View Full Version : The Silent Twins - Jennifer and June Gibbons

20-02-2011, 13:54
I've just finished reading the book by Marjorie Wallace, and I am just fascinated by their story at the moment. My Grandad said that there was a documentary on about them a few years back, has anybody seen it? Does anybody know where I can see it?

Also whilst I was looking I found that there was an opera about them in 2007 called 'Speechless'.

20-02-2011, 14:09
:up: did you see there are London dates to be announced for autumn 2011? Should be interesting.

20-02-2011, 14:23
A documentary provided the direct inspiration for the song. It was one of Nicky's grand "let's see what's on the telly" songs in the same vane as SYMM or perhaps LRS

20-02-2011, 14:41
A documentary provided the direct inspiration for the song. It was one of Nicky's grand "let's see what's on the telly" songs in the same vane as SYMM or perhaps LRS

yes, I thought it was a documentary that inspired Nicky to write the song, I'm sure he mentions this in one of old NME's.
The story's incredible but I don't like Tsunami.

20-02-2011, 14:53
The documentary was shown back around 1994 - twas that that led me to the book. Was stupidly happy when Nicky wrote a song about them but of course they were from Wales.
The doc was on the BBC & it has been repeated but not for quite a long time. Shame it wasn't on 4 as it'd have probably been up on 4 OD now.
There was an interview with June published back in 2000 in the Sunday Times reprinted there from the New Yorker which I've a paper copy of & after searching about I've found it on some other random Manics site. Apart from this she seems to have kept away from the media even after the opera appeared 2 or 3 years back. Wonder what she would have made of an opera based on her life? Bizarre

June Gibbons created a private world in which she and her twin sister
Jennifer spoke only to each other. She tells Hilton Als how she survived
Jennifer's death.

A life of my own

It is a cold, grey day, the kind of day that Americans, reading English novels,
imagine being far more picturesque than the reality. As the train approaches
Haverfordwest, a small market town in southwest Wales, I see June Gibbons, the
only black person on the platform. She spots me, too, the only black person on
the train, and she nods as I disembark. She is wearing jeans and a white
T-shirt, black boots and a large blue jacket, in which her thin frame seems to

June's face - the face I have already studied in photographs - is long and
narrow and fine. She smiles when I introduce myself, exposing sharp teeth
stained by tobacco. Almost at once, she tells me, in a muffled, fast voice, that
we should hurry into a taxi. Actually, it's more of a command: "Get in the
taxi!" I sit in the front seat, next to the driver.

We drive through the town: steep hills, shops, children in school uniforms
shouting and jostling one another; housing estates where all the houses look the
same. June asks about the title of the book I am carrying, In Search of Wales,
by HV Morton. "Well, he's found it, then!" she says quickly, to nobody in
particular. She laughs, but examines me with the eyes of someone who has learnt
how to watch closely.

June and Jennifer Gibbons were born at an RAF hospital in Aden, in the Middle
East, in 1963. June arrived first, but Jennifer, born 10 minutes later, seemed
to be the stronger twin, more alert and physically robust. Their parents were
from Barbados: Aubrey tall, handsome and stiff, and Gloria, whose soft eyes gave
her a gentle, yielding appearance.

The twins - or "twinnies", as Gloria called them - had round cheeks and bows in
their hair and winning smiles, and soon they had a baby sister, Rosie, born in
1967, whom they adored. But even as toddlers they could barely speak: three or
four words at the most.

At school in Devon, where Aubrey had been posted, the girls were taunted
mercilessly about their skin colour and their silence. "Eight or nine, we
started suffering, and we stopped talking," June told me. "People called us
names - we were the only black girls in school. Terrible names. They pulled our
hair." The twins soon stopped making eye contact with others, perhaps so as not
to have to see themselves judged.

They also stopped speaking to their parents and their older siblings. "We made a
pact," June explained. "We said we weren't going to speak to anybody. We stopped
talking altogether - only us two, in our bedroom upstairs."

Aubrey and Gloria could sometimes hear the girls chattering to each other in
their room, in a patois that they couldn't understand any more than they
understood the girls' silence.

In 1974, when the twins were 11, Aubrey was transferred to Haverfordwest, where
the bullying at school was so severe that the girls had to be dismissed five
minutes early every day to give them a head start for the walk home. "We had a
ritual," June said. "We'd kneel by the bed and ask God to forgive our sins. We'd
open the Bible and start chanting from it and pray like mad. We'd pray to Him
not to let us hurt our family by ignoring them, to give us strength to talk to
our mother; our father. We couldn't do it. Hard it was. Too hard."

In 1979, for Christmas, Gloria gave June and Jennifer each a red leather-bound
diary with a lock, and they began to keep a detailed account of their lives, as
part of a programme of "self-improvement". They approached their diaries as
literary works, revising and rewriting to create a final version for posterity.

At 18, the real world beckoned. They discovered boys, drinking and drugs. "We
needed to have a bottle to drink," June told me. "Without the whisky we didn't
speak. We reckon that God told us to buy drink, and it worked. We sniffed glue
and lighter fluid. We were different then, laughing and talking. We were so
relaxed and laid-back." But every time the twins looked up and saw each other;
they saw their own peculiar form of desolation staring back at them. They tried
to change their looks, sending away to the West Indies for hair and skin creams.
They tried magic.

Soon they also began to direct their loathing at their surroundings. Rejected by
a local gang, they formed a gang of two. They began stealing bicycles and glue,
ringing people's doorbells repeatedly. They smashed windows, stole books, drew
graffiti on walls.

In May 1982 the girls were tried on 16 joint counts of burglary, theft and
arson. They pleaded guilty, on the advice of their lawyers, and were ordered to
be de-tained at Broadmoor indefinitely.

"If we hadn't found a hospital for them," the psychiatrist William Spry
reasoned, "they would have gone to prison, and I thought that was the worst
possible thing."

For weeks, the girls fantasised about Broadmoor, which doctors had described to
them in terms more appropriate to an English Eden. "We wanted to get away from
our life," June told me. "We thought Broadmoor was going to be like paradise."
Days after their arrival, June slipped into a torpor. A few weeks later she
attempted suicide. Jennifer attacked a nurse. They were put in separate wards
and were denied access to each other for a time. They were 19 when they entered

"Juvenile delinquents get two years in prison," June said. "We got 12 years of
hell, because we didn't speak. We had to work hard to get out. We went to the
doctor. We said, 'Look, they wanted us to talk, we're talking now.' He said,
'You're not getting out. You're going to be here for 30 years.' We lost hope,
really. I wrote a letter to the Queen, asking her to get us out. But we were

June and Jennifer were nearly 30 years old when they were released in 1993. On
the bus, Jennifer rested her head on her twin's shoulder and said, "At long last
we're out." Less than 12 hours later she was dead. Her heart had been weakened
by an undiagnosed inflammation. "We prayed for forgiveness, but, of course, He
didn't forgive us," June told me. "He punished us for 12 years. He hated us. He
didn't listen to us. We suffered. And, at the end of it all, what does it mean,
if she died?"

June still takes medication every day and is able to talk, though at times it is
difficult to understand her. When she is excited or amused, her speech is rapid
and thick. She is 37. Every Tuesday she attends her sister's grave. In the
halfway house she is living in when I visit (she has since moved to her own
apartment), she proudly shows me one of her drawings, hanging on the door to her
room: a girl with braids and a dark face. Underneath the drawing is the name
Alison spelt in different-coloured letters. June tells me that she now prefers
to be called by her middle name, as she has had so much bad luck with her first

"That name brought me more than grief. Alison's a fresh start, never suffering."
She opens the door to her bedroom with a flourish. "Here is my sanctuary," she
says. It's a small room with a large window looking out onto a garden. The bed
is large, with a cheap polyester spread covering it, and opposite is a brown
easy chair. There is also a television, a wastebasket full of cigarette butts
and, against the wall, an electric keyboard.

Over tea, she tells me what she wants out of life now: "What I want is to get
married and have children. But it's a bit late now. It's funny. All my family
are married to white people. All the kids are mixed race. Kinky blond hair and
pale skin. I want black kids. I want a Rasta man, with Rasta hair; like Bob
Marley. My mum says, 'Oh, no, they're low class - they're not decent people.'
But I like them."

She laughs, huddling over her teacup, which she holds stiffly in front of her. I
realise that she is telling me a fantasy she had about me - and against which I
come up short. I have close-cropped hair; no dreadlocks. I registered her slight
look of disappointment when we met.

We talk about Broadmoor; and I ask her if she did a lot of reading there. Her
face lights up. "Oh yeah, my Lord, I read thousands of books in there. I read
myself dry in Broadmoor. D H Lawrence, I like him; Oscar Wilde; Dylan Thomas;
Emily Brontė; the woman who wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley; all the classics.
I wrote five books - manuscripts. They're not very professional, though, they're
a bit all over the place."

"Do you still write?"

"It seems to me that as I get older I don't want to write any more," she says.
"I don't see the point now. I can communicate by talking now, can't I? I stopped
writing diaries way back. I'm a bit lazy now. Brain dead. I can't be bothered to
write books."

I say: "I wish you would write more."

Flirtatiously she shoots back: "Maybe you'll inspire me to write. I could write
if I wanted to. I could see the dawn coming and get up and start writing. It's
hard work to be a writer; isn't it? I want an easy job, an easy life . . . Do
you know something?" she interrupts herself suddenly. "I could sleep for 10 days
if I wanted to. I like dreaming. I see my sister in my dreams, talking to me."

The name Jennifer means "white love", she adds. "I used to miss her," June says.
"Now I've accepted her. She's in me. She makes me stronger. I accept the fact
that she's gone now. That took me five years of grieving, crying all the time.
Now all my tears are gone, they all dried up inside my eyes . . . I don't get
lonely now. I've got her, haven't I?"

© The New Yorker 2000

20-02-2011, 22:22
:up: did you see there are London dates to be announced for autumn 2011? Should be interesting.

I didn't see that no, I might look into that!

Thanks raven, it's a very interesting read.

I am hoping that it will be re-shown at some point, as I would really like to see it. I also thought the same about the opera, it's just such a weird choice really. It would be interesting to hear what she thought of it.

22-02-2011, 23:18
Think it was called The Silent Twin Without My Shadow and was part of the Inside Story series (September 1994).

22-02-2011, 23:29
Lovely article to read Raven - Thanks for the post

23-02-2011, 03:07

04-04-2011, 14:33
I've decided to do our next College project (documentary) about the Silent Twins. My idea is to tell their story whilst at the same time I interview my Grandma and her twin about what it's like to have a relationship like that.

04-04-2011, 14:51
That sounds interesting!

04-04-2011, 15:14
That sounds interesting!

Thanks! If I don't get stuck with somebody who wants to do a documentary on JLS, I'll post up the finished product on Youtube.

I haven't chosen any of the subjects for the assignments we've done so far, so I'm going to do it dammit!

04-04-2011, 15:22
You should, it sounds interesting!

My brother hasn't spoken for nearly year - so he's not an ideal interview candidate, is he, if he won't speak! He's got special needs and depression - apparently it's fairly common that if someone has special needs and ends up depressed, they won't speak. But no one can tell us how long it'll go on for or if it'll ever end. He doesn't have a twin though so it's not really the same thing.

04-04-2011, 15:31
You should, it sounds interesting!

My brother hasn't spoken for nearly year - so he's not an ideal interview candidate, is he, if he won't speak! He's got special needs and depression - apparently it's fairly common that if someone has special needs and ends up depressed, they won't speak. But no one can tell us how long it'll go on for or if it'll ever end. He doesn't have a twin though so it's not really the same thing.

I'm sorry to hear that, hopefully his silence won't be for much longer.

Not really the same in that respect. My Grandma was saying when her twin was pregnant Grandma had dizzy spells and felt sick all the time, as soon as she gave birth Grandma felt fine again. They are just freaks :lol:

04-04-2011, 15:42
I'm sorry to hear that, hopefully his silence won't be for much longer.

Not really the same in that respect. My Grandma was saying when her twin was pregnant Grandma had dizzy spells and felt sick all the time, as soon as she gave birth Grandma felt fine again. They are just freaks :lol:

Woweee, that's awesome!

Yeah, hopefully he won't carry on with it for much longer. He did laugh the other day, which makes a nice change.

04-04-2011, 15:44
Woweee, that's awesome!

Yeah, hopefully he won't carry on with it for much longer. He did laugh the other day, which makes a nice change.

They are funny when they are together.

That's good then, a good sign of progress! :)

04-04-2011, 15:52
Hope so. At the moment he makes Sean look loquacious!

18-09-2011, 21:02
:up: did you see there are London dates to be announced for autumn 2011? Should be interesting.

Yup, Autumn dates just announced here:


I'd personally like to thank my not so silent doppelganger for letting me know it is on :)

...Oh and Sarah Kane's Phaedras Love is also showing here too this Autumn - just thought I'd mention that too.....

18-09-2011, 21:03
:up: cheers!

18-09-2011, 21:07
Nay Probs :)

20-09-2011, 11:42
Fascinating update: my brother still hasn't spoken, apart from swearing in his sleep after swimming with dolphins.

21-09-2011, 10:34
Those who have read the Wallace book might find this interesting (or not) from Biography Journal. Apologies that it is so long, I wasn't sure the link would work, it being from a database and all.

The phenomenon of monozygotic (identical) twins challenges Western culture's valorization of the unique individual, and consequently the major Western life-writing genres, autobiography and biography. Autobiographies by twins are rare, perhaps because, as theories of child development suggest, twinhood can impede individuation. "Clearly identity is a much greater problem for the identical twin," notes Audrey C. Sandbank:

He recognizes his twin in the mirror before he recognizes himself and is several months behind the non-identical twin in recognising his own mirror images. He takes longer to say "I" and "me" and more often answers to his twin's name. (169)

As children, twins may collapse the distinction between them in various ways: they may use their names joined with a hyphen to refer to themselves or, more dramatically, use "me" instead of "us" in referring to themselves-as in, "sit between me" (Segal 61). And while mothers can facilitate their infants' separation from them, it may be harder to enable infant twins to separate from each other (Ainslee 77). In adolescence, too, "Twins may not be ready for the thrust towards separation until much later than their physical maturity would suggest" (Sandbank 179). This may be a function less of genetic identicality, however, than of being raised with an exact age peer: "It is probable that 'look-alike' non-identical twins have the same problem" (Sandbank 169). Ainslee concurs:

[T]he presence of two infants, faced with the same developmental needs and tasks, profoundly alters a child's usual environment. . . . Although zygosity may play a role in shaping parental perceptions, as some research suggests, it is not in and of itself the preeminent force in shaping twin development, (x-xi)

So the lack of twin autobiography may not be a sign that twins are less fully individuated than non-twins; it may rather reflect the fact that twins-identical or not-have an intimate lifelong mirror in which to reflect-and to whom to express-their sense of individuality.

Biographies of identical twins-that is, life narratives of both twins-are also quite rare, perhaps because few pairs have achieved the requisite eminence. Marjorie Wallace's The Silent Twins, a biography of identical twins whose lives were intertwined to an extreme, even pathological, degree, is an exception that demonstrates, even as it surmounts, the difficulty of representing identical twins. The "silence" of June and Jennifer Gibbons-their elective mutism-was a deafening one in that it was a manifestation of a psychological bond that at once sustained and strangled them, cutting them off from vital relations with anyone else. For most of their lives they were deaf to voices other than their own, cut off from the discourse of the family and the larger community surrounding them.1

Of Barbadian descent, June and Jennifer Gibbons were born in 1963 and grew up in Yorkshire and Devon, England, and in Wales, near Royal Air Force bases where their father worked as a technician (Als 74). The third and fourth children of Aubrey and Gloria Gibbons, they were followed by a younger sister, Rosie. Slow to learn to talk, they developed what seemed a private language. A speech therapist, however, determined that, rather than a "secret" language-or as one "expert" supposed, an African "click" language-they used a sort of patois combining Barbadian slang and English, spoken very quickly (Als 75). They were quite literally inseparable as small children, even in school. Major factors contributing to their mutual dependence and apparent mutism were their isolation in white communities, where they were bullied and subjected to racial taunts, and a speech impediment, which made their speech difficult for others to understand.2 They grew up not only identical in appearance and similar in manner, then, as is often the case with monozygotic twins raised together (MZTs, in clinical parlance), but very much absorbed in each other, moving in synchrony, quickly establishing a shared fantasy life which excluded other people and other aspects of life.3 By the time they had been marked out for special education, the intense bond between them, and their refusal or inability to speak to anyone other than each other, cut them off from most other people. They spoke rarely even to family members, except for their younger sister; instead, they communicated largely through notes.

By the time teachers and school administrators recognized the intensity of their relationship, they were already eight and a half years old. At that time, the degree of their psychological bonding was viewed as so threatening to their individual integrity that school authorities proposed forcibly separating them, articulating the suggestion in the very terms used to justify the surgical separation of conjoined twins: "They are dying in each other's arms and we must save one of them, even if it is at the price of the other" (qtd. in Wallace 31). (In an odd instance of inappropriate medicalization, the twins' tongues were operated on despite uncertainty among medical consultants as to whether lingual mobility was an issue in their mutism.)

No doubt separation seemed appropriate-and both twins expressed a desire for it-but when it was attempted, they couldn't tolerate it. In any case, the administrators' language suggests the extent to which this sort of relationship violates some implicit standard of individuality: it was considered ethical to "sacrifice" one twin, as if one was psychologically parasitic on the other. Like conjoined twins, such identical twins apparently violate the tacit rule of personhood: one person, one body. (Conjoined twins seem to be two persons in one body; identical twins seem to be the same person in two bodies.) The administrators' language also suggests why the twins may have resisted so mightily, responding perhaps to ruthless methods rather than to a presumably beneficent goal.

When they left school for good, at sixteen, they became reclusive, keeping to themselves in a room from which they barred their parents. There they compensated for their lack of social life with a rich fantasy life, played out first with dolls, then with books.4 After taking a writing course-necessarily by correspondence-they wrote prolifically: fiction, poetiy, and especially diaries. As adolescents, they ventured forth and acted out, experimenting with sex, drugs, alcohol, and crime-first shoplifting, then vandalism and arson. Their forays out of the house coincided with the onset of puberty, a juncture at which they might have been expected to grow apart; ordinarily, socializing and dating would introduce a little latitude into sisters' relationships at that age. But it was not to prove so for them. Indeed, some of the most dramatic evidence of their inability to exist, or even conceive of themselves, as completely independent and separate beings has to do with the inauguration of their sex lives. After having for a time strongly resisted the physical changes of puberty, they reversed course and aggressively sought sex and love. Or rather, perhaps uncomfortable relating intimately to others-especially boys their age-they treated sex as a substitute for love, and these impersonal sexual encounters provided material for incongruously romantic fantasies in their diaries.

Their sexual initiation also had a voyeuristic and narcissistic dimension. Both twins were deflowered in successive weeks by the same unappreciative young man. Moreover, each twin witnessed the other's initiation. A rite of passage that might have helped differentiate them by giving each a healthy intimacy with someone other than her twin proved just another shared experience-shared but intensely competitive, as each vied to be first to lose her virginity and to be foremost in the young man's affections. After they set fire to a public building in 1982, they were arrested (together), tried (together), and sentenced (together) to be detained indefinitely in Broadmoor Special Hospital in England-a high-security facility for the criminally insane-where, by far the youngest inmates, they were at times forcibly separated for therapeutic purposes. Ironically, then, it was only when they were literally imprisoned together that they were first (but not successfully) isolated from one another. The death of Jennifer while in custody-on the day of the twins' transfer to a minimum-security facility-suggests that the policy of sacrificing one to save the other was achieved indirectly in the end.

While the nature of their relationship gave the Gibbons twins a degree of celebrity, and thus nominated them for biographical treatment, it also seemed to defy standard life-writing genres. Certainly, the twins' pathology was inconsistent with autobiography or memoir. Although they were given to minutely detailed and copious journal writing-the essential raw material and primary source of the biography-the twins were disinclined to (and possibly incapable of) the sort of sustained reflection that autobiography or memoir would require. And their exclusive relation with each other was such that it made it impossible for anyone else, inside or outside the family, to write about them in any sustained or authoritative way. Even as their unusual relationship cried out for clinical or therapeutic intervention, it seemed to defy life writing of any sort-except, of course, their journals.

The challenges for Wallace were at once logistical, methodological, and ethical: how to "interview" twins who were virtually mute; how to ensure that they "spoke" for themselves; and most of all, how to represent twins so tightly bound together without collapsing the distance between them-how to represent their inseparability without denying their separateness. The very qualities that made them biographical subjects-their oddness, their muteness, their inseparability-also rendered them liable to objectification and stigmatization-indeed, enfreakment. They are thus a striking, if atypical, example of vulnerable subjects.

Identical twins present a special narrative challenge for the biographer. In the case of identical twins raised together, it might seem that the narrative could treat at least their early lives simultaneously, rather than alternately, using the third-person plural, rather than singular, pronoun. But scrupulous biography needs to acknowledge the existence of differences, to acknowledge that identicality does not mean duplication of identity and experience. While collective twin biography may seem appropriate, even unavoidable, it minimizes autonomy and individuality. These challenges are heightened with inseparable twins, such as June and Jennifer. Although it is a limit case, their examples can illuminate the dynamics and ethics of writing the lives of closely related individuals, and of writing the lives of individuals who may be indisposed to, or incapable of, representing themselves.

The pathology of the twins' bond also bears on the issue of their agency in their representation. If biography involves getting inside the subjects' position in some way, the mute, reclusive Gibbons sisters would seem highly unlikely subjects for, much less collaborators in, their biographical representation. Locked in a tight orbit around each other, Jennifer and June were barely able to acknowledge or interact with outsiders. A biographer who depended primarily on their oral testimony would get nowhere; one who depended exclusively on others' testimony about them would fail to render their lives with any depth or insight. Granted, their case generated a considerable amount of documentation in the form of therapeutic, medical, and legal dossiers, but their mutism severely limited personal testimony. Even-perhaps especially-within their own family they were not well known or understood.5 Their relationship presented special problems for a biographer, including the ethical issue of authorization and the extent to which they could collaborate in the biographical process, in view of questions about their competence.

One manifestation of, or compensation for, their mutism, however, was their prolific writing, much of which was self-life-writing. Both kept detailed journals, and both wrote fiction and poetry, especially after they co-enrolled in a writing course as a single student. Both wrote novels as well as short stories, and June published a novel, The Pepsi-Cola Addict, with money they pooled from their unemployment benefits. The upshot was that their biographer had abundant written testimony from their points of view. And as we shall see, Wallace managed to represent June and Jennifer in ways that register their separate identities and respect their individuality.

Their criminal career first brought the Gibbons twins to public attention, and Wallace's interest in them began when she reported their trial for the Sunday Times of London. In the course of investigating their story, she met their parents, who gave her access to their pre-trial writings. She first met June and Jennifer at their father's invitation, while they were in custody awaiting transfer to Broadmoor. After an awkward introduction, she broke the ice by asking them about their writing (Shapiro and Wagonner). After her newspaper coverage appeared, Wallace was summoned to the hospital by Dr. Boyce Le Couteur, a consultant psychiatrist, who hoped that she might be able to stimulate the sisters to resume their writing, and that that might lead them to interact more with others.

Her privileged access to them made her, in a sense, their authorized biographer. As such, she was in an extremely delicate position. Like many biographers, especially those writing about living or recently deceased subjects, in order to research and write her book she needed the cooperation of parties-June and Jennifer, their parents, and the staff at the hospital-whose interests did not necessarily coincide with hers or with each others'. Indeed, in this case the various parties' interests were not merely different but arguably opposed to each other. She faced other methodological problems as well: negotiating with and "interviewing" apparently willing, but virtually mute, subjects; doing justice to the complex bond between them; trying to distinguish between them without advancing either one's interests at the expense of the other's, even as the hospital staff was trying to wedge them apart; and sorting out and sorting through the immense volume of their writing-over a million words of diaries alone. What Wallace produced is not only a nearly unique thing, a biography of identical twins, it is also a case study in a very tricky problem in the ethics of life writing, for her double subject presents particular, perhaps irresolvable, problems.

Generically, the book is somewhat complex. Despite the fact that the subjects were accessible to her, it is in no way a memoir: although Wallace sat through the entire trial, her contact with the twins while writing the book over three years was necessarily limited and intermittent. Her relation to them was more professional than personal, and more through correspondence than face-to-face. She could see them only on pre-arranged prison visits. In any case, their continuing mutism made a personal relationship difficult to sustain, much less to develop beyond the minimal trust required to make biography possible. Although the book begins with a chapter recounting her first contact with them in the hospital, it is focused on them, rather than on Wallace's relationship with them. For the most part, it is a third-person, not a first-person, narrative, and for the same reasons, the book could not be a collaborative, or "as-told-to," dual autobiography. The twins were not inclined to tell their lives to anyone, though they had documented them to an extraordinary degree in their journals.

As a life-writing project, then, Wallace's book raises a number of important issues. Two questions loom above the rest. The first is whether it is essentially a pathography, which emphasizes the subjects' pathology and represents them as patients, or a biography, which portrays them as persons, though with an admittedly pathological relationship. A related issue is whether the book is a dual or a collective biography-that is, whether it treats its subjects as the linked but separate individuals June and Jennifer Gibbons, or as the anonymous unit the "silent twins."6 This is perhaps the crux of Wallace's ethical predicament, for if she collapses the already dangerously small distance between them, then she has reified their pathology and validated their marginalization. To put it differently, she will have enfreaked subjects who are all too vulnerable to objectification.

Before I explore these issues, I need to note an additional complication of her delicate position as an authorized biographer. The only way to write an extended narrative of the twins' lives is with their permission, since, as I have suggested, they lived so reclusively that even those within the same household could not have offered much in the way of informed or detailed testimony. However, unlike most authorized biographers, Wallace would not get much cooperation from her subjects, as that would require a kind of interaction of which they seemed incapable. Thus, cooperation meant not "collaboration" in the sense of give and take, much less extended interviews. Rather, it meant being granted access to their copious writings, the one indispensable source for the book. Wallace first gained access to some of their writing not only apparently without the twins' permission, but also before she even met them. When Wallace approached their parents after sentence was pronounced, they gave her permission to read the materials which had just been returned to them by the police, who had seized them as part of the criminal investigation. To the utter surprise of the parents, investigators who entered the sanctuary of the twins' room found not only stolen loot but journals in which they admitted to-indeed boasted of-their arson.

Their limited ability to cooperate raises an important ethical issue: whether their participation in the project, however limited, can be said to involve truly informed consent. If, as the court determined and their psychiatrist maintained, they were psychopaths, there must be some real doubt as to their competence to consent, and thus of the ethics of accepting access to private and potentially embarrassing journals.7 In court, the diaries were used to represent them not only as guilty but as unrepentant; thus, their diaries served quite literally to indict and convict them. Their life writing constituted "life sentences" with a vengeance, for based on its evidence, a judge sentenced them to life, if necessary, in seclusion-though not in prison, thanks to their guilty plea and psychiatric testimony. Thus, their own life writing was used to justify consigning them to an institution until they could prove themselves cured.

Of course, I am in no position to assess the twins' sanity, and thus their competence, and it is hard to tell whether two individuals so turned in upon each other could have fully understood the implications of Wallace's project. But some considerations seem to justify her apparent belief in their competence and their consent to the writing of their biography. First, both had sought fame and celebrity as writers of poetry and fiction-although their only publications were self-financed. In addition, the twins had been accorded considerable publicity-as delinquents, and to some extent as psychological freaks-during the course of their trials; they were no longer merely private citizens. More to the point, perhaps, their "private" journals had already been seized, read, and used against them in their trial. It is possible then that they granted Wallace access to the copious diaries they kept in prison in hope of moderating or offsetting the uses to which their pre-trial journals had been put. Perhaps they sacrificed further privacy in hopes of more favorable publicity. (Their legal representation was successful only to the extent that they were placed in a medical, rather than a penal, institution. It did not contest their pathology, nor did it treat them separately.) Of course, without independent access to them-and even perhaps with it-this question cannot be definitively answered. If they had been deemed legally incompetent, however, authority would devolve upon their parents, who were clearly inclined to help Wallace. Thus, it would appear that Wallace was legally, if not ethically, in the right.8

It is difficult to tell to what extent June and Jennifer, or any of the other permission-granting parties, had any control over Wallace's text. The acknowledgments do not indicate this, other than to say that a social worker "checked" the chapter on Broadmoor. There is no record of the twins' being shown the work in progress, for example, as might be the case with a truly authorized biography or a collaborative autobiography. One would welcome, then, more of what Paul John Eakin calls, in rather different circumstances, "the story of the story," or what I call transactional openness. The more an author offers in the way of an account of access to the parties and materials used in producing a life of a cooperating subject, the more a reader can be satisfied that the transaction was ethical. It would be naive to assume that an author's story of how she got the story-in this case, how Wallace interacted with the twins and their parents-would necessarily be trustworthy, but we don't have to assume that the author's account is reliable to welcome an account of the interaction. At the very least, a public accounting enhances credibility because it invites challenge and can be proven false.

Perhaps as important as whether the twins fully understood what they were consenting to is how the resulting life narrative represents them-whether it wrongs them or harms them. If it violates their privacy, it would wrong them, but it would not necessarily harm them-that is, adversely affect their interests. It appears to me that it does not wrong them or harm them. My sense of the book is that Wallace made responsible use of their consent, whether or not it was truly free and fully informed. As we shall see, Wallace made sensitive use of the journals, leaning toward sympathy and advocacy for the twins, rather than merely echoing the authorities who institutionalized them.

Wallace also needed the cooperation of the parents, however. They initially granted physical access to the early diaries (which were at home, not in the hospital) as well as access to themselves. Apparently, they were very cooperative, and Wallace acknowledges "first and foremost" their "courage" and "strength." (Oddly, Wallace does not formally acknowledge the twins' permission or help; rather, the acknowledgments are devoted entirely to those who had responsibility for them at various stages in their lives: parents, teachers, and psychologists.) The delicacy of her relation with the parents is that any account of the twins' development may represent them as distracted and permissive to the point of negligence. (If anything might have saved the twins from bonding with each other in such a powerful and damaging way, early and aggressive intervention might have.) As it happens, Wallace treats the parents gently, even generously.

Wallace's having been invited by the twins' psychiatrist to meet them added a further degree of complexity to her situation as biographer, for it involved her in their therapeutic regimen. The biographer-to-be was summoned as a kind of adjunct therapist, the hope being that with her stimulus the twins would resume writing, and that that would facilitate their recovery-an indirect form of scriptotherapy. (The twins' particular pathology made them poor candidates for the "talking cure.") Insofar as this would be a sign of their recovery, which was a condition of their eventual release, this placed her on the twins' side. Wallace's sympathies were clearly with them, and against those who had incarcerated them. She makes it plain that she considers their sentence extreme and undeserved. Entitled "Blind Judgement," the chapter on their trial presents it as ignoring the complexity of their predicament. In hospital, the twins' therapy took the form of an elaborate program of forced separation and behavior modification designed to reshape them into normal, or at least functional, young women. Both legal and medical scripts, then-forms of institutional life writing-were working against the twins' desires, and possibly against their best interests. While Wallace acknowledges the twins' need for therapy, and is grateful for their assignment to a medical, rather than penal, institution, she does not approve of their separation, which they resented and schemed to defeat. Thus, she is in an awkward position in regard to their keepers. She is suspicious of their "therapeutic" methods, but she depends on the keepers for access to her subjects.

Wallace especially thanks Dr. Le Couteur for his encouragement, but the evidence of the narrative proper is that she finds his "treatment" of the twins ill-advised. She does so partly on the basis of her privileged knowledge of them. Apparently, the hospital staff had neither the time nor the inclination to investigate the twins' earlier journals, and Wallace points out that Le Couteur had not even read the journals they wrote in the hospital, to which he apparently had access.9 Indeed, with her access to all of their writings, Wallace ironically has a much fuller picture of their psyches and their complex relationship with one another than any other observer, including their most intimate relatives and those responsible for their therapy. Whether unconsciously or not, the twins' cooperation with Wallace made her an ally, at least potentially, in their resistance to the institutional regime. At the very least, it makes her a uniquely privileged confidante-apparently the only one who read very much of their diaries. Indeed-and this reveals how very privileged her position was-it gave her access to each twin that the other twin didn't have, for though they regularly read each other's writing in other genres, they appear not to have shared their private diaries with each other. Thus, this privileged access gave each twin a potential ally against the other, and the unusual extent and intensiveness of their journal writing gave Wallace the sort of godlike perspective on her subjects that most biographers only aspire, or pretend, to have.

On the whole, Wallace manages her complex role quite admirably-responsibly and fairly. There are moments, especially early on in the book, when she seems to succumb to prejudicial superstitious responses to the twins, passing on the view of Jennifer as a kind of "evil" twin who dominated and controlled June (95). But for the most part Wallace avoids sensationalism; at her best, she works to demystify and thus "disenfreak" the twins. When describing their relationship, Wallace mostly avoids moralizing or melodramatic metaphors that might stigmatize them or demonize one of them.10 As indicated above, though, perhaps the most important issue is whether she manages to "tell them apart"-to acknowledge their individuality despite their obviously stifling bonding.

The difficulty of keeping them separate goes well beyond the difficulty many people have experienced in everyday life of distinguishing between physically identical twins. The biographer's problem here is a special case of representing MZTs. In most cases of identical twins raised together, even when they are treated identically-dress and naming are key indices of this -the lives of the twins eventually diverge. And with the conventional fore-shortening of life spans in biography, which leads to childhood being covered relatively quickly, a biographer might get away with treating the twins as a unit in childhood and then increasingly differentiating between them as they matured and their lives diverged. The problem after that would be whether to present their lives as parallel or divergent, and how to solve the narrative problems that derive from the twins' no longer being in the same place at the same time.

Wallace's problem is the opposite. She must distinguish between twins in narrative when in "real life" they are almost never apart, never not in the same place at the same time. Indeed, until they were forcibly separated, Jennifer and June were together almost as constantly as conjoined twins-and more difficult to distinguish from one another. The easy way to tell the story of identical twins who are virtually always together doing the same things is to adopt the third person plural pronoun as the typical pronominal sign for them. To do that, however, is to erase any meaningful distinction between them, to deny their individuality and separability. For the most part, Wallace alternates between advancing the story by employing the convenient third-person plural pronoun, and interrupting that narrative to distinguish between them by using the third-person singular pronoun. Without their participation, this would be difficult, if not impossible. After all, the two twins not only do the same things at the same time, they experience many of the same emotions, though not necessarily simultaneously. (Some of their keepers in prison claimed that even when separate they acted in synchrony [Wallace 138].) Thus, one would claim that not only an "outward" but an "inward" biography could be plausibly written of them in the third-person plural. To distinguish between them Wallace required access to their separate consciousnesses, and given their mutism, only the journals could provide this. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that some of the most incisive passages in this biography are provided by the subjects' own life writing. While not dated or otherwise documented, these texts are attributed to one or the other of the twins. The best evidence of differentiation, then, is their own testimony. Indeed, Wallace uses the diaries they wrote in prison-an environment which at times reinforced their confinement to each other's orbit-to suggest that there were undeniable, if subtle, distinctions between them:

Juxtaposing June and Jennifer's descriptions of the same day is an extraordinary experience. They were like two cameras, each focused on the other and recording her every movement or gesture. From time to time, one or the other would swing away and look at the prison world around them, but inevitably they would return to their strategic positions. . . . June and Jennifer describe the same events and emotions in extraordinary detail, yet the two diaries never quite fit. All the distortions of each twin's vision of the other make the double perspective as disconcerting as a surrealist painting. Reality lies somewhere, exhausted, between their furious perceptions. (139)

What's odd and revealing here is that Wallace seems to expect their descriptions to coincide exactly, rather than to differ like stereoscopic images. One could argue that some difference between identical twins in virtually the same environment is inevitable: the difference that separate consciousnesses and memories would supply. But the difference here is necessary in a different sense as well, for even as each sister obsessively observes the other, she is distinguishing herself from her sister. They may seem to mirror each other in gazing upon each other, but the gaze of each is one way. Here elective mutism has given way (or given rise) to mutual surveillance. The two points of view are proof of a degree of individuation and distancing, even when the sisters are closest-literally imprisoned with one another. Indeed, such journal entries constitute not just the evidence but perhaps the enactment of their existence as individuals. Each inscribed herself by inscribing her alter ego.

As Wallace puts it elsewhere, though from outside they may appear as one,

their unison was only an artefact of the years they had spent playing games against the world. They had practiced the skill of appearing to be identical. Even the twins themselves believed they could read other's thoughts, but as they probed more deeply into their inner selves, it became clear their minds did not match.

Despite the identical front they presented, there was almost as great a divide between the twins as between them and the rest of the world. They were always watching, but usually misinterpreting the movements of the other. They each developed exaggerated scenarios of what the other was thinking and planning. (149-50)

Their behavior here goes a step beyond their mutism, which at least involved talking to each other. They seem not to have read each other's diaries, but rather used their private diaries as retreats from each other, though each was the other's obsessive object of contemplation. The paradox is that had each read the other's journals, they might have gained more confidence in the difference between them, which each was at pains to assert and to enact by keeping a private diary. This is perhaps the opposite of what Susanna Egan calls mirror talk, in that it is not collaborative or responsive, not shared or responded to. Each stimulates the other, but there's no dialogue-rather, there are two competing monologues, with only Wallace and the readers of her biography in a position to overhear the "conversation."

This is not to say that she adopts their point(s) of view. Rather, she allows them to "speak" through quoted journals, in a way that directly and effectively counters the confessional use to which those journals are put by the court and the hospital. Thus, much of Wallace's project is in effect rehabilitative, not in the sense that, as Dr. Le Couteur seems to hope, she can precipitate some therapeutic change in the twins, but rather in the sense that her representation of them will communicate their separate points of view and thus recuperate their individuality. Rather than speaking for them, she lets them speak through her. To do that, it is not enough to quote them. Indeed, one can imagine a book built much more around their testimony, annotated and contextualized, rather than subordinated to a third-person voice-over. Like the editor of a slave narrative but for very different reasons, Wallace needs to vouch for the authority of the speakers she introduces-not just for the discrete times when she quotes them, when their authority or lack of it can more readily be judged by the readers, but also for her pervasive reliance on their testimony for the color and detail in her book. Thus, her fly-on-the-wall details are, according to Wallace, not a function of prose license, but rather of minutely detailed and accurate records kept by the twins.

There's an interesting degree of mutuality here. She vouches for the authority of her "psychopathic" subjects, but by establishing the authority of their testimony from the position of an independent "fact-checking" journalist, she also shores up the credibility of her own account:

Each day the twins analysed their feelings towards each other and their imprisonment in their diaries, more perspicacious than any psychiatric reports. The memoirs they kept during April and May of 1982 are masterpieces. (152)

She presents their testimony as both indispensable and questionable-neither buying into it nor discrediting it. A good example occurs when they report their sentencing as glamorous. She quotes June:

A dangerous, evil, ruthless criminal! Me! At last my torment, my self-consciousness, my violence is known. I am labeled! Ah! Now I know my fate! June Alison Gibbons, just aged 19, going down in history as psychopath. (187)

Then Wallace comments:

Inwardly they were elated by the glamour of their sentence. Their years of suffering had been vindicated and they felt the relief that sick people sometimes feel when a long unrecognized illness is given a name and therefore a status. (187)

At the same time, Wallace is sensitive to the issue of responsibility to the historical record, because like many biographical subjects, these twins are not always reliable reporters. An obvious way in which their diaries proved unreliable was that what they reported as a "good talk" with someone was neither "good" by most standards-or even real "talk"-but rather mostly mime and passing of notes, and here, by definition, their testimony could be checked. This unreliability is also obvious in their accounts of sexual encounters, which they invest with a romance that was apparently not mutual. So Wallace does at times openly function as a reality check on their testimony. But mostly she uses their testimony in a way that counters the use to which it was put in putting them away. In this regard, she edges toward advocacy, and the twins' testimony serves at different times both as institutional and as anti-institutional confession. Indeed, Wallace's representation of the twins had an indirect but noteworthy impact on its subjects. Her newspaper coverage led to a BBC docudrama The Silent Twins-with a screenplay by Wallace-that made the twins realize how hard their relationship had been on their parents. This moved June to write to them to apologize (Goleman).11

Twin autobiography, though rare, is likely to register the identity and experiences of twinhood strongly-on some level and in some way. With biography, twinhood may be even more prominent. It is more likely to be the motive and occasion for biography than for autobiography, for as I have suggested, the experience of being a twin may impede or suppress the autobiographical impulse. The questions raised by the representation of living twins have to do with balance-between the twins, and between their sense of themselves as twins and as individuals. The case examined here complicates the questions built into twin biography because of the inseparability of the twins. The difficulties here are not just methodological but ethical.

This case raises the stakes because the pathological nature of the bond is the occasion of the life writing. The Gibbons twins become the subjects of life writing not because they are twins but because they are the sort of twins they are. The biographical challenge is to refrain from exploiting this by enfreaking them. In my view, Wallace met the challenge quite successfully. Granted, the book does not give its readers much insight into its production nor any insight into the division of the proceeds. And the twins had little "say" in its preparation; that is, they seem to have interacted only prospectively and minimally with Wallace. Of necessity, she relied heavily on their diaries to document their lives, and to a large extent she uses their written testimony-none of which was elicited by the biographical process-to differentiate between them in ways that most who knew them and had direct persona contact with them could not or did not do. Thus the readers' experience of the Gibbons twins is more intimate that that of family members. So while Jennifer and June Gibbons had almost nothing to say about how their biography is written, their voices do inform it. They are heard in the text in ways that they never were in the "real world" of family, school, court, and hospital-where in many ways, they were silenced twins.

While June and Jennifer exhibit striking pathology, Wallace represents them as individuals who became unwilling patients, rather than patients who exist to illustrate or personify a particular pathology, such as folie a deux.12 The Silent Twins manages to present its subjects as persons who asserted their individuality-not always successfully-in a relationship of extraordinary closeness and constraint. Though the text can provide only vicarious experience of its subjects, it affords a kind of nonexploitative access to them that would be impossible in everyday life. It brings us into virtual contact with twins who devised individual subjectivities while perpetually face to face with each other. One measure of the book's success may be that it offers what seems a fair-and surprisingly positive-estimation of the quality of their lives. The life writer's estimation of the worth of their lives is far different from that implied by the institutions that housed-but did not adequately care for-them at different points in their lives. And not incidentally, it establishes that the quality of their lives was not determined by their genetic anomaly-i.e. their "identicality."

6. There is a good deal of misinformation about them in print, which extends to their names. June's name is sometimes rendered as "Jane" or "Jean."

7. Their initial forensic diagnosis was psychopathic borderline disorder, and they were diagnosed as schizophrenic at Broadmoor, but some of those familiar with them are skeptical of these diagnoses (Als 80). Wallace's account gives little evidence of schizophrenic symptoms.

8. It may be worth noting, too, that June Gibbons apparently cooperated fully and willingly in the documentary The Silent Twin-Without My Shadow.

9. The ethics of a physician's reading his patient's "private" journals is always debatable, but in this case the journals would seem to provide valuable, pertinent, and otherwise unobtainable insight into the twins' psyches.

10. Compare the book's review in the Times Literary Supplement by Anthony Clare, who describes the twins much more prejudicially. He speaks of Jennifer's "peculiar blend of charm, the sinister practice of West Indian magic and downright physical violence," and explicitly criticizes Wallace for underestimating "the formidable and largely destructive impact the two girls exert on those who struggle to help and understand them."

11. The docudrama is sometimes engaging, but although it uses the twins' diaries in voiceover, it offers a rather external view of them; compared to the biographical book of the same title, it is a one-dimensional portrait of them. It does, however, feature some skillful impersonation by two pairs of identical twins who portray the Gibbons twins at different ages; they accurately mimic the Gibbons' synchronized movements, which had been filmed by educators and therapists. The BBC film The Silent Twin-Without My Shadow (1994), a straight documentary, includes some archival footage of the young twins. Made after Jennifer's death, it culminates in June's release to the custody of her parents. June and Jennifer have also entered popular culture as the inspiration for "Tsunami," a song by Nicky Wire of the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers.

12. Sandbank cites them as an instance of this pathology (181).

Be two or not be two, that was the question.

-Hillel Schwartz (56)

I was born a twin, and I'll die a twin.

-June Gibbons (qtd. in Lichtenstein)

Biography 26.2 (Spring 2003) (C) Biographical Research Center


1. I use the past tense because Jennifer Gibbons died suddenly in 1993 of heart disease (acute myocarditis).

2. This residual impediment is audible in Olivia Lichtenstein's documentary The Silent Twin-Without My Shadow, which relies heavily on interviews with June Gibbons.

3. Oddly and surprisingly-given their appearance and their excessively close bond-their mother regarded them as nonidentical twins until blood tests revealed their identicality when they were about twenty.

4. An interesting detail of their elaborate world of interrelated families of dolls is that the twins in that world were always nonidentical, indeed of different sexes (40).

5. Indeed, some of their pathology seems linked to a distanced, laissez-faire style of parenting that left them pretty much to interact with each other. There is no way of knowing whether different parenting might have resulted in their relating to others differently. What seems clear is that the nature of their relationship would have alarmed some narents more than it alarmed theirs.


Ainslee, Ricardo. The Psychology of Twinship. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1985.

Als, Hilton. "We Two Made One." New Yorker 4 Dec. 2000: 72-78, 80-83.

Amiel, Jon, dir. The Silent Twins. By Marjorie Wallace. BBC, London. 1985.

Clare, Anthony. "Discord in Unison." Rev. of The Silent Twins, by Marjorie Wallace. TLS 28 Feb. 1986: 212.

Eakin, Paul John. "Relational Selves, Relational Lives: The Story of the Story." True Relations: Essays on Autobiography and the Postmodern. Ed. G. Thomas Couser and Joseph Fichtelberg. Westport: Greenwood, 1998. 63-81.

Egan, Susanna. Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Goleman, Daniel. "'Sweetness the World Would Not Believe."' New York Times Book Review 19 Oct. 1986: 3.

Lichtenstein, Olivia, dir. The Silent Twin-Without My Shadow. BBC, London, 1994.

Sacks, Oliver. "Bound Together in Fantasy and Crime." Rev. of The Silent Twins, by Marjorie Wallace. New York Times Book Review 19 Oct. 1986: 3, 40.

Sandbank, Audrey C. "Personality, Identity, and Family Relationships." Twin and Triple Psychology: A Professional Guide to Working with Multiples. Ed. Sandbank. London Routledge, 1999. 167-85.

Schwartz, Hillel. The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. New York: Zone Books, 1996.

Segal, Nancy L. Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us about Human Behavior. New York: Dutton, 1999.

Shapiro, Harriet, and Dianna Wagonner. "A British Journalist Unravels the Tale of the Twins Who Wouldn't Talk." People 27 Oct. 1986: 61ff.

Wallace, Marjorie. The Silent Twins. 1986. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Copyright University of Hawaii Press Spring 2003

09-11-2011, 19:05
Thought I'd ressurect this thread as I was in Salford's Lowry theatre today and saw the posters for Speechless, so have just booked a couple of tickets. Coming to the end of it's run now - more details here if anyone's interested http://www.sharedexperience.org.uk/speechless.html
Jenny x

09-11-2011, 19:26
I really want to go but I can't afford it at the moment, it looks pretty good.

09-11-2011, 23:41
It is fantastic.
I did wonder how they'd translate the book to the stage but it works really well

26-11-2011, 12:32
Went to see Speechless last night - fantastic. Have now ordered the book as the play doesn't quite finish the story, so feel the need to read it. I did know the story, from the documentary on telly, but it was so long ago now....

26-11-2011, 14:04
I've just started studying filmmaking and I got interested in their story. It's really heartbreaking and beautiful, at the same time. My classmate recently asked me, what kind of film would I like to do, and I said that it'd be a film about them. Of course, "Tsunami" was the song that led me to their story. :)

30-11-2011, 20:14
just finished reading the book and have just missed the tour....dammit!!

27-01-2012, 22:44
Just a quick *bump* to highly recommend Marjorie Wallace's book... I read it in record time and now passed it onto my mum who is engrossed in it also. A really fascinating read.