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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 28, 2019

Three Identical Strangers: did the Neubauer twins study inspire The Boys from Brazil?

Four months ago, while on a cross-country Delta flight, I watched a film –twice in a row, actually, and with no prior knowledge about the film whatsoever—that has since played in theaters nationwide and has generated so much public interest, that it just aired tonight on CNN – the riveting, disturbing documentary, Three Identical Strangers.

What made me watch a documentary twice in a row? My answer arises from an angry comment made in the film by one of the victimized protagonists of this poignant real life drama, Robert Shafran. He pulls no punches in characterizing the experiment masterminded by the late Dr. Peter Neubauer (the shadowy real-life psychiatrist-villain of this film) in which David and his two identical brothers were intentionally separated from each other shortly after birth, and then studied, in periodic home visits, for years afterwards, all the while their adoptive parents having no idea that they had actually adopted a triplet:      

Robert: “I’m sure it all started with some distinguished psychiatrist and a roomful of people, and the brilliant idea arises of a new way of studying nature versus nurture. ‘Okay, we’ll separate these kinds and watch them grow.’ This is nightmarish, Nazi shit.“

I watched the movie twice on the plane, and shortly afterwards did a bunch of online research about its background, because of an association which popped into my head as soon as I heard Robert Shafran tear into the Neubauer study that made him and his 2 brothers guinea pigs– an association which I’ve ever since been very surprised to find hasn’t occurred to more than one other viewer (and, trust me, I’ve read a lot of reviews and Tweets) who’ve seen this film and written about it online. As you can see in my Subject Line, I was eerily reminded of Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil.

Many people who’ve seen the film have “gotten” that Robert Schafran’s caustic epithet ‘nightmarish Nazi shit’ referred to the monstrously evil experiments performed on twins by Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’ of Auschwitz. But there are multiple layers of this onion to be peeled, that lead to Levin's modern Nazi-Gothic fantasy. 

Midway through the film, the narration reveals the strange detail that all of the twins/triplets in the Neubauer study were adopted out only (i) FROM mothers who had suffered from some strong psychiatric disorder, and also only (ii) TO families in which there was an older adopted daughter (ergo big sister), 5 years older, already in the family. In other words, to flesh out Schafran’s comment, the experiment had one genetic constant – congenital mental illness ---,and one environmental constant – an older, by a precise # of years, genetically unrelated female sibling.

I’ve never read that Mengele devised such scientific niceties in his barbarous death camp house of horrors --- but that odd combination of scientific manipulation of nature and nurture in relation to a group of infants rang another very loud bell in my memory – to Ira Levin's chilling vision of Mengele's attempt to raise a Fourth Reich on the shoulders of a Hitler clone raised under controlled conditions.

Here was my second big clue: from my online research about Neubauer’s scientific and personal motivations for creating this ill-conceived experiment, I’ve gathered that Neubauer’s scientific interest in twins was a means to a deeper end – i.e., he was testing genetic determinism via his twins/triplets study, most of all because he wanted to understand how anti-semitism had morphed into the Nazi movement that annihilated the Jews of Europe, including unleashing Mengele’s pseudo-scientific butchery. And that genocidal cataclysm was one that Neubauer, a Jew born in Austria, had barely escaped as a young man in the Thirties, so we can well understand why that would be a consuming interest of his.

Here's how Neubauer's interest in the genesis of anti-semitism was summarized in a 1995 book:

"...Neubauer described recruitment of Nazis as he saw it as a child in Austria among his high school classmates. The first to be attracted to the Nazi party were adolescents who were clearly recognized as eccentric and psychologically deviant. They were joined by others who sympathized with the first group, but without it would not themselves have become involved. The third to join were those young people who had no strong political convictions but who were not able to withstand the pressure to join the others. A fourth group, composed mostly of Catholics, actively resisted the Nazi influence as a matter of religious principle.…Neubauer (1982) observes that turning against the stranger strengthens the group bond…”

So that summary makes it pretty clear that Neubauer was very interested in the roles that genetics and environment played in the formation of a fascist leader – the kind of "psychologically deviant" young man with charisma who seemed to be a necessary catalyst in order for a fascistic group to coalesce around him. Therefore, I infer that Neubauer, in 1960 or thereabouts, considered the threat of the rise of another Hitler in the world so grave and imminent, that he thought it justified his experiment, so that he could get some “scientific” answers, which he would then share with the world to avert another Holocaust. 

Sounds crazy and grandiose? It has been suggested that, cruel and amoral as his experiment sounds to us all today, in 1960 it was, alas, not outside the scientific mainstream, in its gross insensitivity to ethical concerns which are today commonplace. And if he believed, as his former research associate suggested, he considered this twins study to be "monumental", what would be more monumental than to simultaneously shed fresh light on nature vs. nurture, and also to show how that new knowledge might help prevent another Hitler from rising. 

But how did Neubauer reconcile the parallels to Mengele in his mind –and surely those parallels would have occurred to him, of all people, a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, and a shrink who would’ve prided himself on self awareness? I have no clue on that point, other than that sometimes the most obvious thing can be the most difficult to see.

But back to The Boys from Brazil for a much closer look, as it relates to Three Identical Strangers
If you're unfamiliar with the plot, just read through the above Wikipedia article about Ira Levin’s famous 1974 novel, The Boys from Brazil, (which I will abbreviate as TBFB from here on in) and also, if you wish, click on the link in that article to the article for the even more famous 1976 movie adaptation of Levin’s novel, which starred Gregory Peck as Mengele and Sir Laurence Olivier as the Nazi hunter Liebermann (aka Shimon Wiesenthal).

The plot is that Mengele is trying to re-create a new Hitler from the ashes of the Third Reich, using a combination of recreating Hitler’s genes (in a large number of clones implanted in mothers unaware these were Hitler’s genes) and Hitler’s childhood environment (his father was a civil servant who dies when his son was 13, so Mengele’s agents start killing all the fathers of these Hitler clones), such that at least one of them would become a second Hitler and initiate the Fourth Reich. 

The parallel between each of the triplets in Three Identical Strangers being adopted into families that already had a 5-years-older sister for him who was also adopted from the same adoption agency, and Mengele murdering each of the "fathers" of his Hitler-clones when the clones each turned 13, is chilling, and telling.

Again, an experiment in real life, combining nature and nurture. And the timing is the same – i.e., in Levin’s fictional world, Mengele began his South American cloning in the early Sixties, which was more or less when Neubauer found and adopted out his twins/triplets!

In a nutshell, then, that’s the association that, to my astonishment, I seem to be nearly the only person to take note of, at least in Google-able online venues. From talking to various people about this, I quickly realized that part of the reason for that, is that not many people under the age of 55 have even heard of The Boys From Brazil, let alone read the novel or seen the movie. But that leaves my whole Baby Boom generation, from which many would have done so.

And, here’s the crux of the matter for me -- even those one or two others who also thought of TBFB in relation to Three Identical Strangers [see Peter Debruge's April 2018 review of the film here: don’t seem to have taken the further leap that I did, which is the subject of the remainder of this post – to ask whether it was mere coincidence that Ira Levin’s famous novel, which was published a decade after Neubauer’s study began, was (according to Levin’s literary papers) conceived when Neubauer’s experiment had just starting.

Now, I acknowledge that it’s plausible that the horrible memory of Mengele’s twin experiments was still so widespread, powerful and raw in the Sixties and early Seventies (especially in Jewish New York City where both Neubauer and Levin lived, and where so many Jewish families like mine had lost relatives in the Shoah only decades earlier)  that Neubauer and Levin might independently have reacted to Mengele, thinking along eerily similar lines purely by chance.

However, I think it is at least as plausible, and therefore worthy of further investigation, that somehow Ira Levin became aware of the essential details of Neubauer’s experiment --- the idea of looking at nature and nurture vis a vis personality formation in twins--- which was ongoing in close geographical proximity to where Levin lived and wrote. 

Might Levin have heard, first or second hand, a rumor of Neubauer’s experiment whispered at a Manhattan cocktail party? If so, might it have sparked Levin’s creative imagination to spin it 180 degrees around – i.e., instead of Neubauer trying to discover how much of the creation of a Hitler is nature and how much nurture, wishing to prevent it ever happening again, had Levin turned that topsy-turvy, from well-intentioned experiment into evil one, designed to make it happen again???!!!

Or, one last further-out-there speculation - maybe it was not just Levin overhearing a rumor at a cocktail party. Might there have been an actual intentional whistleblower, a “Deep Throat” privy to knowledge of Neubauer’s experiment, who had qualms about it at the time, and sought out and shared the essence of Neubauer’s experiment with Levin – and why Levin?

Because he was the famous author of Rosemary’s Baby, a writer who might be interested in writing a novel which obliquely echoed the real life Neubauer experiment, a new kind of “science” that has lost its moral bearings. The satanic coven in the former, and Mengele and his cohorts in the latter, could each be seen as dark metaphors for a NYC psychoanalyst’s Faustian attempt to alter the natural order?

And finally, might that leaker therefore be the inspiration for Levin to write the character of the young man in TBFB who overhears Mengele discussing his plans in detail, and then is murdered by Mengele trying to preserve the secrecy of his diabolical plot?

Before I close, I must add one strange personal note—in my research, trying to find any evidence that Ira Levin ever crossed paths with Peter Neubauer, I learned that Levin had attended Horace Mann, the prep school in Riverdale in the Bronx that I almost went to in 1964; and that Dr. Peter Neubauer’s wife, who died tragically young in 1971, had been a teacher at Fieldston, the prep school in Riverdale a stone’s throw from Horace Mann, that I did attend from 1964-70; and also Dr. Viola Bernard, the psychiatrist who was a consultant to the Louise Wise Adoption Agency that handled Neubauer’s adoptions, also attended Fieldston, although long before I was born.

So I’ll conclude with a little timeline, and perhaps someone reading this will be interested, and help track down more pieces of this puzzle that I have not found or even thought of:

1960         Ira Levin first conceives (ha ha) the plot of Rosemary’s Baby
1960         Peter Neubauer creates framework for separated twins study
1961        Adoption of the triplets in Three Identical Strangers
1967         Publication of Rosemary’s Baby
1967-74   Levin hears about Neubauer’s study????
1976        Levin publishes The Boys From Brazil
1978        Release of film The Boys From Brazil
1980       Mutual discovery of triplets from Three Identical Strangers

Let me know if you figure something else out!

And here are links to two interviews post-release of the film which are wonderful to see:

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

LT said...

Who was funding this - that is also key to the experiment? I just watched the documentary today. As an adoptee, I find this whole scenario plausible that the government was behind this. Many projects were secret.