Marjorie Wallace’s The Silent Twins is an observational account of the lives, crimes and unusual psychology of two twin sisters, June and Jennifer Gibbons. In the late 1970s, they were two girls of West Indian background living and growing up in an air force community in Wales. Inseparable from the start, as they grew older they refused to speak to anyone, family included. They spoke only to each other, and even then in secretive and unintelligible code. The Silent Twins follows June and Jennifer through their childhood and troubled adolescence, and is a sad, yet endlessly fascinating, portrait of a very disturbing relationship.
The Gibbons twins silence (or “elective mutism” to use the phrase of the psychologists that worked with them) was problematic throughout their school life, though their mother remained strongly insistent that they were both just shy. Subjected to numerous tests, surgery, and different educational approaches, they retained their silent bond. Attempts to separate the two are useless, and their physical reaction to potential separation is so chilling. There is almost something strangely supernatural about their dedication to their silent pact. The education system fails to help the twins, though they both possessed a rich and creative inner world.
June and Jennifer emerge, through these diaries, as two human beings who love and hate each other with such intensity that they can neither live together nor apart. Like twin stars, they are caught in the gravitational field between them, doomed to spin round each other for ever. If they come too close or drift apart, both are destroyed.
After dropping out of school and receiving unemployment benefits, the girls became recluses in their own home, talking only to their younger sister and each other. In their bedroom they enacted elaborate social lives through their dolls, created and recorded their own radio programming and wrote countless stories. June eventually published a novel, The Pepsi-Cola Addict, through a vanity press which is now a highly sought after artefact. The excerpts of the novels aren’t particularly great, but the interest lies mainly in the personal history of the author.
In their teenage years, June and Jennifer begin to desire the attention of the local neighbourhood boys. Losing their virginity, drinking, drugs, and misperceptions of love may be usual teenage coming of age rites, but combined with their silence and the twins love/hate relationship with each other these rituals become somewhat eerie. Boredom and social isolation lead them to crimes ranging from petty theft to arson, frustrated by their surrounds and their unbreakable connection to each other, but is this really much different from any other perpetrator of petty suburban crime? Even in the controlled and isolated environment of prison, the tension between June and Jennifer continues to build, their games once them against the world begin to be turned against each other.
[from June’s diaries] Someone is driving her insane. It is me.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the straightforward details of their lives, and the ceaseless power struggles and disturbing games they play against each other, but this is how Wallace portrays it. Much of the Silent Twins is told in a clinical, observational style that doesn’t leave much room for analysis. We may not come to a greater understanding of the whys, but we know their story, we hear their voice – though there is an over-reliance on their dream diaries – and that seems so important for two young women who were continually frustrated by each other in their attempts to communicate with the outside world. This lack of analysis makes their psychology even more confounding. It’s a story that would be very easy to sensationalize, and Wallace’s detached approach manages to avoid the tabloid course.
The Silent Twins ends with June and Jennifer barely in their twenties, and is in dire need of an update almost twenty five years since the original publication. (Though my edition is an older one, newer printings may have been updated?) The ending is unspeakably bleak, with no feeble offer of hope. June and Jennifer are left institutionalized in a place that doesn’t understand them, and has given up on the possibility of understanding. They’re drugged and forced to conform, and find themselves with no ambition or inclination to write, even in their previously extensive diaries. To me it seems that for all their crimes, their life sentence is much heavier than deserved. The Silent Twins is deeply unsettling. This is one that is going to haunt me for a long time.