Growing up, when Melanie Mertzel mentioned that she was an identical twin, strangers sometimes asked if she and her sister ever traded places like in the movie “The Parent Trap.”
“Mostly, I said ‘Yes,’” Mertzel, 55, told The Post, noting that it was easier that way. “But now, at this stage in my life, I’ll them what happened.”
Her remarkable story — growing up separately from the sister she knew nothing about — is featured in the new book “Deliberately Divided: Inside the Controversial Study of Twins and Triplets Adopted Apart” (Rowman & Littlefield), by California psychologist Nancy Segal, out now.
Mertzel described the “horrific” manner in which she and her sibling, Ellen Carbone, became unwitting “guinea pigs” in a warped study led by the prominent psychiatrists Peter Neubauer and Viola Bernard. The New York City physicians performed their hush-hush experiments on children given up for adoption between 1960 and 1978.
They worked with the Jewish adoption agency Louise Wise Services, located on East 94th Street in Manhattan. The multiples were sent to different families without the knowledge of their biological mothers — and the adoptive parents were never told that their new infants had identical siblings.
According to Segal, who is a twin herself, “blind scientific ambition” fueled the doctors’ determination to settle the “nature versus nurture” question for good.
Neubauer and Bernard’s techniques, mostly carried out by psychology students who visited families in their homes, included comparing the IQs of the estranged siblings, monitoring their physical dexterity and dissecting their personalities through methods such as the Rorschach inkblot test.
“The idea was to get a complete picture of the child,” Segal said. “It’s an ideal experiment to study twins raised apart from birth, but to intentionally separate them is morally unacceptable.”
The scheme gained notoriety in 2018 with the release of the documentary “Three Identical Strangers,” which focuses on triplets Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran.
Louise Wise Services initially insisted the separation was due to the difficulty of placing three babies in one home. It later emerged that the boys were purposefully sent to different families — one blue collar, one middle class, and one wealthy — to see how they developed in the varying environments.
Each of the trio dealt with long-term mental health issues and Galland killed himself in 1995.
The brothers discovered the truth after two of them met as students and a third brother came forward after learning about the case in the media.
Mertzel and Carbone, meanwhile, were reunited by chance when Carbone’s aunt spotted her niece’s doppelganger at an IHOP in Brooklyn.
“I called up Ellen and was shocked by how much she sounded like me,” recalled Mertzel, who lives in Queens. The then-23-year-olds noticed they had the same laugh and that their gait and gestures were strikingly similar.
“It was surreal, crazy and exciting,” said Carbone, of Lyndhurst, NJ. “I’d always wanted a sister.”
Their shocked parents were largely fobbed off by the staff at LWS when they tried to get answers. The agency admitted to Carbone’s mother that her daughter (whose maiden name is Lieber) was a twin and suggested to Mertzel’s that the splitting up of the two babies was, as Segal writes, “for the best.”
The author describes how the Mertzels wanted to protect their daughter by keeping it a “family secret.” The Liebers were more relaxed about things, welcoming Mertzel for visits as the young women’s friendship developed.
But it hasn’t been easy. Mertzel revealed how she often feels jealous of twins who were raised together.
“I used to say that the person who should be the closest to me, is a stranger to me,” she said. “Sometimes, I’d say to Ellen, ‘I wish I’d never met you so I didn’t know about this.’”
As for the study, the duo compared notes about having each been visited by groups of researchers before, as Segal said, “aging out” of the program at 12.
“I didn’t like them coming as I just wanted to be with my friends,” Carbone recalled to The Post. Conversely, Mertzel said: “As the third child in the family, I enjoyed it because of the attention.”
The Queens-based sister described how their suspicions were aroused since both had been subjected to the tests. “We thought something was up.”
They later found out that their moms and dads had consented to the research, mostly under duress. As Segal puts it, the parents were aware of the “strong implication” that LWS might halt the adoption process if they failed to comply.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Mertzel and Carbone unearthed the sinister reason they’d been pulled apart. One of their relatives showed them the book “Identical Strangers,” upon which the 2018 documentary was based, that examined the inner workings of the Neubauer study. The psychiatrists’ experiment had originally been uncovered in 1995 by an investigative journalist working for The New Yorker magazine.
“I feel like they messed with Mother Nature,” Mertzel said.
Despite the best efforts of reporters in the mid-1990s, the facts remained murky, particularly because the institutions involved in the scandal — including the Jewish Board of Guardians, now the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, where Neubauer served between 1951 and 1985 — lawyered up and dodged questions.
The results of the study, which, Segel writes, has since drawn comparisons to the notorious twin experiments by the Nazis under Josef Mengele, were never published. That was a decision made by Neubauer, who defended his methods until his 2008 death at the age of 94, as he allegedly predicted that public opinion would find them disturbing.
His records are sealed at the Yale University Library until Oct. 25, 2065, a date likely picked since most of the twins would have died by then. Only if the youngest subjects lived to the age of 99 would they be able to see their data. However, some 100,000 pages had been released by 2018. To the twins’ frustration, the information was heavily redacted and inconclusive.
More than 60 years after the research began, it’s impossible to know precisely how many twins and triplets were separated. Based on her own research, Segal believes there are at least 23 cases.
The fallout has taken its toll on Mertzel and Carbone, who work in the administration departments of two different hospitals. They concede that their interaction has been “complicated” as they’ve struggled to come to terms with the past.
“Somebody suggested the reason we have difficulties and arguments as adults is because we never got the sibling rivalry and fighting out of our system as young children,” Carbone told The Post.
Mertzel added: “What they did was just horrible.”
Meanwhile, Sharon Morello, who was separated in 1966 from her identical twin (not named in Segal’s book as she declined to participate) when they were newborns, told The Post: “We were lied to and deceived — my heart just breaks for all of us involved.”
She reunited with her sister in 2015 after a filmmaker tracked them down and put them in touch. The sisters initially got on. Recalling their first encounters in “Deliberately Divided,” Morello says: “It was wonderful — from day one, it was like we knew each other. We clicked totally. We had lived parallel lives.”
But the relationship crumbled within months. According to Morello, a teachers aide from Wayne, NJ, her sister began to resent her sibling’s childhood in a relatively affluent home. The other twin’s own adoptive family, who lived in a Bronx apartment, was more working class.
“A lot of the blame was on me,” Morello, now 55, told The Post. “But I didn’t choose.”
They also clashed when the other twin contacted their biological mother behind Morello’s back, while pretending to adhere to their plan to make the approach together.
“[Lack of] trust played a big part,” Morello said of her subsequent estrangement from her twin. “She said some horrible things about me to our birth mom.”
She claims that their birth mother thought they were true. “I mean, why would she believe one stranger over another?” Morello asked The Post.
The worst part, Morello said of her sister, was that “I lost her twice.”
By contrast, Allison Kanter, 57, of Calabasas, Calif., described her relationship with her long-lost twin, Michele Mordkoff, as a “love affair.”
Unlike the others, the two were fraternal twins who may have been mistaken as identical. Their adoptive families were also kept in the dark, but Neubauer excluded the girls from his study, presumably once he realized their DNA didn’t match.
“Michele and I spoke about what happened and it was almost as if we were collateral damage,” said Kanter, who first met Mordkoff in August 2018 at a Manhattan hotel. “They had an ulterior, sinister motive to separate the identical [babies,] but, for us, we were like: ‘What was our purpose?’”
Their shared emotions and experiences secured a touching bond between the two women. Kanter, a former jewelry designer, described it as “unbelievable” and “magical.”
Mordkoff, who lived in Wayne, NJ, told her sister that she’d “always wanted to be a twin.” Eerily, as a child she named her favorite doll Allison. Then, at the age of 6 or 7, Mordkoff had pleaded with her parents to add the middle name Allison to her birth certificate.
“There’s no rational explanation to it,” Kanter said. “I think it was something that was bigger than her.”
Tragically, Mordkoff died of pancreatic cancer in June. Kanter visited as often as she could while her twin battled the illness. Mordkoff would often say to Kanter: “Maybe this is the reason you came into my life — to support me and be there for me.”
Kanter, who has embraced her role as aunt to Mordkoff’s two sons, said she treasured the short time they enjoyed together. The siblings shared a FaceTime session about eight hours before Mordkoff’s death, and she appeared on screen in a T-shirt gifted by Kanter. Emblazoned across the front: “Hooray for Sisters!”
Despite labeling Neubauer and his team “narcissistic” and “lacking human values,” Kanter said the pair was determined to appreciate the positives of their reunion.
“We were just marching along,” Morello reflected. “We said: ‘Let’s just get on with our future together.’”
Meanwhile Segal, who interviewed seven Neubauer twins for her book, said that the discredited two-decades-long study “has taught us many lessons.”
As she told The Post: “It remains a great example of how not to do research.”
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