case, triplets — who would be separated at birth to determine whether genetics or environment was more important. Yes, the old nature vs. nurture debate. These three boys were deliberately placed in three economically different families, an upper class doctor’s family in Scarsdale, NY, a middle class teacher’s family, and a working class family.
How were these human subjects found? Viola Bernard persuaded an adoption agency, Louise Wise Services, to place identical twins in different homes, in socioeconomically different families. Peter B. Neubauer was a psychoanalyst as well as a psychiatrist.
The study was undertaken by the Manhattan Child Development Center, which eventually became a part of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. The study took place before the two organizations merged, though, and the Jewish Board disavows the study. It wasn’t conducted under its aegis.
Observers were sent to test and evaluate the boys periodically during childhood. The boys remembered the questions they were asked. The adoptive parents were told that their children were part of a child development study.
Interesting similarity: All three boys would bang their heads against their cribs in infancy. These are babies who slept side by side since birth, and then were suddenly separated when they were several months old.
The biological mother was Jewish, diagnosed with severe mental illness, schizophrenia.
The adoptive parents all were Jewish. Louise Wise Services specialized in placing Jewish babies and children with Jewish families, and also had a wonderful record of placing Native American children with families. For many years, for good reason, Louise Wise Services had an excellent reputation. And yet, this esteemed agency failed to recognize how harmful separating identical twins in infancy would be, and the ethical issues involved in conducting experiments on babies.
Sadly, Viola Bernard had a long and distinguished career, and was revered for her ethical commitment to social justice, and encouraged the careers of African-American psychiatrists. She seems to have lost her moral compass with this study, but the rest of her career was considered exemplary by her peers. And, also sadly, and ironically, Peter Neubauer, an Austrian Jew studying medicine, facing the Holocaust, escaped to Switzerland, where he became a psychiatrist, and, later, a psychoanalyst. He worked with Anna Freud at the Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic in London.
The study ended in 1979, so the boys were no longer being followed when they first met each other. Neubauer published an article on the “study” — I call it an “experiment!” — in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, in 1994, with Samuel Abrams. The article discusses their study of four sets of twins, comparing their study with a study Hartmann conducted. Hartmann’s study addressed drive development, and moved on to ego development. Twins were not deliberately separated by Hartmann, though! His twins were kept together, grew up together!
The results of the Neubauer study? All the files pertaining to the study were donated to Yale University, and archived. According to the terms of the gift, no one can be given access to the files until 2066.
Let’s ask that question again: The results of the study? Devastating impact on some of the children who served as research subjects, like these three brothers. One of the brothers committed suicide.
Relevance today? The crisis of separating of children from family members when those immigrant families were detained by ICE. In this instance, the trauma occurred when infants were separated from their infant siblings. But the devastating impact on infants and children of separation from their families lasts a lifetime.
We see this devastation in the instance of slavery, when children were sold away from their grieving mothers, when children were torn away from the safety of their mother’s arms. A new book by Jungian psychoanalyst Fanny Brewster, Archetypal Grief: Slavery’s Legacy of Intergenerational Child Loss, will be published by Routledge shortly. It is passionate, powerful, well researched, and should be required reading for everyone! This is a necessary book! Devastating separation has ongoing powerful effects on generation after generation.
We see this devastation in Holocaust survivors, in the approximately 10,000 children who reached physical safety due to the Kindertransport, many of whom lost their families. Yet even those who were reunited with their families, or with a few other survivors from their families, had to feel the traumatic effects of separation, compounded by the sudden rush to send them off, and the long absence before they were reunited.
We know and recognize the traumatic impact on children who suffered separation from their families. This film is a wake-up call: we need to question any research project undertaken by psychoanalysts and other mental health professionals using human subjects who cannot give consent, who cannot understand what the project entails. We need to scrupulously adhere to our professional codes of ethics that safeguard people from devastating trauma.
Merle Molofsky, a NAAP-certified psychoanalyst, serves on the Harlem Family Institute (HFI) Advisory Board, the Clinical Experience and Supervision Committee of the Training Institute of NPAP, and the faculty of NPAP and of HFI. Her most recent book, Streets 1970 (2015), was published by International Psychoanalytic Books.