What Happens When Three Young Men Find Out They're Triplets? It's Not as Simple as 1-2-3

updated 10/13/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1980 01:00AM

For Robert Shafran, 19, the welcome was bewildering as he enrolled last month as a freshman at Sullivan County Community College in upstate New York. "Guys were slapping me on the back, and girls were hugging and kissing me," he recalls. It was very nice, but they kept calling him Eddy. A sophomore at Sullivan, Michael Domnitz, whose best friend, Eddy Galland, had just transferred to Nassau Community College on Long Island, cleared up the mystery. After learning that Shafran was born the same day as Galland—July 12, 1961—and that he, like Eddy, was adopted, Domnitz got the two young men together for a meeting. They found they laughed alike and talked alike. Their birthmarks and their IQs (148) were identical. They even claimed to have lost their virginity at the same age—12. Hospital records confirmed what the boys already knew, and the New York press trumpeted the story of reunited twins.

Then the unbelievable happened. David Kellman, a freshman at New York's Queens College who had seen their picture in the paper, called the Galland household. "You're not going to believe this," he began—and, indeed, only documents at Manhattan's Louise Wise adoption agency made it credible. Robert, David and Eddy are triplets, born in that order, within 27 minutes of each other. They were separated soon after birth. Reunited, the trio maintain they all smoke too many Marlboros, favor Italian food (though they were raised in Jewish homes) and like older women. "Even now it takes a few minutes to know which one is on the telephone," says David's still-astonished father, Richard. His adoptive mother, Claire, jokes that there was a plus in raising the boys apart: "One was hard enough to handle."

Indeed, together they have proved the undoing of such experienced interviewers as Today's Tom Brokaw, answering questions in unison and triple-teaming interlocutors with the sort of who's-who sight gags that look-alike siblings usually wear out by adolescence. Having become triplets overnight, they also became celebrities. Public appearances were orchestrated for them by attorney Jack Solomon. Acting as their agent, Solomon has tried to keep interviews circumscribed and upbeat, but in no time the press reported that Shafran was convicted of manslaughter earlier this year for his part in a robbery in which an 83-year-old woman was beaten to death with a crowbar. (He pleaded guilty, testified against his accomplice and, since in the words of the judge his role was "minimal," was sentenced to working weekends at a crippled children's home for five years.) Shafran enrolled at Sullivan because he wanted to start a new life. His musings on what it is like suddenly to be a triplet have an ambivalent ring. "All my life I have felt special and individual," he told one reporter. "Now I've met two people just like me."

The case raises many questions. The adoption agency refuses to comment on why the babies were separated; none of their adoptive parents were told their son was a triplet. The boys' case is significant in what it could reveal about the role of environment vs. heredity in determining human behavior. As triplets separated at birth, the boys could be a mine of information to psychologists like Dr. Thomas Bouchard at the University of Minnesota, who has interviewed 20 pairs of twins who were raised apart and later reunited. Bouchard has never heard of a case involving identical triplets. The longer the boys are together, the less conclusive any research will be, however. As of last week Bouchard had met with little success in his efforts to reach them, deterred by the practical wisdom of agent Solomon: "What's in it for them?"

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