Not So Strange Twins: June and Jennifer Gibbons

They have been labeled strange, though their life story is true. June and Jennifer Gibbons were two creative and insightful identical twins whose lives were both an enigma and a mystery to everyone except themselves. Their vow of silence led to a life of crime and, eventually, lifelong hospitalization in part because of their silence. 
They were the daughters of Caribbean immigrants Gloria and Aubrey Gibbons. Aubrey was in the Royal Air Force, so the family moved often. The twins were born in Yemen in 1963; the family moved to England, and finally to Wales. 
June and Jennifer Gibbons: more
misunderstood than "strange" little twins
From childhood, both twins had a slight speech impediment. Also, the girls spoke Bajan Creole. Not many could understand them. Because they learned there is strength in numbers, they were inseparable. June would later explain they grew weary of people asking them, "what did you say?" so often that they just chose to "not speak at all" in public. So June and Jennifer created their own communication, which included body language and eye contact. Over time June and Jennifer Gibbons became mirror images of one another, yet secretly penned in journals how they yearned to be an individual. 
Being the only black students in the Wales elementary school, and speaking a language few could understand, they endured bullying and harassment from students until a teacher decided it best to allow the girls to leave class early to walk home alone. Perhaps this did more harm than the intended good. Sometimes it felt the school staff was racist. So June and Jennifer closed off from both students and staff. The twins refused to read. They would not write. They went before a succession of psychologists and specialists but remained silent. Separating them only caused them to become catatonic, near zombies. Their silence in class baffled and angered those in the school system. Finally, at a loss, doctors sent the girls to an alternative school.
June and Jennifer were admitted to the specialized school where clandestine video was taken of them as they worked with instructors and ate meals in the dining hall. Teachers worked with the girls as if the twins had learning disorders. The twins ate and moved very slow, were always last to leave their seats, and students moved around them as if June and Jennifer were nonexistent. Or were the girls purposely erasing themselves to avoid attention? When no one else was in the room, the twins spoke freely in what sounded like gibberish to one another. Yet when the audiotape was slowed, it was clear the twins spoke perfect English, just at a rapid-fire pace no one else could understand. 
Eventually, the twins gave up on education, and the education system gave up on the girls. Better to not have to deal with these strange little girls than to continually have the disruptions and problems. The twins became homebound, drawing government checks. 
At home, June and Jennifer secreted themselves in their bedroom. Their family, to include most siblings and both parents, allowed the girls to isolate themselves from everyone, to include holidays. Their stoic father was non-communicable, and their mother vacillated between making excuses and practicing a laissez-faire attitude. Their siblings lived healthy lives. Their parents made excuses for the twins, calling them "shy." The twins just avoided family interaction, preferring one another's company their entire life at home.
But it was not a wholly silent world. June and Jennifer shared a room with a younger sister, Rosie, and played with her, including the creation of detailed, intricate games with dolls. The three talked and played, recording the games on audiotape. Rosie remembers her sisters as fun and the games as being happy and exciting. 
Both girls were writers at heart, and it is a shame no one got to read their work until a biography was released, "The Silent Twins" by Marjorie Wallace (1987). This book's photos include the writing and artwork of the twins. June and Jennifer used a correspondence course in creative writing. Their fiction was witty with an element of criminal activity. They published using vanity presses (today called print-on-demand). 
When the twins needed an album or correspondence course, they wrote out their orders to slip under their bedroom door, where their mother would dutifully collect the slips of paper and have the item delivered. 
As close as they were, the girls feared one another. They would each attempt to murder the other by strangulation and drowning. Both June and Jennifer journaled their fear of the other. 
Soon, the outside world became a curiosity. June and Jennifer Gibbons used binoculars to watch the neighborhood goings-on from their bedroom window. They sent away for a correspondence course "How To Communicate," but June says they were far too shy to even begin the first lessons. The twins were growing into their teen years. Soon the bedroom was stifling. It was time to see the world. 
June and Jennifer eventually left the house. They managed to keep their code of silence while discovering alcohol, boys, sex, drugs, shoplifting, and breaking into homes, and began to imbibe in all. When petty crimes grew boring, the twins began to set fires.  
It was arson that led them to appear before a judge. In 1981, a judge sentenced them to the high-security Broadmore Hospital for an indefinite term, in part based on their strange, silent behavior. June would complain later, "Juvenile delinquents get two years in prison. We got twelve years of hell because we didn't speak. We lost hope, really. We were trapped."
So the twins continued their silent existence while serving life in this hospital built for the criminally insane. Pulled apart, they again became comatose and zombie-like, refusing to speak or even look at staff, visitors, or fellow inmates. But when together, they complained of the other, competitive, and fighting to the point of bloodshed, desperate to be individuals. 
The twins had made a pact that upon one's death, the other would lead a speaking, "normal" life. In Broadmore, the subject surfaced, and they decided one should die. Jennifer volunteered to be that martyr. The twins were released to a lower security facility in 1993. En route, Jennifer died suddenly of strange circumstances; officially, it was "inflammation of the heart," yet toxicology revealed no drugs, and she was a healthy woman. 
June was released a year later and lived a lonely sole existence. She visited Jennifer's grave often, and read the inscription on Jennifer's headstone, a poem by June:
We once were two
We two made one
We no more two
Through life be one
Rest in peace.
June would later give interviews about her life as one of the "silent Gibbons twins." Initially, she is challenging to understand, as she still has a speech impediment and strong dialect. Her story is fascinating and breaks many of the myths built up for so long around these interesting twins. But she is finally speaking. And people are finally listening. 


Resources:
Als, Hilton. (December 4, 2000). The New Yorker.
Silent Twins: Without My Shadow (November 20, 2017). Lichtenstein, O. Writer, Director. BBC: Worldwide Ltd. 
Wallace, M. (October 12, 1987) "The Silent Twins." Ballantine Books.

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