Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Why I Cried at the Triplets Movie: Please Don't Blame the Parents

Image result for three identical strangers trailer 
SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see the documentary, Three Identical Strangers, you might want to read this post after you see it or, as the reviewers say, “tread carefully” below.

Three Identical Strangers is a widely acclaimed new documentary about adopted triplets who were secretly separated at birth and reunited by chance at age 19. It’s meant to stoke audience rage at an adoption agency and research team that misled and manipulated families for the sake of a psychological study done under false pretenses. I found myself raging instead at the film’s cavalier treatment of mental illness and suicide, feeling attacked as the mother of a young man who died by suicide. A young man who could have been kin to these triplets with his curly dark "Jewfro" and radiant smile.

There are hints of the film’s dark undercurrent amidst the bubbly story of the triplets’ reunion: can such elation last? With a middle-aged Eddy absent from the interviews, I began to sense that he was either in prison or dead. When someone mentioned depression, I knew where we were heading even before I heard “bipolar” and “psych ward.” Like too many people with mental illness, Eddy took his life soon after being discharged from a hospital. The film briefly registers Bobby and David’s dismay, just as it briefly notes that the triplets had had psychiatric problems as teenagers. We’re given few details on Eddy’s mental state and how it compared to that of his brothers, whether at 15 or 35.

How do people become who they are? The film poses the question but barely explores answers. While the first part highlights the triplets’ similarities in spite of their different home environments, the second part stresses their differences—the implied health and success of Bobby and David, the failed life of Eddy. The story seizes on Eddy’s strict, presumably unloving father as the source of the young man's problems. It was David’s warm, gregarious father who all the triplets loved and who kept the peace among them in adulthood; Bobby’s father was a busy doctor who was less present but benign. By contrast, Eddy’s father, puttering around with his bony face and wild hair, looks lonely and clueless. A former teacher, he tears up as he wonders if he missed teaching Eddy something that would have kept him alive. As other interviewees weigh in on the primacy of nurture over nature, the message is clear: The triplets started life with the same nature, but nurture made them who they were. Eddy killed himself because of bad parenting.

This tidy moralizing reinforces stereotypes about mental illness, and especially suicide, as rooted in family dynamics rather than in  a complex mix of biochemistry, stress, and other environmental factors. This misrepresentation does a disservice to suicide loss survivors everywhere, especially parents who have lost children. It left me in helpless tears as the credits rolled.

Among the questions left hanging: How did Eddy’s suicide affect Bobby, David and other family members in 1995 and beyond? How did Eddy’s smiling wife and their children manage in the aftermath? Did the suicide drive a wedge between the two surviving triplets? Did the film not dwell on the suicide because Bobby and David were reluctant to discuss it? At the premiere at Sundance, when Bobby and David got sympathetic hugs from the audience, did anyone offer condolences for the loss of their brother?

I doubt that many people noticed the treatment of suicide in this fast-paced, many-layered film. I can't help seeing it through a lens tinged with grief and regret and ever wary of misrepresentation. Maybe I’m more sensitive to the poor parenting trope right now because I’ve been reading Sue Klebold’s memoir about surviving her son Dylan’s murder-suicide at Columbine High School in 1999. She received hate mail and messages for years, accusing her of being a bad mother for not knowing what her son was planning. She takes pains in the book to show how “brain illness” can happen in any family and how love and attentive parenting may not be enough to prevent tragedy. More on Klebold in a future post ...

To my fellow survivors: What did you think of this film or of others you’ve seen that deal with suicide? Am I over-reacting? I’d love to hear your thoughts below or privately by email.

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