The Silent Twins

By Laura A. Brueckner, Ph.D.

A major inspiration for peerless characters M and L, according to playwright Jiehae Park, was the intriguing story of June and Jennifer Gibbons—identical twins who had made a pact to speak to no one but each other, whose intense connection provided both a haven from the outside world and a source of torment. 

June and Jennifer were born on April 11, 1963 to Gloria and Aubrey Gibbons, a black couple from Barbados. The "twinnies," as their mother called them, were born at a Royal Air Force base in Aden, where their father Aubrey was stationed. They had two older siblings, Greta and David, and a sister, Rosie, four years younger. Aubrey, an RAF technician, was moved from post to post, and the family was repeatedly uprooted; this nomadism, as well as the fact that theirs was often the only black family in the neighborhood, made them outsiders wherever they went. Aubrey and Gloria tried to bear up, but eventually socialized little outside the home. 

The twins’ uniqueness manifested early. As toddlers, when most children have begun rattling away, June and Jennifer spoke very little around the house, three or four words at most, mostly to each other. Their parents knew this was not normal, but attributed it to shyness. When the twins were eight, Aubrey was posted to Chivenor, Devon, England; there, where the twins were the only black girls at their school, they were bullied mercilessly for their skin color as well as their oddness. To protect themselves, they withdrew psychologically, ceasing to make eye contact with other people, and refusing to be separated. They also stopped speaking to anyone—family included—except each another, in the privacy of their shared upstairs room.  

The family settled in a small town in Wales named Haverfordwest when June and Jennifer were 11. Like Chivenor, Haverfordwest was predominantly white, and students there also bullied the twins viciously. The twins’ mannerisms had become stranger; utterly silent, they now moved and walked slowly, in a synchronous fashion—a trait which experts now believe was a result of their watching each other constantly for cues. Their nonresponsiveness attracted the attention of a visiting school medical officer, who referred them to a child psychiatrist, who declined to treat them because of the challenge posed by their barrier of silence. Finally, a speech therapist named Ann Treharne convinced the “silent twins” to read aloud into a tape recorder after she’d left the room. According to an essay by New Yorker writer Hilton Als, this allowed Treharne to crack the code of their behavior: once alone, she discovered, the twins spoke ceaselessly to each other, in a high-speed patois made of Barbadian slang and English. This ruled out physical or psychological causes for their silence—they had simply decided not to communicate with the outside world. 

Treharne also discovered that a fierce struggle for power was taking place between the twins. She often sensed that June—the older twin by ten minutes, but less robust than her sister—wanted to speak to her, but observed that Jennifer would stop her with eye signals, essentially controlling June’s behavior. Als reports Treharne as saying, “The thought entered my mind that June was possessed by her twin.” 

By now, the Gibbons girls had a team of educational psychologists and specialists working on their case. The twins were sent to Eastgate Centre for Special Education for their schooling, but their behavior showed no improvement. A plan was then made to separate them, to allow them to develop psychological independence, but when they were told, they physically attacked one another, screaming and pulling out chunks of hair. The plan itself was short-lived; removed from her sister and placed at another facility, June went catatonic, and Jennifer became violent with other Eastgate students. At the age of 16, the silent twins were removed from school permanently. 

Absent the resources and structure provided by school, June and Jennifer retreated to their shared bedroom, communicating with their family only by notes left on the stairs. The one exception seemed to be little sister Rosie, who was allowed to participate in the twins’ endless, elaborate play with dolls—many of them twins, many of whom met grisly fates in the fantasy world that blossomed in the twins’ minds. Then, when Gloria gave June and Jennifer matching journals as a gift, the twins discovered writing. They lost all interest in their dolls and in their younger sister, and became obsessed with recording all of their thoughts and ideas, in minute script, day and night; they took writing courses, and began to crank out dozens of short stories and novels. These narratives also were marked by extremity: drug addiction, sex, and death figured prominently in tales such as The Pepsi-Cola Addict (by June) and Discomania (by Jennifer). They submitted their work for publication widely, convinced they would become best-selling authors, but received no interest except from a vanity press seeking payment to publish June’s novel. 

This rejection of their work incensed them. They took to sneaking out at night to commit petty crimes and, eventually, arson. They also took up with three American brothers who plied them with them drugs and alcohol; one of them would take Jennifer’s virginity (while June watched) and then June’s. The boys would also taunt and physically abuse them, but the twins were so entranced by their first taste of physical affection that, when the boys moved back to America, the girls begged them for mementos. 

Bereft, and again alone together, Jennifer and June’s aggression finally turned on each other. June’s diary contains an entry that reads, “There is a murderous gleam in her eye. Dear Lord, I am scared of her. She is not normal. She is having a nervous breakdown. Someone is driving her insane. It is me.” Jennifer, in her own diary, wrote: “She should have died at birth. Cain killed Abel. No twin should forget that.” 

In November 1981, the twins were caught in the act of committing arson and arrested. A search of their room turned up a stockpile of stories ablaze with criminality and destruction. Confined together in a tiny holding cell to await trial, they continued to record their thoughts, including their growing fear and hatred of one another. June wrote, “One of us is plotting to kill one of us. A thud on the head of a cool evening, dragging the lifeless body, a secret grave. […] I’m in enslavement to her. This creature who lounges in this cell, who is with me every hour of my living soul. […] We have become fatal enemies in each other’s eyes…We scheme, we plot, and who will win? Without my shadow would I die? Without my shadow would I gain life?"

June and Jennifer Gibbons, aged 19, were sentenced for an indefinite period to Broadmoor, a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane. For the next decade, they were rarely visited by their family; they were alternately separated, which caused them to slip into catatonia, and reunited, which provoked bloody physical attacks against one another; they were loaded with a revolving palette of antipsychotic medications. When June took up with a male inmate named Morris, Jennifer reacted with vocal jealousy, telling the man, “I’m June’s twin, not you.” According to biographer Marjorie Wallace, it was during their time in Broadmoor that the twins made a second, and final, pact: that, since they could not abide being together and could not survive separation, one of them would die in order to give the other a normal life. Eerily enough, on March 9, 1993, as the twins were being transferred to a lower-security clinic, Jennifer rested her head on her twin’s shoulder and said, “At long last, we’re out.” Jennifer Gibbons died less than twelve hours later of a previously  undiagnosed heart inflammation.