Three Identical, Deterministic Strangers

On Sunday night, I saw a documentary called Three Identical Strangers with my mum. It was spur of the moment sort of thing – my brother was going to see Crazy Rich Asians with some friends and we thought why not go see a movie too?

The documentary tells of triplets separated at birth by a corrupt adoption agency in the early 60s and quickly spirals into a story of psychological studies, abuse, parenting and, surprisingly, determinism. It is told with a humourous narrative which makes the audience even more frustrated, shocked and angry as the horrific, Nazi-like experiment of separating twins and triplets at birth is slowly revealed over the runtime of the movie.

In the beginning, the audience meets David and Robert – two brothers separated at birth. Then, another brother Edward is thrown in, but conspicuously not interviewed by the filmmakers. It is revealed that he committed suicide some years after the brothers had reconnected. They’d lived together and even run a restaurant called “Triplets”. But eventually, the brothers had married, started families and seemed to have settled down and grown distant.

During this estrangement, Eddy visits a psychiatric wing of a hospital and eventually commits suicide. As the narrative unfolds, it is revealed the brothers were put into three different homes selected for their differences in parenting style. Each house had already adopted a girl from the same agency, so the psychologists were able to select from a spectrum of loving homes. Eddy, as you may have predicted, was put in the home of the least affectionate family. His father was not a bad one, but he was an old-country Jew who’d been through a lot of trying times. He was a laconic man in the movie, even when describing the suicide of his only son.

It was a movie that left you feeling icky afterwards. Because it seemed as though the people knew Eddy would end up as he did, or so one might assume the hypothesis was. The actual results of the study are sealed in a Yale University library until 2066. Even the children involuntarily studied must request permission to access the files which delineate their upbringing in the same way you might study a rat’s attempt to find the cheese at the end of a maze.

I don’t know what to make of it all. I am disgusted, obviously, but more than that I am confused. It is part and parcel with how meaningless things can seem at times. That these people were part of some other person’s malevolence is straight out of Rousseau. It makes you want to scream about the inhumanity, but you realize how pointless this is. It happened, a man died, many other people were indelibly marked and yet there is no cosmic consequence. Those who ran the study are totally unrepentant. And at the end of the day, some director got to make a great film. Que sera sera it would seem, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

I am also left to wonder, inevitably, at the ramifications of my own upbringing. Everyone wants to be the one who brakes from that orbital velocity of their parents, and yet no one ever is – or so the movie suggests. We are what we are and no amount of struggle and strife can do something to remedy the effects of our parents. And what must their parents have done to them, and on and on and on. I am uncomfortable with the idea that people are not in control of their actions, because fuck that, but the more and more I go through life the more I realize how many people are controlled by things they’d rather didn’t. When I was younger, I thought it was a choice to let insecurity, society, parents or a lack of impulse control bear such an influence on yourself. But what can we do to stymie something so seemingly out of our control?

I remember when I was younger how obsessed I was with Stoics. Especially, after visiting the ‘stoia’ in Athens where the movement was supposed to have begun thousand of years ago. It was the only logic to me – that life was ultimately out of human grasp. We are what we are. But our emotions are more easily understood and in our grasp, so to speak. It may seem a little pathetic but that is humans for ya, dontcha think? I am starting to come back to stoicism, though in less of a pointed and abstract manner.

I am not suggesting we give up, or whatever. But some appreciation for what is in my control and what is not has helped me, and my happiness, immensely.

I guess I am happy I saw such an awful, disgusting movie because it reminded me to be thankful for what I’ve got, what I’ve managed in life. It is worth the watch if for no other reason.

-Clay

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