July 25, 2018

Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is featured in the film explaining how he had uncovered the furtive investigation. He pointed out in his book Twins that the study of twins, which tracks back, like so much else in the human sciences, to Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, undermined the ideological certainties of the mid–20th century that social engineering could mold men anew.

Wright summed up in 1997:

The genetic idea has had a tumultuous passage through the twentieth century, but the prevailing view of human nature at the end of the century resembles in many ways the [Galtonian] view we had at the beginning. That is that people are largely responsible for their station in life, and that circumstances do not so much dictate the outcome of a person’s life as they reflect the inner nature of the person living it. Twins have been used to prove a point, and the point is that we don’t become. We are.

This doesn’t mean that twins are genetically preprogrammed to experience identical lives. One important area of frequent difference is romance. Three Identical Strangers includes an amusing segment in which each of the triplets’ wives explains that it had been immediately obvious that her future husband was the handsomest and funniest of the three. Conversely, twin expert Nancy L. Segal told me that twins fall for the same girl or guy surprisingly seldom.

Twins undermine not just the 20th-century orthodoxy of nurture over nature, but the 21st-century dogma of diversity. It turns out that splitting up identical twins is bad because identical twins, despite how much they may get on one another’s nerves at times, usually really like being together.

But the Jewish Board’s Freudian advisers, Viola Bernard and Peter Neubauer, were convinced that identical twins were in danger of psychological damage from being raised together.

Why? Dorothy Burlingham, the dear friend of Anna Freud, Sigmund’s favorite daughter, had published a study of three pairs of twins, emphasizing the downsides of their being together. A sample size of n=3 might seem a slender reed on which to base a life-altering bureaucratic policy. But, you see, Burlingham was the partner of Anna Freud, making her practically a member of the prophet’s dynasty.

The movie overemphasizes how much the twin separations were motivated by scientific curiosity. In truth, before the experiment began, Bernard had already persuaded the Louise Wise adoption agency to place twins separately for their own purported good. Neubauer’s study was intended, in part, to educate non–true believers about the menace of Twin Togetherness.

By the standards of some other cults of the era, such as those of Marx and Hitler, the Freud cult was far less likely to commit wholesale crimes against the populace en masse. Freudianism was pessimistic, high bourgeois, and committed to an expensive retail model of therapy, which limited the scale of its abuses.

Still, Freudian Herr Doktors tended to possess complete self-confidence in whatever crackpot prejudices they happened to hold, believing them to be the dictates of Science with a capital S.

The Freudians, with their obsession with toilet training, deserve to be among the most notorious for this type of unwarranted academic conceit. But it should be noted that a predilection for quasi-scientific crankery seems to have been widespread among German speakers of the first half of the 20th century. My Swiss-German grandfather, for example, was a health-food nut. So the Freudians were hardly alone in seldom questioning their own idiosyncratic biases.

The Freudians have mostly been allowed to fade into obscurity without much of an accounting for the scandals and cruelties their power perpetrated. As Three Identical Strangers demonstrates, there remain formidable institutions still shielding even dead Freudians from skeptical scrutiny.

Nor has enough attention been devoted to what is implied about modern culture that monumental prestige was long accorded to such a silly sect.


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