A British Journalist Unravels the Tale of the Twins Who Wouldn't Talk

UPDATED 10/27/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 10/27/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

Nobody suffers the way I do. 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.

—June Gibbons

They were a passionate and violent pair, pitted in a deadly competition with each other, yet united in an eerie psychic battle against the world. From childhood, twins June and Jennifer Gibbons were inseparably linked, bound together as if at the hip in a strange love and obsessive hatred.

Psychologists call them elective mutes. Since infancy the Gibbons girls communicated with each other in a strange speeded-up patois-like English, but rarely, if ever, did they speak to the adults who sought to penetrate their closed world. But their internal fight for self-identity was not a totally private one. Over the years the twins, children of a West Indian couple living in Wales, have produced a staggering number of journals, letters and poems, more than a million words in all.

Today, at age 23, they live behind walls, confined "without limit of time" to Broadmoor, the notorious maximum security hospital near London for the criminally insane. They were sentenced in 1982 after a reckless spree of arson and petty theft. Although the twins cannot speak directly to the world, their gothic story is finally being told. This month The Silent Twins, a biography by British journalist Marjorie Wallace (Prentice Hall, $16.95), is being published in the U.S. On Oct. 24 a two-hour dramatization of Wallace's narrative will air on the Arts and Entertainment cable network.

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 center 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.

Then she saw them. The girls were lifted into the room by attendants. Their bodies stiff as boards, they never moved a muscle. Lowered into chairs facing Wallace, they stared at the ground. The minutes ticked by. Silence. To break it, Wallace started babbling about their writing. Miraculously, the twins began to respond. One after the other, they fired questions at Wallace. "They were like desperate little animals, anxious to talk, staccato speaking," Wallace remembers. " 'What did you think about it? Was it any good?' one said. Then the other would interrupt, 'What did you think about mine? Was it any good?' I felt I got through to them only because I had bothered to pick up their manuscripts and read them."

In the course of the next few months Wallace gradually gained the twins' trust. They wrote to her and allowed her to read their prison journals. The most grueling part of Wallace's research was deciphering their diaries and notebooks. They were literally black with a miniature script. Sometimes it took Wallace five hours to read a single page. As each girl wrote 2,000 to 3,000 words a day, Wallace found herself trying to match up one version with the other. "I discovered that they were marvelously the same and yet tremendously different," she says. "Somewhere between their furious perceptions, reality lay exhausted. And so was I lying exhausted between their furious perceptions. It was like living through a horror movie."

Obsessed with what she was reading, Wallace went around quoting the phrases she had painstakingly transcribed—"What a senseless degrading havoc have I made of my poor sweet human life," went one. "Without my shadow, would I die? Without my shadow, would I gain life?" asked another. Wallace, who also interviewed the twins' family and friends, as well as doctors and social workers, began to put together the story of their lives.

They were born in 1963 at an RAF hospital in Aden, the capital of Yemen. June arrived first, Jennifer ten minutes later. Good-natured infants, they were late to talk. They were 3 years old before they put together simple sentences. Their teachers noticed that they were reluctant to speak but could read quite well. Because of his job, Aubrey and his wife, Gloria, were continually pulling up stakes. As a result of changing schools so often, the twins turned more and more to each other. They were taunted in school because of their color, as well as their silence. By age 11, they refused to talk or sit in the same room with their parents and three siblings. When they walked down the street, they took turns following each other, synchronizing their steps. If anyone looked at them, they froze in position. Aubrey and Gloria were concerned, but they were frequently reassured by well-meaning yet ignorant friends and teachers at the local schools that given time the girls would grow out of their problems. They didn't.

Soon the twins were fighting off other changes too. To keep their breasts flat, they wrapped bandages around them. In 1977, a few days after their 14th birthday, they were sent to the Eastgate Center for Special Education. The test results were contradictory. The twins scored as socially maladjusted, depressed and withdrawn on the one hand, and well-balanced and independent on the other. The most stunning example of June and Jennifer's bizarre behavior was provided by a videotape of the two made with a hidden camera. Thinking they were unobserved, the girls cavorted, laughed and talked happily with each other. Weekly therapy sessions with the resident psychologist were a failure. The girls refused to speak.

When June and Jennifer left school two years later, they registered for unemployment and retreated into their room. The family heard giggles and occasional furious struggles but saw virtually nothing of them. Gloria slid mail underneath the door, delivered meals on a tray and waited for the girls to emerge from their cocoon.

Inside the room, the twins, now 17, were on a creative tear, hoping their writing would bring them fame. June wrote a novel, Pepsi-Cola Addict, which she had published by a vanity press. (She and Jennifer pooled their unemployment benefits to cover the expenses.) Competing with her sister, Jennifer wrote three novels herself, although they were never published.

There were other developments. The girls finally discovered boys. "God knows what memories would be mine had that summer not told me the secrets of love, passion and sex," Jennifer wrote in her journal. "They are all there in my mind like a string of golden flashes. Somebody gave me an opportunity to do something about my life, and I took it as a child will take candy." The girls lost their virginity; Jennifer first, June a week later to the same boy.

It was a tempestuous time, punctuated by murderous fights. Jennifer tried to strangle June with a radio cord. June attempted to drown Jennifer in the river. By now the girls were budding delinquents, drinking heavily and smoking marijuana, committing petty thefts and arson. They occasionally broke their silence to communicate their desires. They burned down a tractor store in October 1981, injuring a fireman and causing $200,000 worth of damage. Two weeks later they committed the crime that landed them in Broadmoor—vandalism and attempted arson at a technical college near their home.

Wallace says she wrote The Silent Twins (her fifth book) in hopes of arousing public interest in the girls' plight. As for their parents' failure to act effectively, Wallace says, "They are very caring people who had no malice. But it took them a very long time to realize how serious the situation was."

Wallace is no stranger to the darker subjects of life. At the Sunday Times, where she has worked since 1972, she has produced stories on abortion, a dioxin disaster in Italy, the handicapped and the homeless. An intense and disorganized person, Wallace, who refuses to divulge her age, was conceived in Danish writer Isak Dinesen's house in Kenya—her parents were renting it at the time. Her father, a civil engineer, had moved to Africa to cut rail paths through the jungle. Wallace returned to England when she was 8 and in the mid-'60s graduated with honors from London University. Today she lives in a cluttered house in the Highgate section of London with her second husband, Dr. Tom Margerison, a nuclear scientist, and their baby daughter. Wallace's three sons by her first marriage also live with them.

Wallace last saw June and Jennifer on a visit to Broadmoor a few weeks ago. The pink, punk hairstyle they affected earlier this year was gone. The twins live in separate wards and are talking and giggling a bit more, as well as competing for the same young men prisoners. They are dolled up now, with heavy makeup. "They are just becoming teenagers," Wallace says. "They're 23 and they're behaving like 16-year-olds."

Despite the uncertainty of their future, the twins can't help but think about leaving Broadmoor. "What sort of day will it be when I walk free?" June writes, in the passage that closes Wallace's book. "What kind of weather? How old will I be? J. and I are two twins of history, coloured girls. Life will go on outside, passing away; memories of our trial, of our case. And one day we will be quietly, secretly released; mature women. All things must end. New things begin."

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