Howard Burack always knew he was adopted. He just never knew that he had a twin, too. Born in 1963, Burack grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Rockland County, a suburb north of New York City. He had a normal childhood, great parents, etc. In an interview with 20/20, he told his story about being adopted when he was a baby from Louise Wise Services, a well-known Jewish adoption agency in New York City.
Burack’s perspective changed completely, however, when in his 30s, he made a routine inquiry to the adoption agency, only to discover some life-altering news. When he requested his birth records, he was told that somewhere in the world, he had an identical twin brother. The problem, though, was that the agency told him they couldn’t release his sibling’s name until he, too, requested his records (thanks to New York laws).
This is their story.
Burack knew something was missing in his life, he “just [didn’t] know what it was… You can’t touch it. You can’t feel it. Something was there.” ABC News consultant and filmmaker behind the documentary The Twinning Reaction, Lori Shinseki, helped Burack and others who were split up at birth to get answers about their identical siblings.
The “twinning reaction” is a term she uses to express the special connection twins have by spending so much time together, beginning at conception. Shinseki explained that twins are together in the womb, the crib, touching and holding each other, and interacting from a very young age. The popular Netflix documentary Three Identical Strangers was a similar, albeit fascinating story, but Shineski’s film tells the shocking story of other multiples who were separated at birth, adopted by different families, without the agency ever telling them about their siblings.
Shinseki uncovered a secret about a woman named Sharon Morello. Like Burack, Morello was also born in the 1960s and adopted through Louise Wise Services. Shinseki called Morello’s adoptive mother, Vivian Bregman, to tell her that she was doing a documentary and that her daughter Sharon actually has an identical twin sister.
Bregman was utterly shocked and hung up the phone. She recalled: “It took me hours to call her back to say, ‘All right, what’s going on?’” Bregman said she was never been told about a twin and that she would have adopted the twins together had she known. It turns out that Morello, Burack and other children adopted through Louise Wise Services were the unfortunate victims of a double deception…
It was a matter of a double deception: Not only were these babies separated from their identical siblings, but they were also subjected to a long-term secret study by scientists without receiving the informed consent of the adoptive families. Anyone hearing this story is wondering, “how is this legal?” Well, that’s just one thing the victims of the study demanded to find out.
The parents were told that their baby was part of a child-development study and that “If you want the baby, we would like to continue studying the child.” Sadly, these families would have done anything just to adopt. So they agreed to the conditions. There were scientists in the 1960s who decided to study nature vs. nurture, and evidently, they found a way through adoption agencies, such as this one, to place twins with different families.
They made it sound like it was to everybody’s benefit to see how smart the kid is, which is what one victim, Helen Rausch, said in the documentary. The babies in the study are all adults now, but many of them admit to having memories of strange, intrusive visits from “nosy strangers” throughout their early childhood years, who would visit them and question, test, and film them.
“They did all kinds of psychology tests and drawing and just looking at things and inkblots and drawings and talking to you and asking questions,” Burack recalled. Morello said they never really understood why these researchers were coming to their home. “It was weird, and I hated it, you know when I got older,” Morello said. These visits lasted over a decade in some of the cases.
Burack said researchers still came to his house when he was 11 or 12 years old. By that point, he no longer wanted to participate in their research. All the families involved insisted that they were unaware of their adopted child’s twin (or triplet), nor were they even remotely aware that they were being studied to test how identical twins fared growing up in different homes.
It was 1998 when Burack was 35 years old and unaware of the existence of his twin that he wrote to Louise Wise Services requesting information about his biological parents. It was then that he heard the shocking news. He recalls the interaction: “She said, ‘You have an identical twin brother,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, thanks for telling me that.’”
The agency basically dropped a bomb and left him in limbo. Since they didn’t reveal his twin brother’s information, he knew he just had to find his brother; he just needed to figure out how to find him. “I spent about two years, every day, thinking about this. It never left,” Burack revealed. He started looking at people differently, constantly searching for a face that looked like his.
He would even ask people to tell him if they ever saw someone who looked like him. “It was pretty disturbing. I mean, it was just an unknown.” He didn’t know if he would ever find his brother. What if he wasn’t even alive anymore?
Burack was just one of the lot. Doug Rausch learned of his secret history two years after Burack. In 2000, Louise Wise Services was beginning to go out of business. There was a woman at the agency who had cancer, knew she was dying, and clearly had a conscience. Before she left, and before the place closed down, she called Doug Shinseki said that “She couldn’t go to her grave without letting some of these kids know that they had identical twins.”
The woman told Rausch, “I’m not supposed to do this. I can get in a lot of trouble, but I’m going to do it anyway.” That’s when she told him about his identical twin brother. Rausch, who was driving at the time of the call, nearly drove off the road. “It’s not something you ever expect to hear.”
Rausch allowed the agency to give his contact information to his twin and simply waited to hear from his brother – someone he never knew existed. When that call finally came, he learned that his twin’s name was Howard Burack. “I finally called him,” Burack said, “and we talked for a while, and it was, you know like I knew this person my whole life. It was amazing.”
The twin brothers reunited, in the flesh, at an airport in Columbus, Ohio. “I don’t get nervous really easy or rattled. I still remember sitting on that plane dripping sweat, and just being so nervous about… meeting this person that looked like me, that I had no connection with,” Rausch said.
Rausch admitted that he laughed when he saw his brother for the first time. “It was just the funniest thing I’d ever seen ‘cause it literally was like looking in my reflection. But then the reflection would move and do something I wasn’t doing. I don’t know how to describe that, and I don’t think most people can relate to it… It was a very, very weird feeling.”
The two brothers hit it off immediately. They compared the lives they led and noticed patterns. According to Rausch, they essentially lived parallel lives. Both coach hockey and have children who play hockey. Rausch’s daughter wears the No. 2, as so does Burack’s son. The brothers both carried their wallets in their front pockets and married their wives in the same year, in 1992.
Sharon Morello was also stunned to hear that she was separated from her identical twin in this mysterious study and ultimately became obsessed with finding her sister. She wondered what it would have been like growing up together and how similar or different they would be. But there was another reason why she felt the need to find her long lost twin.
She wanted to warn her sister that she had just battled breast cancer. “I needed to make sure she was healthy. So I think that’s part of what drove me, that I needed to let her know,” Morello said. With just enough information to start her search, she went through birth records at the New York Public Library.
She had her birth certificate, her number, and she knew her birth first name and last initial: Danielle G. When Louise Wise Services went out of business in 2004, the records were turned over to the Spence-Chapin adoption agency. That’s where Morello went next and finally managed to get the agency to pass her contact information on to her twin.
Morello remembers very clearly receiving the email with her name and address. “And I’m looking at it, like, ‘No phone number? What do I do?’” Morello said. “Thank God for Facebook.” Morello found her sister on Facebook and sent her a message. They instantly bonded.
Morello said she asked her right away, “Are you afraid of anything?” That’s when they realized that they both don’t like snakes, spiders, or heights. They soon met in person, learning that they both have two children and both named their youngest child Joshua.
Meanwhile, Rausch and Burack continued on their journey: demanding answers about the heinous secret study. They learned that the study was conducted by psychiatrist Dr. Peter Neubauer. Unfortunately, Neubauer’s data from his twins’ study are being held at Yale University, where they are sealed until 2066. Only the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, the deceased psychiatrist’s former employer, can permit them to be released before that date.
In 2011, Rausch and Burack decided to write the Jewish Board a letter requesting to see the sealed records. However, the board told them: “There does not appear to be any indication that the Yale material relates to you and your brother. Therefore, it is simply not possible to grant you access to the Yale material.” Everyone in their right mind, including filmmaker Shinseki, knows that is simply not true.
To get a little background information, this is how the study came to be. Dr. Viola Bernard, a psychiatrist and consultant to Louise Wise Services held the belief that adoptive twins would thrive more if raised in separate homes where they could get individual attention from their adoptive mothers.
According to Dr. Nancy Segal, a child-development expert, there is “no basis to ever support” the notion that twins are better off in separate families. Still, based on this advice, the agency started splitting up sets of twins and triplets. Bernard also enabled Neubauer to begin a long-term study of the separated twins to see how each would progress in different environments.
Bernard left her documents with Columbia University, and similar to Neubauer’s, her instructions were to keep them sealed until the year 2021. As Shinseki continued her research, she met journalist Lawrence Wright, who interviewed both Neubauer and Bernard in 1997. His interviews with them are the only known recordings of them discussing the controversial study and the separation of multiples.
Wright asked Neubauer to explain the scope of the study, to which Neubauer said: “For special reasons, which if I were to go into it, you wouldn’t understand, the study was only based on a small number of identical twins separated at birth.” Wright doesn’t think that Neubauer really acknowledged the damage and trauma that these children would go on to experience as a result of his study.
Wright also explained that Neubauer wouldn’t give specifics about the study because it had never been published. To make it all that much more tragic, the very study that created this whole mess was never even published.
Before Neubauer died, Rausch said he had the chance to talk with the director of the study himself on the phone. “That didn’t go too well,” Rausch said. He asked Neubauer straight up: “Why would you do something like that?” As Rausch explained, Neubauer said he “thought it was fine.” He even asked Rausch to come to New York so he could interview him.
“The conversation didn’t end well, let’s put it that way.” Rausch felt like he and the others were treated like “lab rats.” He said, “That just blew my mind that he thought, at 90 years old, that was fine.”
Amazingly, Shinseki was able to find that some of the researchers who visited the children at their homes were still alive.
Larry Perlman, one assistant in the study, was a young graduate student when he took the job. Perlman was featured in Shinseki’s documentary and described how his job was mainly to help with the analysis of the data. “We wanted to see if we could tease out some of the subtleties of [Neubauer’s] child-rearing processes and family dynamics, and how that might affect the development of these two individuals who were genetically identical, but are being raised in totally different families,” Perlman explained.
Shinseki told Rausch and Burack that Perlman divulged that he had personally studied them in their separate homes when they were six years old. The brothers then met Perlman, and he told them that at the time he got involved in the study, there were five sets of twins being monitored.
Shinseki managed to track down another researcher by the name of Janet David, who made a few house calls to study the twins, including Morello. During one visit, David realized that she had actually gone to college with Morello’s adoptive mother. Even then, she still didn’t reveal the true intention to her former college peer.
David eventually agreed to meet with Morello and her mother. Morello asked David why she never told her mother about her twin. David then explained that she left the study shortly after meeting Morello and her mother. “I had nothing to do with anything like that. I had nothing to do with policy, to begin with,” David clarified.
David admitted that she never felt as though the way the study was being handled was wrong. “We knew that the families were competent parents and so there’s no harm here,” David said. “That part never struck me as wrong. It looked like the babies are going to good families.” She added, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about it, but I was not responsible.”
Both Morello and her mother were disappointed by what David told them. “It didn’t occur to her that what she was doing was screwing with people’s lives,” Bregman said.
As for Rausch and Burack, they were able to get some answers with the help of a lawyer whom Shinseki put them in touch with.
Luckily for the twins, Perlman kept his notes of the home visits, proving they were indeed part of the study. And so, in 2013, the brothers were able to get the Jewish Board to release some of the sealed records. What they learned from the records was that despite the fact that Bernard told Wright in 1997 that she only favored separating twins soon after birth (so they wouldn’t develop an attachment for one another), that “rule” didn’t apply to them.
According to the records, the brothers were together until they were six months old. Only then were they separated and adopted by different families. The records also showed that after being separated, the two infants showed signs of stress and even a decline in motor dexterity.
The records also revealed that both infants began rocking after the split, where one of them exhibited headbanging until his second birthday. “It’s just wrong. What they did was really, really wrong. The more stuff I read, the more wrong it seems and the more upsetting it gets,” Rausch said.
Morello and her twin sister were three months old when they separated. When the two reconnected, Morello’s sister told her she always “felt alone, and that something was missing.” Unfortunately, Morello said she and her sister are not on speaking terms anymore, ever since she went public with their story. However, Pam Slaton, an investigative genealogist, was able to track down the twin sisters’ birth mother and connect them.
Their birth mother said she never forgot about her baby girls and just assumed that they would be adopted together. When she called the adoption agency back to ask if they found a home for her twins, she was told, “Yeah, we found homes for them. They’re being split,” Morello explained. “She was heartbroken. Absolutely heartbroken.”
Morello and her birth mother have yet to meet in person, but they have exchanged several messages. “I’m so grateful for what she did, you know, gave birth to us and so sad for what she went through,” Morello said. “It’s horrible what she went through, giving us up, and it’s not what she wanted.”
Of the 10 to 15 sets of twins who were believed to be separated at birth by Louise Wise Services, some have reported serious issues in their mental health, according to Shinseki. It appears as though at least three have committed suicide, including Eddy Galland, the triplet (from Three Identical Strangers) who took his own life in 1995, 15 years after reuniting with his brothers.
“His wife says that he was never able to get over the separation and the loss. 19 years that he didn’t have with his brothers,” Shinseki said. For all the twins Shinseki spoke to in her documentary, the pain of being separated was very real. “It’s their belief that it, at least, had some impact,” she said.
It became clear that the separations had an impact on their sadness, loneliness and depression as children. There may be other children who are now adults who have no clue that they were separated from their identical siblings or were a part of this study.
Shinseki’s documentary, The Twinning Reaction, won the best documentary award at the Jersey Shore Film Festival. She hopes her film will serve as a cautionary tale. “Humans are not data,” she said. Rausch and Burack are not angry or bitter, though. “It would have been awesome growing up together, but I believe we were both very lucky and are not looking backward,” Burack said.
20/20 made repeated attempts to contact Spence-Chapin, now the source of all of the Louise Wise Services records, which include the names of the twins who were separated. After the original 20/20 report aired on March 9th, 2018, on ABC, the Jewish Board sent written apologies to the twins who appeared in the program.
They wrote, “We recently watched the 20/20 telecast about the separation of twins, and we’re deeply moved by the comments you made. We realize that our efforts have fallen short and that we can and should do more. We feel we must reach out, acknowledge our past error, and set a new moral course for the future.”
Some of the twins have since accepted the board’s invitation to start a dialogue and to “begin the task of repairing past wrongs and making them right.”
It’s not so easy to apply modern ethical standards to events that took place much earlier, especially when it comes to determining who – or what – is to blame. But in this case, ethical concerns were raised at the time the study was taking place. Regardless of what was considered ethical back then, today, we can see that it violated all modern guidelines of ethical research with human beings.
Considering that the data was never fully analyzed or even published means the study doesn’t even hold any significant scientific value. The children and their adoptive parents were selected solely on the basis of their vulnerability (the need to be adopted and the desire to adopt).
Furthermore, the well-being of the “participants” (or “victims”) continues to be disrespected due to the ongoing secrecy about the research. One of the biggest violations of ethics here was the lack of informed consent from the families being studied. Today, research sometimes tolerates deception, but only when it involves minimal risk and doesn’t violate participants’ rights and welfare.
While the first two criteria were clearly abandoned in this case, the third part – providing a debriefing – can still be fulfilled, as many of the victims are still alive. Failing to do so means that there’s still an ongoing ethical breach. And so, this study is not just a historical example of unethical research – it’s also a modern example of one that’s being allowed to continue today.
The right and ethical thing to do at this point is to notify all the multiples who were separated at birth and their adoptive families. It is shocking to learn that some of them are likely unaware of their involvement. But who should do the debriefing is a difficult question to answer?
Neubauer died in 2008, and Louise Wise Services shut down in 2004. Moreover, researchers who are still alive have limited information. Yale has the records but can’t release them until 2066. After initially refusing subjects’ requests or doing the minimum of providing only pages of heavily redacted raw data, the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services are now going in a new direction.
The organization is finally moving in the right direction. Following ABC’s 20/20 expose in March 2018, the board sent apologies to some of the individuals, acknowledging the “past error” and that its prior “efforts have fallen short.” They also claim to be seeking to “set a new moral course for the future,” which includes “the task of repairing past wrongs and making them right.”
At the very least, the twins and their families should be given access to their own research records. Another course of action would be for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services to voluntarily order Yale to release the sealed records to the subjects involved.
There’s also the action of having the board grant review rights to experts in psychology, child development, bioethics, and history to thoroughly review and summarize the research. That way, it can be made at least somewhat meaningful to those who unknowingly took part in the study. Because up until now, it has been for nothing.
It’s important to show respect for the subjects involved by answering their questions, especially those about whether anything was even learned from this. While the actual number of people who were directly affected by Neubauer’s study is small, the magnitude of the harm is huge.