Born in Barbados in 1963, identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons were inseparable. When the twins were three, the family moved to Wales as part of the Windrush movement. Now, it’s not unusual for twins to have a language between themselves, but the Gibbons twins took it a bit further; they would only communicate with each other in their language, and no other children or adults. After a few years, their language was identified as a bastardisation of Creole and English which, over the years, moved further away from its sources and become more incomprehensible to outsiders.
They were the only black children in their school class which lead to bullying and osctracisation by their peers. Teachers would go so far as to let them leave school early to avoid confrontations. Not only would they not engage with other people, they wouldn’t engage with their school work, refusing to read or write the assignments given. In 1976, a medic giving the class their TB jabs noted the girls’ lack of interaction and thus began a series of psychologist visits. None were able to communicate with the twins, so intent were they on staying in their own bubble. In the company of others, they could communicate through eye-movements.
In 1977, the decision was made to separate the twins thinking that this might finally break their self-imposed bubble – it only made things worse. June completely retreated into herself and would spend all day lying on her bed, refusing to move. The experiment was deemed a failure and the girls were reunited.
Despite their difficult school-life, they were capable and clever. There was creativity in them, which manifested itself in their writing. They placed a mail order for a creative writing course and went on to write poetry and several novels each. The subject matter was graphic and disturbing. They would also submit their short stories to magazines for publication but were unsuccessful. It’s interesting to note that they refused all verbal communication but were avid writers.
In October 1981, the twin’s behaviour changed dramatically – they began starting fires, vandalising buildings and getting involved in petty burglary. After around five weeks, they were apprehended attempting to incinerate Pembrokeshire Technology College. Typically, this behaviour and taking into account it being their first arrest might result in two years in a juvenile institution, but due to the twins’ other attributes they received a much harsher sentence. Aged 19, both girls pleaded guilty to 16 counts of arson, burglary and theft and were incarcerated in Broadmoor under the Mental Health Act indefinitely. They spent twelve years there.
In Broadmoor, they initially continued writing diaries and would read a great deal. However as the years passed, the strong anti-psychotics prescribed made it difficult to concentrate and both ultimately lost their drive for writing. Several appeals were made to secure their freedom, going so far as to contact the Queen begging to be released.
Journalist Marjorie Wallace became interested in the twins just before their trial. She visited them and managed to establish some sort of connection with them by discussing their writing: “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?” (npr.org). Over the next eleven years, she spent many weekends with them and “I talked to the Department of Health. I wrote articles in the newspapers, fighting for them that they should be discharged – released from Broadmoor” (npr.org).
In 1993, the news came they were to be transferred to a lower-security institution in Wales: the Caswell Clinic. Upon arrival, Jennifer was found to have fallen into a coma and was taken to the Princess of Wales hospital. She later died of undiagnosed acute myocarditis (inflammation of the heart in layman’s terms) aged 29. The post-mortem was unable to determine what had caused the myocarditis; one theory was it had resulted from extended use of strong medication inside Broadmoor but June’s perfect health cast doubt on this idea.
At Marjorie’s last visit before the transfer, Jennifer said something eerie: “Marjorie, I’m going to have to die … because we’ve decided”. It appeared the twins had agreed if one of them should die, the other should start talking to other people and live a fairly normal life. Furthermore, they had come to the conclusion that it was imperative one of them should die so the other could be released. Marjorie said “For the months before their transfer from Broadmoor they had been fighting about which twin would sacrifice her life for the future of the other.” (Guardian.com). Concerned, she spoke to the doctors at Broadmoor but was assured they were being carefully monitored and would be fine.
After a year at the Caswell Clinic June was released and moved back to Wales where she now lives a fairly average life. June has given some interviews but mostly wants to live a life out of the spotlight. In a 2016 interview, the family revealed that they blamed Broadmoor’s lack of care for Jennifer’s death but didn’t attempt to sue at the time realising that, whatever the outcome, it wouldn’t bring Jennifer back.
Over the years, the twins have garnered substantial attention through interviews, newspaper articles, books including The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace, several TV shows including an episode of Screen Two, a 1986 film called The Silent Twins and a Manic Street Preachers’ song Tsunami. We can only wonder how their life might have been different if they weren’t sent to Broadmoor.