Truth is much stranger than fiction is allowed to be.
So it is with the Tim Wardle documentary about adopted triplets who had been brought up in three different families, and found each other by chance in their late teens.
“It was a fairytale story and people need to hear wonderful things” says the aunt of one of the boys. The optimist. For a little while it did all seem wonderful – the boys had a fabulous time and made the most of their new found celebrity.
Except of course there is darkness at the heart of all fairytales, and so it turned out for these boys and their families.
The darkest twist of all was to discover that they were guinea pigs in a psychological experiment on what happens to twins/triplets who are separated and brought up in very different families.
This highly unethical research was never published, but the documentary concludes that there was some intention to settle the question of which is the stronger influence, nature or nurture? With a possibility that as well as examining the impact of different parenting styles, the children may have been chosen because they had parents with mental health problems.
When you are throwing yourself heart and soul into a new project, when it’s always there in the back of your mind incubating like some demonic parasite, it can seem that the whole universe conspires to keep your mind on topic.
I’m currently contemplating writing a memoir, or perhaps a novel partially inspired by my childhood. Re-reading Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s new Introduction has some thought-provoking advice –
“The trick,” she says, “is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own.”
After watching this stranger-than-fiction documentary, I suspect that any life story, however strange, must have some resonances for all of us, and that some of what may interest us the most, are the particularities in the way common experiences are expressed.
The nature and nurture question has always been important to me.
Natasha Josefowitz, who was one of the research associates involved in the study of these children, was convinced that they had shown that nature was overwhelmingly important. She said, “I didn’t believe it would be as much heredity as it was.”
When I found my birth mother, I was almost thirty and hadn’t seen her since I was two years old. I’d been brought up to believe I was a bad person who had to be watched all the time, and that this bad blood had come from my birth mother. I had a vested interest in believing that heredity mattered hardly at all. I was convinced that nurture was everything and that the family I grew up in had the most influence in shaping me.
But it turned out that my mother wasn’t some dreadful ogre – she was just an ordinary woman with good qualities and with some flaws – many of which I did share with her. I didn’t particularly resemble her physically, but there were some strong similarities in body language. Apparently we both had a way of sitting on a sofa and issuing instructions in common. Most of all, though, we did have a kind of temperament thing in common. Short tempered, for once, but in general the storms pass quickly and there’s an underlying warm heartedness for which I give thanks.
On the other hand, I also share some qualities with my stepfather, and there’s no genetic link there. We were on the same wavelength to the extent that I wondered for a while if the man I called Dad might not be.
The other research assistant they talked to in the programme, Dr Lawrence Perlman, made me rage. Both he and Natasha Josefowitz seemed sublimely uinconcerned with the ethics of the research they’ve been involved with – she with her boasting and name dropping and saying that it had been exciting stuff to work on, and him laughing and joking about how he had interviewed and given personality tests and filmed the children, all the time aware of their identical siblings.
I thought at first it was simply his lack of empathy, then I realised it reminded me of the times I’d found out about the people who had known things about me and my life that I didn’t know. Of course, this is something which is true for all children. But the teacher I had adored who taught me to read knew my birth mother, and secretly passed on information about my progress in school. The mother of one of my primary school friends was a nurse with my birth mother. The mother of one of my closest friends at grammar school knew my birth mother. They lived on the street I’d lived on as a baby, and invited me when I was in the sixth form to a sleepover where unknown members of my other family were allowed to take a look at me, without my knowledge. Yes, that still makes me rage.
Like those young men, I know what it’s like to find your family and to discover there’s more to nature than you really wanted to believe. There’s also the uncomfortable truth that even when you meet your family at last, and even when they welcome you and there’s a real emotional connection, you are somehow simultaneously family and strangers.
I don’t think it’s necessary to share the very particular life experiences of the boys to find some shared meaning, though. Nearly everyone must at some point have felt like an outsider with people they ought to feel a sense of belonging with. We all have areas of our own lives which are mysterious to us. We must have all experienced that feeling that everyone else knows something and we don’t – perhaps on that first day of school, for example, or in a new job. We’ve all been children, for whom elements of every single day must be like that.
When I first found out for sure that my family had been lying to me, and that my mother was actually a stepmother, I told my friends. One girl was really angry because she was sure she was the one who didn’t belong, who had a different family somewhere who would come and rescue her. That sense of not belonging is not exclusive to those with stepfamilies or who have been adopted.
The programme didn’t fundamentally change my mind on the question of nature or nurture. It must always be both. Genes and environment both matter. Genes have a very strong influence – perhaps more than we want to admit. Nurture matters too, and for the fortunate can overcome a great deal.
But still, I am most grateful for the temperament I inherited from my mother and my father.
The documentary is available on Channel 4 On Demand until the 29th March
Three Identical Strangers : the bizarre tale of triplets separated at birth (this Guardian headline is annoying because they were six months old, which adds a whole extra layer of cruelty)