science of us

Three Identical Strangers Is the Best Documentary I’ve Ever Hated

This post contains spoilers for Three Identical Strangers.

Everyone said I would love the new documentary Three Identical Strangers, and I get it. If ever a piece of pop culture were made exactly for me, only for me, this would be it. The film is about separated-at-birth triplets who reunite by chance at age 19, and it begins with the contagious joy of the summer-camp scenes in The Parent Trap. From there, it turns much darker, as we learn about the almost unbelievably unethical 1960s experiment that separated the boys (along with other identical twins and triplets) in the first place. A summer blockbuster, but one for history-of-psychology nerds who grew up on Lindsay Lohan movies.

It’s an irresistible story, and at a tidy 96 minutes it’s riveting the whole way through. What do I know about documentaries, but this one seemed to be extremely well-made (it won a Special Jury Award for Storytelling at Sundance earlier this year) and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since seeing it. I loved it.

Also, I hated it. The final third of the film gives such a simplistic account of suicide by gun that I left the theater in furious tears.

Briefly, the plot: Eddy, Robert, and David are long-lost identical triplets, and the researchers who separated them were apparently seeking to track how family environment might influence the manifestation of inherited mental-health problems. (A New York adoption firm secretly helped the researchers place these triplets — plus an unspecified number of additional identical twins and triplets — into separate homes.) That’s the best the filmmakers could guess, anyway, because the results of the experiment were never published, and the data itself is sealed away at Yale until 2066. What they do know for sure is that the adoptive parents of the separated twins and triplets in the study did not actually know that they were part of a study; the adopted children themselves certainly didn’t know this, either. The triplets might’ve never known, had Robert and Eddy not met by coincidence at college in 1980. (The extensive media coverage of their meeting caught David’s eye, who reached out to his doppelgänger strangers and completed the trio’s reunion.) One more thing they know for sure: In 1995, Eddy killed himself with a gun in his home in Maplewood, New Jersey.

From there, the film hints that Robert and David likely share the same genetic predisposition toward severe mental-health issues that Eddy did, but that their families made the difference in their respective destinies. The filmmakers seem especially interested in the parenting styles of the triplets’ fathers: Eddy’s dad was strict, David’s was affectionate, and Robert’s was busy but loving, as involved in his children’s lives as his schedule allowed. Could the lack of affection from Eddy’s father explain his eventual fate? Three Identical Strangers seems to want us to understand that it does. “I believe that nature and nurture both matter,” David’s aunt says toward the end, “but I think that nurture can overcome nearly everything.”

The film spends a considerable amount of time fleshing out this hypothesis from its sample size of three, and no time at all on the fact that suicide by gun is a very particular kind of suicide. Gun suicide is the most common and the most deadly form of suicide, accounting for more than half of all total suicides in the U.S. (and two-thirds of overall gun deaths). Approximately 85 percent of gun suicide attempts are fatal; in contrast, just 2 percent of overdose attempts are successful. And states that have higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of suicide, too, said Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, who has studied the link between firearm ownership and suicide completion. “The greatest predictor of the suicide rate, in any state, is the prevalence of guns, even after controlling for rates of depression and mental illness,” Siegel told me. “People don’t realize this, but the main determinant of suicide is not depression or mental illness. It’s whether or not guns are available.”

Anyone who has even the most basic working knowledge of the warning signs of suicide knows that when a person has made a plan to kill themselves, it’s time to take serious action toward getting that person help. But many suicide attempts — about two-thirds, according to interviews with survivors — are impulsive. Most gun suicide attempts are made within an hour of making the decision, and about a quarter are made within five minutes, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control advocacy group. Not surprisingly, then, in 2016 a study (led by Siegel) examined the rates of suicide and the rates of firearm ownership across all 50 states from 1981 to 2013, and found that owning a gun increased a person’s likelihood of killing themselves with a gun; for men in particular, owning a gun predicted an increased risk of suicide by any method.

We don’t know if Robert or David — who are now in their 50s — ever struggled with suicidal ideation, but we are told that each of the triplets spent time in psychiatric hospitals throughout their childhood and adolescence, which suggests that each boy was at some point considered to be at risk of harming himself or others. So did Eddy’s death necessarily mean that he was the most disturbed of the three men, as the film seems to want us to think? Or can it only tell us that he was the one with access to a gun?

Three Identical Strangers doesn’t spend any time at all considering any of this. The nature-versus-nurture mystery the filmmakers focus on instead is a tantalizing one, and I get that they couldn’t wander too far afield from the crux of their story. And, by the way, it is indeed true that parenting style is linked to an increased risk of suicide (among teenagers, anyway), but this only underlines the point that suicide is complicated, and gun suicide is perhaps particularly so. It deserves more than the shallow treatment it got in this movie, especially considering last month’s CDC report showing a sharp increase in suicide across the country in recent years. Perhaps I should just leave you with this, which I angry-typed into my Notes app on the train home after leaving the theater: “Was it nature, nurture, or WAS IT MAYBE ALSO THE FUCKING GUN.”

Three Identical Strangers Is the Best Film I’ve Ever Hated