Only one thing could break it – and even that defied explanation. What does it take to die for your twin sister?
In a gym hall blistering with summer heat two women are yowling at the top of their voices, bodies shaking with fury.
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The scene being played out in this London rehearsal space is breathtaking and unsettling. It is part of Speechless, a stage production based on the remarkable story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, infamous for refusing to talk to anyone but each other. Weeks before the show comes to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran are grappling with their roles as sisters locked in a secret world from early childhood to their incarceration in Broadmoor Hospital.
Inspired by The Silent Twins, a bestselling book by Marjorie Wallace, Speechless revisits a story first told in a BBC film, a stage play and two operas. They are being brought kicking and screaming to centre stage again by Shared Experience in collaboration with Sherman Cymru.
Born to Barbadian parents in 1963 and raised in Pembrokeshire, Wales, near the RAF base where their father was stationed, the twins formed an impenetrable bond from infancy.
They were happy toddlers but learned to speak late. Soon, though, they began using a secret language – a high-speed patois even their parents and three siblings found increasingly hard to decipher as the girls got older and withdrew ever further from their family.
Misunderstood and ridiculed at school, the only black children in the community, they journeyed from a closeted childhood into teenage delinquency, through special schools and educational therapy, refusing to speak to outsiders.
Finally diagnosed as psychopathic, they spent 12 years in Broadmoor, surrounded by murderers, sex offenders and severely disturbed patients, before the untimely death of Jennifer brought an abrupt separation. Their story might well have remained hidden in a world of shadows if not for Wallace, then an acclaimed investigative journalist who first encountered the twins in 1982. “I’d got a name amongst my colleagues – if there’s any strange, miserable story, give it to Marjorie,” says Wallace, smiling wryly. She is in her office at the headquarters of SANE, the mental health charity she founded in 1986, partly in response to society’s failure to understand and help the twins. Sitting on a sofa by the window, she explains why the girls became her inspiration – and her compulsion.
“I was working on the thalidomide story,” Wallace says. She had been spending months living with the families of children whose birth defects had been caused by the drug. She later wrote the acclaimed book and BBC drama, both titled On Giant’s Shoulders, based on the life of the thalidomide child Terry Wiles. “It was an incredible, all-consuming experience.”
Wallace was about to discover another relationship which would obsess her, professionally and personally, impacting on the lives of her four children. Awaiting sentencing for arson, the Gibbons twins were in Pucklechurch remand centre in Gloucestershire, 150 miles from their home town of Haverfordwest.
Wallace says she was sceptical when she learned the girls hadn’t spoken for years to anyone but each other. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t believe this, two girls who are 17 and don’t talk to any adults.’ I thought it was too strange, too bizarre, but something propelled me on and I met up with the mother and father, Gloria and Aubrey – and I found them very sympathetic people. I talked to [the twins’] educational psychologist, and to other people in the town. I realised these girls had not spoken, they had taken this vow of silence, that nobody knew what had caused them to draw into themselves against the world.”
The educational psychologist Wallace is referring to, Tim Thomas, was employed by Pembrokeshire County Council and retired four years ago. He stuck his neck out professionally to help Wallace tell the girls’ story.
“They were badly served by the whole system. I saw it as being so unfair and so wrong. That’s why I helped Marjorie.”
Thomas points out that the parents suffered acutely and were as let down by the system as their daughters.
Incredibly, nobody had thought the twins’ silent pact was of real concern until they were 14 years old and attending secondary school. By then the girls seemed beyond reach, locked in an imaginative world of role-playing, diary-writing and drawing during long hours in their bedroom. Only their younger sister, Rosie, had been allowed to penetrate the wall between them and the outside world. Their parents and two older siblings, Greta and David, were excluded.
June and Jennifer were moved to a residential special school, the Eastgate Centre, but their bond strengthened with every failed attempt to tease them out of their silence or separate them.
As the years went on the twins’ love for one another became infused with violence as a struggle for power ensued. “They had these rituals where they decided between them which one would wake up in the morning first, which one would breathe first, and the other one wasn’t allowed to breathe until the first one breathed,” says Wallace. “It was like some sinister childhood game that had gone out of control.” Wallace quickly noticed they would signal to each other with the tiniest flicker of the eye as they moved in painfully slow synchronicity. Ultimately, though, Jennifer was controlling June.
Wallace looks across to a photograph pinned to the wall behind her, showing her and the twins sitting closely, smiling at the camera. It looks incongruous among a collage of images showing Wallace with an array of public figures, from the Sultan of Brunei to Dame Judi Dench and former prime minister Tony Blair. In one photograph she stands with Prince Charles in front of a banner proclaiming: “You don’t have to be mentally ill to suffer from mental illness.” A poster for The Oldie Awards 2007 shows a cartoon of Wallace nestling among the other winners – she had been named campaigner of the year for her mental health work.
The wall of photographs is like a scrapbook of Wallace’s work for SANE, which she founded in the wake of the controversial policy of care in the community, which led to psychiatric patients being released from unfashionable Victorian hospitals with very little support.
Dressed immaculately in a suit, with red patent pumps and an emerald-green silk scarf, the 66 year old recalls her first visit to the twins’ home. They were already on remand following a string of fire-raising incidents and the police were upstairs in the girls’ bedroom, looking for evidence. “I went into the Gibbons’ house – an RAF house on a bleak and flowerless, treeless estate,” she says. “The police had thrown all [the girls’] possessions into these dustbin bag liners, including the gloves they used for the arson, but also huge amounts of notebooks – extraordinary notebooks, exercise books with drawings.”
She pauses and pulls a little orange exercise book from a pile of papers. Its cover shows Jennifer’s name in neat lettering. Inside, every page is covered in tiny words, five sentences crammed into the space between every pale blue line.
“They had little diaries, miniature books rather like the Bronte sisters had done, with little figures cut out and a whole make-believe world,” says Wallace. “They had all these essays and drafts of books they had written. They also had an amazing library of classic books – Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, DH Lawrence.”
The bin liners contained another book, Pepsi Cola Addict, written by June and vanity published when she was 17 years old with the joint proceeds of the girls’ unemployment benefit money. The pages of Disco Mania, an unpublished novel written by Jennifer, were scattered among the rest of their work. “Their parents didn’t know what to do with these and I started to read them,” says Wallace.
So began a painstaking journey into the twins’ world, involving Wallace transcribing for hours each day after work. She has more than a million words of the sisters’ diaries on file, gathered during 12 years of visits.
Wallace seems a world away from the twins she befriended. Born in Nairobi in 1944, she and her elder sister had a privileged upbringing. “I had a wonderful childhood travelling all over Africa,” she says. “I had a pianist mother who played all over Africa, and a father who was always on safari, building railways, dams.” Appointed a CBE in 2008, she is also a countess who remains married to the Polish psychoanalyst Count Andrzej Skarbek, with whom she has three sons. She has a daughter with her long-term partner, Dr Tom Margerison, the founder of London Weekend Television. Lord Snowdon, whom she worked with in the late 1970s, was – as revealed in his 2008 autobiography – a lover.
Beyond her tireless campaigning for the mentally ill, the dispossessed, the disabled, there have been personal battles. Having survived breast cancer, Wallace is nursing Margerison through the ravages of Parkinson’s disease at their London home.
Aubrey Gibbons, the twins’ father, once longed to be part of the British establishment Wallace inhabits. A scholarship boy, he attended public school in Barbados, preparing him for a career in the RAF – he was a flight lieutenant who checked aircraft before take-off – when he moved his wife and children to Britain in 1960. There were few black families in the RAF then, though, and his struggle to be accepted by an often racist society must have been felt intensely by his children.
Wallace recalls visiting Pucklechurch remand centre with Aubrey and meeting the girls for the first time. “They shuffled in one behind the other very slowly. They sat down in perfect synchronicity, eyes downcast, not a flicker’s response to their father and to me.”
The slow, deliberate, synchronised movements she describes were part of the twins’ lifelong game. Wallace describes the excruciating silence. “I finally managed to say, ‘Look, I’ve read your stories, I think they’re very good.’ Suddenly June broke their silence and started to stutter: ‘Dye-like-them, dye-like-them-dye-think-we-write-well?’” Wallace mimics June’s voice in hushed staccato tones.
Wallace had found the key to communicating with the girls – entering their imaginative world. She began quoting from June’s book, Pepsi Cola Addict, and was thrilled by the response. “It was like a little bird speaking for the first time: ‘Dada-like-it-dada-like-it-dada-like-it-dada-like-it?’ I looked over and Jennifer was furious … so I mentioned Disco Mania and Jennifer’s face inched a little bit. June managed to smile – just a tiny, tiny flicker.”
Wallace says she was the only person to pay attention to the twins’ diaries, which were virtually ignored by psychologists, psychiatrists and prison wardens. “The written world was their world,” she says. “If you didn’t read their diaries, you didn’t know them.”
In May 1981, June and Jennifer were detained without limit of time at Broadmoor Hospital under the Mental Health Act (1959). “The twins had received a life sentence, a punishment given to murderers like the Yorkshire Ripper,” writes Wallace in The Silent Twins, referring to their fellow patient Peter Sutcliffe. The judge had ruled the twins were a danger to themselves and to society following a five-week crime spree when they had set fire to a Pembrokeshire college and a special school. The previous summer, Jennifer had tried to strangle June with the cord from a radio and, a few days later, June had thrown Jennifer over a bridge into a river.
The violent behaviour underpinning their love continued at Broadmoor. As part of their treatment, the twins were frequently separated from each other, permitted to meet only at social occasions and classes. Wallace was invited to visit them by their psychiatrist, who was aware of the special bond she had forged with them. “I was given a pass,” she says, somewhat proudly. “I went to care meetings when they were in solitary confinement. I was allowed right into the inner sanctum of their world … Sometimes when I saw them together it was great fun, there was almost a little party … they had bingo, sports events, social evenings, classes, and they would meet up with men. They had a whale of a time playing their games, with each other and with the population of Broadmoor.”
Even so, she says adamantly, “it was not happiness. There was still this intense imprisonment.” Slowly, the twins realised their only hope of freedom lay in the death of one.
Wallace remembers the day Jennifer declared she would die for her twin. Wallace had taken her daughter, Sophia, on a visit to Broadmoor. There were often weekend excursions to psychiatric hospitals, prisons or homes for the elderly for Wallace’s children as she researched articles.
“I took my daughter – I think she was about eight – for tea with the twins,” says Wallace. “We’d go in through all the locked doors to the big hall. Jennifer and June were there, always quite cheery, and they brought the tea on a tray with little biscuits. We sat down and were chatting.
“Suddenly, in the middle of this conversation Jennifer said, ‘Marjorie-Marjorie-Marjorie. I’m going to die.’ I said, ‘Don’t be silly Jennifer. You’re quite healthy.’ She looked at me and said, ‘We’ve decided, I’m gonna die.’ I told Sophia to eat her biscuit. Then June said: ‘Yes, we’ve decided.’ They passed me some notes and on that was the decision that Jennifer would have to die to set June free. June was the first born, June was the more talented one, June was the outgoing one. She had the right to live. June could live for both of them and Jennifer couldn’t.”
Wallace mentioned her concerns to the Broadmoor staff, but reassured herself the twins had good psychiatric care. The sisters were due to leave the secure hospital for a more open regime in the new, purpose-built Caswell Clinic in Bridgend, Wales.
Just days later, on their transfer to Bridgend on March 9, 1993, Jennifer was sitting next to June in the minibus when her head slumped on to her sister’s shoulder. “I thought she was tired,” said June. “She appeared to be sleeping, but her eyes were open and glazed.” When the bus arrived at the clinic, Jennifer could not be roused. She was taken to the Princess of Wales Hospital, where she died soon after. She was 29 years old.
Pathology reports showed Jennifer had died from acute myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle. “The extraordinary thing was that at the inquest the pathologists said there could have been maybe 30, 40 reasons that had caused such a huge inflammation of the heart,” says Wallace. “I talked to Bernard Knight, one of our most distinguished post-mortem pathologists. He said he’d never seen such an inflamed heart for no apparent reason.”
Wallace describes visiting June a few days after her twin’s death. “She was in a strange mood. She said, ‘I’m free at last, liberated, and at last Jennifer has given up her life for me.’” The power struggle was over.
Now, 17 years later, Wallace has little contact with June, who has gone on to build a life in west Wales, free of psychiatric care and medication. Now 47, June has her own home but helps her ageing parents at weekends, shunning media attention as she attempts to leave the past behind.
The girls’ psychologist Thomas still lives in Wales and visits June and her parents frequently. “I saw June three weeks ago and hope to see her parents next week,” he says.
June, he says, is currently “holding her own, which is more than most people who come out of Broadmoor do. She has a few acquaintances. Her local community accepts her. She doesn’t want any fuss. She just wants to be anonymous.”
The co-writers of Speechless, Polly Teale and Linda Brogan, have met with Wallace during the creation of the play, but have had no contact with June. An artistic director of Shared Experience, Teale feels the responsibility of creating theatre out of real lives. “It is a complex moral question when you’re using a real story,” she says, “but what I hope is that, if we’re able to provide insight and get under the skin of the story, it’s not a freak show.”
Sitting under the shade of a tree outside rehearsals, she says the twins’ relationship was a logical reaction to their circumstances – something we can all relate to. “I had watched the documentary about the twins back in 1994 and it had stayed in my mind,” she says. “It is one of those stories that has a hold on our unconscious. There is this schism between their private and public world. That’s something all of us can identify with and the more you know about the twins the more you realise it’s an extreme version of what we all experience.”
Back inside, the cast is taking a break from rehearsals. Gordon, 24, who plays Jennifer, and 28-year-old Oyediran joke that they are becoming increasingly like the twins. “Polly has noticed that sometimes, when we’re not rehearsing, we move in unison,” says Gordon, laughing. “We’ve been doing a lot of unison work in rehearsal.”
It is still early in rehearsals and there is some way to go before the cast is ready to reach out to new audiences at the Traverse. When the curtain falls on Speechless, though, the story will be far from over for the last silent twin, June Gibbons.
Speechless is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 6-29, with a preview on August 5. www.traverse.co.uk.