The Twinning Reaction is a feature-length documentary film about a tragically failed human research experiment from the 1960s: a case involving identical twins who were separated in infancy and secretly studied by psychologists for many years. The film provides an inside look at the dangers of medical arrogance and the enduring bonds of twinship.
Our story begins in 1960, when two prominent psychoanalysts, Dr. Peter Neubauer and Dr. Viola Bernard, began a secret study involving orphaned babies from a New York City adoption agency. The doctors separated at least five sets of twins and triplets, never telling the adoptive parents their child had an “other.” Researchers tested, filmed and interviewed some of the children and families for years, under the pretense of conducting an “adoption study.” In truth, it was a nature versus nurture study of twins (and triplets) separated in infancy.
The Twinning Reaction tells the stories of four sets of identical twins and triplets who were separated by the Louise Wise Services adoption agency. Three of the sets were included in the Neubauer-Bernard twin study, while the fourth set was not part of any experiment.
Some of these twins and triplets have reunited by sheer luck, others through the filmmaker’s years of research on this story. A common theme among all of the twins is the enduring pain surrounding their childhood separations. Many of the twins exhibited troubling behavior as children — head-banging, rocking, holding their breath until they passed out — as well as profound sadness. At least three individuals have taken their own lives.
The primary focus of the film is a pair of reunited twins, Doug and Howard, in their quest for answers about the twin study and its findings. With the help of several attorneys, the twins obtain access their own secret study files, which are sealed at the Yale University Archives until the year 2066 (when they will be 103). Cameras are rolling as Doug and Howard open the Pandora’s Box of information about their past.
The Twinning Reaction also features rare audio recordings of the twin-study authors, Drs. Peter Neubauer and Viola Bernard, as they describe their research to The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright.