THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS: Nature, Nurture, Neither, Both

What makes you you? What are the things that create the person you are? Are you created by the sum of your genes? Is there a genetic destiny that exists beyond our control, that will send you down a path no matter the circumstance?

Or are you created by your circumstances? Does the environment in which you were raised have a greater impact? The question, when boiled down, is the familiar head-to-head battle: nature vs. nurture.

A trio of triplets offer a unique look at this question, as each of them was adopted out at six months, and they spent the first 19 years of their lives not knowing they had a sibling, let alone two who were identical at the DNA level. In 1980 two of these three met through strange coincidence; when they appeared in the newspapers their third brother had the shock of seeing himself – twice! – on the front page. Then they were three, and there was an automatic bond. These three identical strangers took to each other, filling gaps in one another they didn’t even realize had been there. You might think that discovering there are two other yous in the world would make you feel less unique, less special, crowded in. But for these three it seemed to be the moment that set them free, that allowed them to be who they should have always been. They soon discovered remarkable similarities about their lives – they were all wrestlers! They all smoked Marlboros! They all liked older women! – and basked in the glow of pre-internet viral fame.

But the question of how the three of them ended up separated, yet living within a hundred mile radius of one another, one in a working class home, one in a middle class home, and one in a wealthy home, tugged at their adoptive parents. What they learned, slowly and over the years, stunned and shocked them all, and…

Well, to say any more would be to rob you of the rich pleasures of Three Identical Strangers, a documentary that begins like a lighthearted human interest piece and that takes a turn for the strange and disturbing. The questions raised in the second half of the movie will tug at you on both philosophical and ethical levels. The journey is fascinating, and the twists and turns will have you gasping – literally, people gasped in my theater when I saw it.

The question of why we are who we are is one of the most important we can ask. After all, if you could better understand the decisions that you made, you could make better decisions. Or if you’re not actually making decisions – if it’s all a veil of faux-free will imposed by your genes – it’s good to know that too. The story of these triplets offers insights into this fundamental question about humanity, and I have to tell you, the answers I came away with reinforced what I have learned in my Buddhist studies.

The Buddha taught that there is no ‘self,’ no solid-state thing that exists at the center of us. That means no soul, no consistent internal being. He explained our sense of ‘self’ with the five skandhas, or ‘heaps’ or ‘aggregates,’ which come together to create the experience we have of being living beings.

The first is form, or matter. This is the body, but it’s also your DNA. It’s your genetic heritage. Yes, there are things that are genetically hardwired into you, and they do make a difference in terms of who you are, but they aren’t the whole story.

Next is sensation, which is your sensual experience of the world. This falls into three general categories – pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. How you experience things sensually informs who you are. Then there’s perception, which allows you to recognize and label things. It allows you to look at a car and see a car, but it also keeps you from seeing all the component parts that make up a car.

There’s mental formations, which kind of fits under the ‘nurture’ tab in nature vs. nurture. These are your conditioned responses to things, the ways that your mind reacts to what it perceives and senses. You become conditioned in a number of ways, but your upbringing is clearly a major component of it. You continue to become conditioned throughout your life. Then there’s consciousness, which is a whole other pile of beans in Buddhism.

Anyway, you can see that within the Buddhist concept of the illusion of self we have nature and nurture already included. Watching Three Identical Strangers I could see how the five aggregates came together to create the sense of self for each of these triplets, and it was exciting.

More than that, their story illustrates a spiritual concept so basic that it’s become cliche – none of us are separate, we’re all connected. We’re all one… yet we’re all different. The similarities in their lives before reunion tended towards the spooky, and it’s incredible to watch these reunited siblings display similar mannerisms just days or weeks after meeting each other for the first time. They are literally the same person, on a biological level, made of the same matter, arranged in the same way.

And yet they end up quite different. The focus on the similarities doesn’t do justice to the totality of their humanity, and the triplets are different in as many ways as they are the same. This is the situation for all of us – we are all made of the same matter (although arranged in slightly different ways; our DNA is all very similar to each other, but not so similar as in this case), but we are all experiencing this matter in different ways. There are a great number of similarities between us as human beings, but there are also a great number of difference – and both aspects are important and worthy of celebration.

Setting aside the shocking twists, turns and injustices that become clear in the second half of Three Identical Strangers, the movie illustrates some of the most profound spiritual ideas possible. In fact it illustrates the very concept of spirituality in the existence of these twins – there is more to them than the matter that makes up their bodies. The materialist view of humanity would say that the things that seem beyond the physical – their thoughts, their emotions – are manifestations of chemicals, but by the end of the movie it seemed clear to me that while brain chemistry had some impact on the lives of these triplets, there was more at play than just serotonin levels. After all, they have identical brains, yet they don’t have identical fates.

I think it’s nature AND nurture, and that pitting the two against each other is a classic Western bit of dualistic thinking. It’s nature and it’s nurture, and it’s also neither of those things because it’s existing beings continuously processing their existence, and being changed forever by it. It’s the interplay of all these things – where you come from, where you were, where you are – and it’s only applicable right this second. Because the you who is reading this sentence won’t be the same you who has finished this sentence.

These three identical strangers are us – built from the same materials, structurally similar in so many ways, yet absolutely unique and ourselves. We are both separate and integrally connected, completely different and completely the same.