The Silent Twins
The Silent Twins
June and Jennifer Gibbons were twin sisters who hadn't spoken to anyone but each other their whole lives. That is, until journalist Marjorie Wallace came along and unearthed their inner world.
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR, the "Unforgiven" episode. My name is Glynn Washington. And today, we're exploring what it means to forgive; to forgive other people; to forgive yourself, but what if yourself is spit in two? Marjorie Wallace has the story.
MARJORIE WALLACE: I was a journalist working on the Insight team as an investigative journalist of The Sunday Times in London. And I came across this story, and it seemed very strange to me. The story was that there were two girls living on the coast of Wales and that these two girls had committed arson, having set fire to three buildings, but what was so strange about them was that they had never spoken to anyone in their lives. They spoke only to each other.
ELIZA SMITH, BYLINE: Like most twins, June and Jennifer Gibbons had an innate bond. They had grown up on an army base in Wales. They started talking late and when they finally did speak, their words came out garbled. They chirped and squeaked, enunciating the wrong syllables. No one else could understand them. It was like they were speaking a foreign language.
WALLACE: One doctor was giving them a vaccination, and he noticed that neither of them spoke. They both moved in sort of synchronicity.
SMITH: They barely graduated high school, and at the time of their arson spree, June and Jennifer were still living with their parents.
WALLACE: I saw their parents and then they took me upstairs, and they showed me in the bedroom lots of bean bags filled with writings - exercise books. And what I discovered was that while they had been in that room alone, they had been teaching themselves to write. And I put them in the boot of the car and took them home. And I couldn't believe this, that these girls, to the outside world, hadn't spoken and had been dismissed as being zombies, had this rich imaginative life.
SMITH: Marjorie went to visit June and Jennifer in prison, where they were awaiting trial. 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?
WALLACE: 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. Here's an excerpt. (Reading) The two parrots, whose names were Polly and Perkins, often talked of how they longed to get back to their native land. Sometimes they would ask the watchers to open the cage door and let them out. Some of the children who were watching asked their parents if they could take the parrots home with them. Sometimes, before the parents had time to answer, one parrot would kindly say we're not for sale. Then the other parrot would say the same.
WALLACE: 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.
SMITH: But 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.
WALLACE: 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.
SMITH: 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.
WALLACE: I always liked being with them. They would have that wry little sense of humor. They would respond to jokes. Often we would spend our teas together just laughing.
SMITH: Marjorie was having fun with the twins, but still, June and Jennifer's relationship wasn't an easy. Marjorie read diary entry after diary entry in which the twins wrote about how trapped or sometimes even possessed or tortured they felt by each other.
WALLACE: This is June. (Reading) 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.
SMITH: This is Jennifer.
WALLACE: (Reading) We have become fatal enemies in each other's eyes. We feel the irritating deadly rays come out of our bodies, stinging each other's skin. I say to myself, can I get rid of my own shadow - impossible or not possible? Without my shadow, would I die? Without my shadow, would I gain life, be free or left to die? Without my shadow, which I identify with a face of misery, deception, murder.
SMITH: 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.
WALLACE: I telephoned a psychiatrist, a psychologist; I talked to the Department of Health. I wrote articles in the newspapers, fighting for them that they should be discharged - released from Broadmoor.
SMITH: And finally, the doctors at Broadmoor announced they were transferring the twin 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 pine 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.
SMITH: 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.
WALLACE: 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 as a 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.
SMITH: 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. Some doctors thought the high dose of medication she took at Broadmoor might have weakened her immune system ,but the twins had received the same treatment during their time in Broadmoor. And June was in good health when Jennifer died.
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. And she just said, when Marjorie said, would you go to Haverfordwest and would you fly a banner over Haverfordwest and say that June is fit and well and at last come into her own? So there she was a few days later, both grieving and mourning, and at the same time, saying Jennifer gave up her life for me and now I have to go on and live for the both of us.
WASHINGTON: Thank you, Marjorie, for sharing your story with the SNAP. Now, if you want to learn even more about June and Jennifer, you can pick up a copy of Marjorie's book, "The Silent Twins." We'll have all the details on our website, SNAPJUDGMENT.org. That story was produced by Eliza Smith with an original score and sound design by Leon Morimoto.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WASHINGTON: Yep, it's that time, but don't you frown. Hours of amazing storytelling available right now; subscribe to the SNAP JUDGMENT podcast, SNAPJUDGMENT.org. SNAP was produced by myself and the team that never stops forgiving. Much love to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the CPB; PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, PRX.org. And even though this is not the news - no way is this the news - but this is NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.