Something really weird happened on Bobby’s first day of college

Bobby Shafran drove his old Volvo through the Catskill Mountains. It was the Fall of 1980 and he was on his way to Sullivan County’s community college, to start his freshman year. Bobby was 19 years old and only about 110 miles from where he grew up: close to New York City in Scarsdale, NY.

Since it was his first day, Bobby was nervous. He didn’t know anyone at the school, so he just focused on trying to find his dorm. But something strange started happening. Along the way, people were coming up to him, saying “welcome back” and asking “how was your summer?” But he didn’t know these people, so what was going on?

People weren’t just welcoming a new student, they were acting like they knew Bobby. They gave him high fives and a couple girls even kissed him, saying “I’m so glad you came back.” One person called out to him, “Welcome back, Eddy!” Bobby was bewildered. Who was Eddy? He told them he wasn’t Eddy, but they just laughed.

Finally, Bobby found his dorm. But his relief lasted only a second because soon enough another young student was standing in his doorway. The guy was staring at him like there was spinach stuck in his teeth. “Were you adopted?” the stranger asks. Yes, Bobby said, and then the stranger told him something that changed his life completely.

The stranger was Michael Domnitz and he quickly asked Bobby, “Is your birthday July 12?” Yes, Bobby said again. Michael was floored and said, “Oh my god, you’re not going to believe this. You have a twin brother.” Wait, what? The two ran to the nearest phone booth and crammed in, shoulder to shoulder.

Michael was trying to put coins in the slot, but they kept dropping. Bobby kept picking them up. Once they were all in, he dialed Bobby’s “twin.” Michael, hysterical, said, “Hey Eddy, you’re not going to believe this. You’re not going to believe this!” Bobby grabbed the phone and spoke into it, “Hi Eddy?” But it was his own voice that responded, “Yes?”

Bobby drove to Long Island as fast as he could, without knowing what he was getting into

Eddy Galland was on the other end of the phone line, listening to Bobby as he said, “I’m meeting all these people saying I’m you.” Eddy responded, saying he was getting a lot of calls, too. Bobby and Michael decided they had to go and see him, so they jumped in the old Volvo and tore down the forested roads.

They drove as fast as the car would go, at over a hundred miles an hour, even getting pulled over by a cop before they got to a quiet little neighborhood and a house that would change Bobby’s life forever. He reached out to knock, but the door opened before he could finish.

When the door opened, Bobby found himself staring at, well, himself. It was Eddy, he knew, but they had the same smile, the same eyes, the same everything. Clearly, they were genuine doppelgängers. They had the same birthday and were adopted through the same agency, plus there was the not-so-small factor of them looking exactly alike.

Bobby and Eddy’s reunion story got around and a journalist flew down to write a news story about their long lost twin reunion. Soon enough, the curly-haired pair was in newspapers all over the area. Bobby and Eddy thought their reunion was miraculous, but they had no idea just what was coming.

A newspaper ran the twin story, inciting someone else to reach out to the brothers

While Bobby and Eddy were still reeling from meeting each other, they were not prepared for what was going to happen next. Eddy’s home phone rang and his mom picked up. After listening for a minute or so, she dropped the phone and said, “Oh my god, they’re coming out of the woodwork.”

A man named David Kellman had just called to tell her that he’d seen Bobby and Eddy in the New York Post, and he believed he was their triplet. So the miraculous twin reunion turned into an even more shocking triplet reunion. Of course, at that point, no one was asking why they had been separated in the first place.

Bobby, Eddy, and David reunited after 18 and a half years at David’s aunt’s house. And already they were acting like brothers, wrestling on the floor like they were kids again. “They belonged to each other,” David’s aunt said in “Three Identical Strangers,” the 2018 documentary about the triplets.

The whole situation was unbelievable to the triplets, even though they were living it. Though technically they had just met each other, already the three felt united, like they’d always known each other. But they just kept getting more surprises that overshadowed the question of how did this all happen in the first place.

As the triplets talked to each other more, they realized all the things they had in common. All of them had been wrestlers in high school, they all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, and they all had similar taste in women. Plus, all three of them moved alike and they talked at the same time, saying essentially the same thing.

They’d grown up in different families and yet, they were clearly brothers. And immediately, they loved each other. Without asking why they had been separated, the triplets took to TV. It wasn’t the first or last time they were media stars because once the truth came out, they were splashed across newspapers once more.

The triplets were on TV and newspapers all over the country

The triplets’ story went viral, even though it was long before the days of YouTube and Twitter. They were on countless talk shows and several newspaper front pages. They wore matching clothes, perhaps to make up for the lost toddler years they could have spent in the same little outfits.

Bobby, Eddy, and David answered questions at the same time, in the same way. They were all smiles and would switch around to confuse the talk show host, making the audience laugh. People were amazed at how similar the triplets were even though they’d just met. The audience couldn’t get enough of their seemingly heartwarming story.

The three brothers were adopted into three very different families. Bobby’s family was wealthy and lived in Scarsdale, NY; his dad was a doctor and his mom a lawyer. Eddy came from a middle-class family in Long Island; his dad was a teacher. Meanwhile, David’s family were the least educated and least wealthy. They were immigrants and owned a small convenience store.

Curiously, despite the differences between their families, all three had an older, adopted 21-year-old sister. At the time, they wrote it off as just another weird similarity between them, but later they found out the real reason they all had an older sister.

Their parents were angry the brothers were separated and demanded answers

One thing that united the triplets’ parents, though, was their anger at the fact that the brothers had been separated when adopted. Weirdly, none of them had been told that the boy they were adopting had two identical brothers. Bobby, Eddy, and David were too caught up in each other to question why they’d been separated, but their parents wanted answers.

The triplets hadn’t always been the happiest as kids; Bobby and David both used to hit their heads on walls or against the crib. David thinks it was separation anxiety. The three had been separated six months after birth, but it’s hard to say exactly what effect this separation had on them.

All three triplets had been adopted through Louise Wise Services, the leading Jewish adoption agency on the East Coast. The parents set up a meeting with the Louise Wise board to understand the situation better. What had happened 19 years earlier to separate the brothers? The agency told the parents that it was simply too hard to put three babies in one home.

David’s father, however, said he would have taken all three. He was particularly warm and had rejoiced at finding the other two, saying he’d gained two more sons. The parents weren’t particularly happy with this answer but left anyway. However, Bobby’s father went back inside to get his forgotten umbrella when he saw something disturbing.

As Bobby’s dad walked back to get his umbrella, he stopped a moment when he heard voices. Peering into the room, he saw the board members popping open a bottle of champagne. They were celebrating. But what, exactly, were they celebrating? The parents left to get a lawyer.

At first, the law firms were enthusiastic to take the case. But shortly after, the case was denied due to a “conflict.” The lawyers said they had associates trying to adopt through Louise Wise and didn’t want to interfere. While the parents stewed in their anger, finding nothing to do with it, the triplets were too happy to care about the weird circumstances of their birth.

Bobby, Eddy, and David went out on the town and partied in New York City. They were having the time of their lives, just enjoying being together. The newspapers still reported on what they were doing; the three were nearly celebrities. In fact, they even had a movie cameo.

In Madonna’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the triplets have a quick scene where they check her out in unison (at that point, Madonna was not yet Madonna). Soon enough, the triplets got their own apartment together. They got up to all kinds of shenanigans, like Eddy checking into the hospital as Bobby because he had no health insurance, but the high didn’t last forever.

The triplets kept wondering, who was their birth mother?

Nothing could keep the triplets apart, but they did start to lead separate lives. Bobby began seriously dating his future wife, although at first, she couldn’t even tell which one she was dating. The girlfriends soon learned to tell the brothers apart and by the time they were in “Three Identical Strangers,” each wife said her triplet was the best.

As time went by, all three triplets got married and started having kids. 12 years had already gone by, but some questions were still unanswered. The whole issue of why they were separated was pushed to the back of everyone’s minds. A new question surfaced: who was their birth mother?

Eddy loved family gatherings and seemed to get the most out of being with his two brothers, so perhaps it made sense that he was most driven of the triplets in the search for their mother. The three went to the public library, looking for birth records of triplets born in New York on July 12, 1961.

The triplets met their mother at a local bar. It was awkward. She had gotten pregnant as a teenager and gave up her three sons. She seemed to have a drinking problem and never got particularly close to them. Their meeting never shed light on the reason the triplets were separated, so the brothers didn’t find out the real reason until later.

To the triplets, the natural next step was to start a restaurant called “Triplets.” People came to see the brothers, so they would serve drinks and dance with the crowd. It was like a constant party and things went very well for their first year (they even made a million dollars!).

But it wasn’t long until someone contacted the brothers and told them something nearly as shocking as the first realization that they were identical triplets. A magazine writer had found the real reason the triplets were separated as babies and it was more than deeply upsetting to the brothers.

Bobby, Eddy, and David had been separated at birth for scientific research

Lawrence Wright, a writer, had been working on a story for the New Yorker magazine about identical twins raised separately. While researching, he found an article that referenced a secret study in which identical siblings were separated shortly after birth for scientific research on the infamous “nature versus nurture” debate.

All the babies had come from Louise Wise adoption services, the same place that Bobby, Eddy, and David had been adopted from. Wright called Bobby and told him about the experiment. The brothers were shocked and angry. Bobby said they were treated like lab rats. “Who could do this?” they wondered.

The details of the science experiment were still mysterious. Wright dug into it as much as he could, searching for the results of it all. He found that several pairs of twins (and at least one set of triplets, of course) were separated and adopted out by Louise Wise Services. Then, researchers would come and observe the kids as they grew up.

Bobby and David both remembered a man and woman coming to see them when they were young. The people asked them questions, videotaped them, and took down all kinds of details about their lives. Their parents believed they were part of a study on the development of adopted kids, but never knew they were separated explicitly for research (or that they had siblings at all).

The experiment used identical siblings to study “nature vs. nurture”

At some point, Wright learned who was in charge of the experiment. It was a man named Peter Neubauer. He’d come up with the idea in the 1950s to study the ever-present question of “nature versus nurture.” Scientists had been questioning what shapes us as humans: our DNA and genetics (nature) or the environment in which we are raised (nurture)?

Identical twins present a perfect case study for this question. They have identical DNA, but can be put in different environments. Studying twins allows you to see similarities and differences that arise from nature vs. nurture. Back in the 1950s, separating siblings didn’t seem so wrong. However, these were the only siblings separated explicitly for research.

As more details came out about the research, the brothers found out the study was specifically about how different parenting methods affect children in the long-run. It was designed so that each brother would be in a different kind of household, but that each would have an older sister. In fact, the sisters had been studied to understand parents.

Not only were the families of different classes, they treated their children differently. David’s father was completely devoted to his kids and had nothing but warmth for them; Bobby’s father was loving but busy and hardly around; Eddy’s father was traditional and strict. Eddy never felt like he fit in with his family.

Wright got a chance to talk to the head scientist Neubauer, but the researcher said very little about the study. He said they stopped because it was too expensive to continue and that they were funded by private charities and “Washington.” In 2008, Neubauer died and the 10,000 or more papers from the study were locked away in Yale.

When David tried to access the files, he was greeted with a message that said they couldn’t be released until 2066, aka well after any of the study’s subjects would have passed away. The documents only went up to 1980, the year the triplets found each other, which begs the question: did they really stop because it was too expensive?

The research was never published, so it’s unclear exactly what the results may be. Sure, when the triplets first found each other, they had all kinds of similarities. They all liked Chinese food and the same colors, suggesting that a fair amount of a person’s personality is determined by genetics.

However, there were differences between the brothers that no one paid attention to. For example, Eddy was particularly troubled. After David’s father passed away, the three drifted apart from each other and ended up in different places. It would seem their environment really did shape them more than it originally appeared.

David eventually got access to the research study

While the brothers were more than a little upset that they’d been separated for research, David didn’t want it to be in vain. The study on them hadn’t been published, so no one could learn anything from it. He contacted the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services to gain access to the countless research documents at Yale. 

David finally gained access to the research after the documentary about the triplets’ story finished filming. However, it contained 10,000-plus pages about the lives of many unnamed children. Scientists will have to comb through the data and use a hefty amount of statistics to actually glean anything from the research. But other twin studies have been published since then.

A different study on twins raised apart was actually completed and published. It was called the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart and they compared twins that had been separated for other reasons to twins that were raised together. By analyzing their data, they found that twins were just as likely to be similar if they were raised apart or not.

From this, the scientists concluded that similarities between identical twins (or triplets) come from genetics and not from the environment that they’re raised in. These similarities may be in personality, occupation, or even hobbies. However, the child’s environment can cause differences between the identical siblings.

Some twin studies have shocked psychologists with how much of a person’s personality seems to be determined by genetics, as opposed to the environment the person was raised in. Other studies in rats have shown intelligence to be heritable, meaning that as smart rats had babies together, their babies got smarter. Their genetics were determining their ability to solve a maze.

This data would suggest that much of our behavior is determined by our DNA. However, some people critique twin studies and argue that they don’t show such a stark contrast between genetics and environment. But scientists have continued to study nature versus nurture and we’re actually closer now to an answer than we ever have been.

The answer all along has been nature and nurture

Not only do people question the validity of some twin studies’ results, but there’s also plenty of evidence suggesting that really, it’s both nature and nurture. “A strict dichotomy between genes and environment is no longer relevant; they work in concert,” said Nancy Segal, a prominent twin researcher, to the New York Times.

A group of researchers studied every twin study that happened in the last 50 years, which included about 14.5 million pairs of twins, and found that about half of all variation in human traits is accounted for by genetic differences and half is from environmental differences. So basically, you are formed half by genetics and half by your environment.

Human traits, like physical properties, personality, or skills, can have both a genetic and environmental influence. For instance, “perfect pitch” is genetic because you inherit it from your parents, but a person will usually only have this skill if they also have music lessons from a young age.

Another example is height, which clearly is influenced by your genes, but also by your diet. There are a variety of diseases that you might be genetically predisposed to, but that your environment will ultimately determine if you develop them or not. So science has found that both nature and nurture are important and intertwined.

Not to confuse you even more, but a new branch of genetics has emerged in the last two decades or so. It’s called epigenetics, and it’s all the rage. Basically, while your DNA is comprised of a set sequence that determines your genes, your environment can actually affect which genes are turned on or off.

Your actual DNA sequence isn’t changed, but it’s like little tags are attached to sections, activating genes or inactivating them. Exercise, stress, illness, sleep, and diet (among others!) have all been found to have epigenetic influences (which, amazingly, can actually be passed to your children).

So what we’ve learned from all the science on twins, genetics, and environmental influence is basically that your DNA gives you a foundation and frame, while your experiences fill it in. Scientists are continuing to research this, looking for particular genes that affect personality and other human traits (often using mice as subjects).

However, that research will not include more studies like this, where siblings are purposefully separated for research. Adoption agencies usually place twins and triplets together, in one home. In some cases, it is now illegal to separate them. Plus, society has spoken, and people are a lot more concerned about ethics in science now more than ever.