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Photo: Unknown Source. June and Jennifer Gibbons along with Marjorie Wallace.

Photo: Unknown Source.
June and Jennifer Gibbons along with Marjorie Wallace.

The Silent Twins

Eerie, Tormented And Gifted

Dubbed the Silent Twins because they only communicated with their immediate family, June and Jennifer Gibbons were born in Wales in 1963 and grew up as social pariahs who were frequently bullied. They had speech impediments, and as the years went by, their secret twin language became more unique and less intelligible to outsiders. The sisters, who committed several crimes, including arson and petty theft, were committed to England’s Broadmoor Hospital, where they lived for 11 years and were later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The sisters had an intense love-hate relationship and eventually made a pact while at Broadmoor: one had to die so the other could lead a normal life. Jennifer even admitted to Marjorie Wallace [journalist Marjorie Wallace came along and unearthed their inner world] during a visit: “I’m going to die. We’ve decided.” In 1993, hours after their release, Jennifer, at the age of 29, died on her sister’s shoulder from a sudden inflammation of the heart muscle. The cause remains a mystery.

There is no way to explain the bizarre saga of England`s silent twins, June and Jennifer Gibbons, who carried their ferocious fight for identity into madness and crime. From infancy on, they tuned out the world, utterly refusing to talk to anyone except themselves. Medical science calls them elective mutes. As they grew up, the twins became trapped by their silence, isolated by weirdness and bonded by their incompleteness. As the youngest of five children of Aubrey Gibbons, a West Indian technician for the British Royal Air Force and his wife, Gloria, the girls communicated only with each other in anxious, staccato bursts of a made-up English dialect. They flatly refused to speak to their parents and others who sought to enter their closed lives.

Yet they also possessed surprising literary gifts and as writers understood their plight quite well.

”Nobody suffers the way I do,” June Gibbons wrote in her diary. “Not with a sister. With a husband-yes. With a wife-yes. With a child-yes. But this sister of mine, a dark shadow robbing me of sunlight, is my one and only torment.”

As they passed through childhood, their family was usually on the move, causing the twins to rely on each other even more. In schools they were taunted because of their colour as well as their silence. Confused teachers threw up their hands. They told the parents that the twins would outgrow their odd behavior, but they never did.

By the time they were 11 years old, they refused to sit in the same room with or speak to their parents and siblings. If they wished to watch a certain TV show, they would leave a note for their parents, asking that the door to the TV room be left open. Then they would sit on the stairs, watching the show through the doorway. If an older brother or sister came in, they’d scurry back upstairs.

In public, the twins acted like zombies, like automatons-they even moved in perfect synchrony and would goose-step silently through town. If they felt threatened, they froze in catatonia, making their bodies stiff as boards. They were so attuned to each other that if they went horseback riding and one fell off, the other immediately would fall off, too.

After the family settled near an air base in the dreary little Welsh town of Haverford West, the girls locked themselves away in their bunk bedroom and grew obsessed with the idea of becoming famous novelists. They gushed millions of words into diaries, poems, stories, novels and Bronte-like ultraminiature books that could only be deciphered with a magnifying glass.

When publishers rejected their work, they started to commit crimes.

After a heedless spree of arson and petty theft followed by a quick trial in 1982, they were committed “without limit of time” to Broadmoor, England’s most notorious institution for the criminally violent insane

It was a colleague’s casual remark about the twins’ arrest for theft and arson that sent Wallace racing to Haverfordwest, a dreary little town in West Wales. A reporter for the Sunday Times, Wallace went to investigate the story. She was shocked by the sentence the girls received. “It was like condemning young children to live with rapists and murderers,” says Wallace.

Eager to learn more about the twins’ past, Wallace met with their father, Aubrey, an assistant air traffic controller at a nearby Royal Air Force base. He invited her to examine the evidence the police had only recently returned to the family. With Aubrey at her side, Wallace climbed the stairs to the girls’ cramped quarters and discovered an extraordinary cache. “In this tiny little bedroom in this barren house there were books you would never expect to find in housing developments,” says Wallace. ” Wuthering Heights, Jane Austen, encyclopedias, books on the supernatural.” Also strewn around the room were typewritten manuscripts, scraps of journals written on old cardboard and scores of drawings. Wallace stuffed everything into large black plastic bags and hauled the material back to London in the trunk of her car.

A few weeks later Aubrey asked Wallace to accompany him to visit the twins at a detention centre where the girls were held before being transferred to Broadmoor. The fascinated journalist jumped at the offer. Worried that she wouldn’t be admitted because of heavy security, Wallace walked in without asking permission. “They all thought I was the twins’ mother, although quite how, I don’t know,” Wallace laughs.

She thought she might be able to break through their silence.

WALLACE: And then the twins were brought in and that was the most extraordinary moment. First of all, two of the prison warders took one twin in, just leaning like a plank or like a coffin really, on their shoulders and that they just got her in and she sat down and her eyes were downcast. She didn’t move, her hands just hanging by her side. And then the second twin came in and the same thing happened, and they just sat there. And then suddenly I said, do you know, June and Jennifer, I’ve read some of your writings? And suddenly, I saw a little flicker in June’s eyes. She started to look up, and there was a little twitching of her lips, and with great difficulty she got out the words did you like them?

June and Jennifer’s notebooks were full of their diary entries, but they also included poems and short stories. June had even written a full-length novel, “Pepsi-Cola Addict,” and Jennifer had written a story about two birds raised in a zoo. They desperately wanted to be recognized and famous through their writings, to have them published and to have their story told. And I thought that maybe one way of freeing them, liberating them, would be to unlock them from that silence.

By the time Marjorie started writing about the twins, their trial was already underway. In the end, they were both convicted of arson, and the judge committed the twins to Broadmoor, Britain’s most secure institution for the criminally insane.

It was quite an injustice that they were taken to somewhere so secure, but sadly no other institution would accept them and that was because everyone who interviewed them and found them too eerie, too spooky.

The doctors thought June and Jennifer were deeply disturbed and dangerous. Some days, only one twin would eat, and the next day, the other would indulge as her sister starved. Other times, the nurses would find them frozen in the same pose, even though there were locked in cells on opposite ends of the hospital. But when she spent with them Marjorie was able to see beyond June and Jennifer’s odd and sometimes unsettling behavior. She spent almost every weekend with the twins at Broadmoor.

An entire decade went by, and weekend after weekend, Marjorie visited the twins and hung out with them. More than anything, Marjorie wanted them to break their silence and start engaging with the rest of the world.

And finally, the doctors at Broadmoor announced they were transferring the twins to Caswell Clinic. And maybe, after about a year in Caswell, the twins could be released and rejoin the outside world. Marjorie decided to make one last visit to the twins in Broadmoor before their transfer.

WALLACE: I took my daughter in, and we went through all the doors and then we went into the place where the visitors were allowed to have tea. And we had quite a jolly conversation to begin with. And then suddenly, in the middle of the conversation, Jennifer said, Marjorie, Marjorie, I’m going to have to die, and I sort of laughed. I sort of said what? Don’t be silly. You’re 31 years old. You know, you’re just about to be freed from Broadmoor. Why are you going to have to die? You’re not ill. And she said, because we’ve decided. At that point, I got very, very frightened because I could see that they meant it. And then they said, we have made a pact. Jennifer has got to die because they said the day that they left Broadmoor, the day that they were free from the secure hospital, one of them would have to give up their life to really enable the other one to be free. I later found out that they had been quarreling violently – from the staff at Broadmoor – about who was going to die. And then they passed over a little poem that they’d written, which was (reading) that two is your laughing, that two is your smiling and now I’m dead, that too is your crying.

Jennifer’s cheekbones were very thin and her face looked very flushed. She looked, I think, quite afraid. June looked determined. I was very disturbed at the end of this visit. Marjorie immediately called their doctors, who said they were monitoring the twins and told her not to worry. She just waited, hoping to get a call that the twins had arrived safely at Caswell. Finally, she heard from one of the doctors.

Apparently, what happened was that a car came to fetch them. Jennifer hadn’t been very well the night before, and they turned and they looked at the green gates at Broadmoor. It had big, green gates. And as they closed, Jennifer slumped on June’s shoulder. She fell into a coma. Why the staff didn’t do anything on the way, I don’t know, but they drove down to Wales. Jennifer was taken and lain on a bed in the hospital. By 6:15 that night, she’d been taken into casualty and she was dead. June had gone to visit her straightaway afterwards and laid a red rose over her. I felt absolutely devastated. I felt chill, and I felt so intensely sad.

The cause of Jennifer’s death still remains a mystery. The autopsy revealed major swelling around her heart. The coroner never found any poison in her body.

WALLACE: I’ve spent many years now wondering about the mystery of Jennifer’s death. Now, I don’t think there is really an explanation for that except Jennifer willing herself to die. After I learned about Jennifer’s death – it was about two or three days later – I went down to visit June. And I found her surprisingly intact, really, and very prepared to talk. She spoke very clearly about the conflict between her terrible grief at losing the person closest in her life and her – the freedom that Jennifer had given her.

Since her sister’s death, June lives a normal life with her family in Wales. It’s as if she never had a psychotic twin sister that she tried to kill a bunch of times. She has her sunlight.

The Silent Twins

The tragedy of a double life

The Silent Twins


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