Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 304 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I first remember reading about identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons when I was a teenager. They were featured in an article in Reader’s Digest magazine (my parents were subscribers), which explained that the girls did not communicate with the outside world because they had developed their own private language.
A complicated history
The Silent Twins, first published in 1986, updated in 1998 and reissued in 2008, explores June and Jennifer’s complicated history. It is written by an investigative journalist, Marjorie Wallace, who founded the mental health charity SANE on the back of her experiences writing articles on schizophrenia for The Times.
In fact, after years of incarceration — the sisters were sentenced to Broadmoor after going on a five-week crime spree when they were teenagers — both June and Jennifer were diagnosed as schizophrenic. Wallace, who befriended the girls as part of her research for this book, argues otherwise.
The label seems to fit awkwardly the profound and complex problems of their twinship. […] I have met many people with schizophrenia and have read many of their letters and writings. In the million or more words written by the twins I read in preparing this book, I have not yet found any sign of the fragmentation of thought so typical of this illness. Nor do the twins appear to suffer the more florid symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hearing voices. In any of my conversations with them I did not feel the fundamental disintegration of personality; or those moments of vacancy which can make communication so difficult. The twins are certainly not normal. They do suffer from feelings of paranoia — the people are watching them or reading their minds, one of the symptoms of schizophrenia. But how much was that paranoia an extension of their own experience of reading each other’s mind and their jealous vigilance over each other?
Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you a bit about the twins when they were youngsters and what made them so unusual.
Identical twin girls
They were born in 1963 to a West Indian couple, where they were brought up on an RAF base in Wales (their father was a technician in the RAF). But from the age of three the girls rejected communication with everyone around them — they would only talk to each other, and even then it was in a soft but high-pitched voice in a private language no one else could understand.
Because of this, they lacked social skills and failed at school (they weren’t sent to a special school until they were 14, by which time it was too late). The older they got, the more private — and reclusive — they became. By the time they were 16, they’d dropped out of school, were living on benefits and rarely left the bedroom they shared with a younger sister. Most of their time was spent writing purple-prosed novels, which they would send off to be published by a vanity press.
But when editorial success eluded them they decided to seek their fame and fortune in other less legal ways: they went on a five-week crime spree involving petty thieving, breaking-and-entering, and arson. They were caught and sentenced for an unlimited period to Broadmoor, the only facility prepared to accept them.
Wallace charts the girls’ lives from birth until their release from Broadmoor in 1993.
Diaries reveal their secret lives
Throughout their teenage years and beyond, the girls kept incredibly detailed diaries to which Wallace had access. These show that they were intelligent and that they cared deeply for their parents and siblings, even though they were unable to show emotion and unwilling to communicate with them.
And it reveals how they made a childhood pact to only communicate with one another, often through the subtle use of body language or eye contact. The pact became so all-consuming they were never able to break out of it.
What emerges is a powerful study of two siblings caught in a peculiar bond in which they loved and hated each other in equal measure — when they were separated, which the psychiatrists would do as part of their “treatment”, they pined for each other to the point of illness, but thrust back together they would fight violently, tear their hair and scratch each other’s faces.
Truth is stranger than fiction
The book is written in an easy-to-read narrative style and there were times when I had to remind myself it was not fiction. Truth can, at times, be stranger than fiction, and no more so than the case of The Silent Twins. It’s a compelling and tragic tale.
You can find out more about June and Jennifer Gibbons via this Wikipedia entry — but be warned, it does contain plot spoilers.